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The Scarlet Letter | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


The Scarlet Letter opens with a long introductory essay, called "The Custom-House." Who is the narrator of this essay, and why is this choice of narrator significant?

"The Custom-House" is narrated by a first-person narrator who is ostensibly Hawthorne. However, the reader has to bear in mind that the narrator uses this essay to introduce a fiction—the story of the discovery of the scarlet letter and the manuscript—and that the first-person point of view always calls into question the truth of what is being said. Since the narration comes from a specific point of view, it is by definition limited and biased. Readers are much more likely to trust a third-person omniscient narrator because that narrator can see into the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters. Thus, readers cannot fully believe the depictions of the coworkers to be the truth. Perhaps the real achievement of this essay is that the narrator authenticates his voice by establishing a tone, a mood, built from deep feelings that invite our trust in the deeply emotional aspects of The Scarlet Letter. It is one thing for a writer to establish a believable setting for a work and an engaging voice. It is quite another to engage readers emotionally before the story is told! The narrator's story of the effect of the letter does so—and also introduces a sense of mystery and suspense that makes readers want to know what happened.

In "The Custom-House," the essay that opens The Scarlet Letter, why does the narrator describe the exact dimensions of the scarlet letter that he claims to find?

One purpose of "The Custom-House" is to introduce the novel's primary symbol, the scarlet letter. By describing it in so much detail, including the age of the cloth, its color, and its exact dimensions of "three inches and a quarter," the narrator tries to lend verisimilitude to the story. The details capture the reader's imagination and compels him or her to read the story to understand its history. The care with which the narrator measured the letter communicates that the reader should trust what the narrator relates. Of course, that narrator is in fact spinning a story but like many a storyteller, he wants to be seen as reliable.

In "The Custom-House," what does the narrator gain by claiming that he placed the scarlet letter on his chest and that it made his chest burn?

The narrator claims that he placed the scrap of fabric on his chest and then "experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron." He shudders and lets the letter fall to the floor. Hawthorne does this for several reasons. First, the incident is meant to pique the reader's curiosity. A letter embroidered on a rag might not be very intriguing, but one that had such an impact on the narrator excites curiosity. Second, the description invites the reader to identify with the narrator by calling to mind occasions when he or she might have felt a physical response to a deeply affecting event. Third, this action foreshadows the mystery at the heart of the novel: whether or not Arthur Dimmesdale has a scarlet A burned into his chest; Fourth, the incident introduces an element of the supernatural or mystical, suggesting the story that follows will have more of the same.

In the essay that opens The Scarlet Letter, how and why does Hawthorne rationalize the loss of his position at the Custom-House?

Hawthorne provides three rationalizations for the loss of his job at the Custom House. First, he says that he needed some time off after working for close to three years at the same position. Second, he argues that being fired by the Whigs increased his standing with the opposition, the Democratic Party, to which he belonged. Last, he claims that it is heroic to be fired, which exalts him. In providing these rationalizations, he seems to be accepting his fate. That acceptance both parallels Hester's acceptance of her punishment and lends credibility to his satirical criticisms of his coworkers—after all, if he has accepted the firing, his criticisms must not arise from any ill-feeling but must be accurate.

How does "The Custom-House," essay that opens The Scarlet Letter, introduce some of the themes and motifs to follow in the novel itself?

"The Custom-House" essay introduces two themes that appear in the novel, revenge and loneliness or isolation. Hawthorne uses the essay in part to vent his anger at being fired from a job that paid well and required relatively little effort on his part. The fact that he would publish a biting essay—in part to get revenge on people he feels have wronged him—introduces the theme of revenge. At the same time his descriptions are witty and entertain—readers can admire the skill with which he skewers his coworkers. Second, Hawthorne recounts that he does not like his coworkers and spent most of his time alone. His isolation from his those coworkers parallels Hester's isolation from the townspeople of Boston, introducing the theme of loneliness.

In Chapters 2 and 3 of The Scarlet Letter, how is Hester Prynne different from the people standing around the marketplace waiting to see her released from jail?

The men and the women are colorless, unattractive, and worn out. The narrator describes the men as wearing "sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats." With one exception the women are "hard-featured" and even "ugly," and there are quite nasty descriptions of the Puritan women with their "broad shoulders and well-developed busts." The women are cruel, too, mocking Hester. One even suggests that she be branded on her forehead with a hot iron. In sharp contrast to the people around her, Hester is beautiful, elegant, and dignified. Hawthorne describes her as having "a figure of perfect elegance," whose "abundant hair [is] so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam." Her beauty shines out, making "a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped." In the descriptions of the townspeople and Hester, there is a match between inner and outer that reflects the Greek notion that moral beauty is matched by physical beauty. This matching of outward appearance and inner character continues throughout the novel. In addition, Hester is raised above most of the people, standing on the scaffold. Both this fact and her distinct appearance highlight her isolation from the rest of the people, one of the book's themes.

Why does Hawthorne introduce the four main characters—Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, and Pearl—so early in The Scarlet Letter?

By introducing the four main characters so early in The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne creates the conflicts that set the plot into motion and introduces the central mystery about Dimmesdale. The minister's agitation when he is first introduced raises questions about the cause of his inner turmoil. The revelation that Chillingworth is Hester's long-lost husband and that he suspects Dimmesdale of being the father of her baby plunges the reader into suspense—is Chillingworth right? What will he do to the minister? What will happen to Hester and Pearl? In addition, by introducing all the principal characters so early, Hawthorne conveys that this is a story primarily about character not plot, and that it will explore the effect of the conflict on each of them.

Why does Hester refuse to reveal her lover's name and identity in the opening scenes of The Scarlet Letter?

Hester refuses to reveal the father's identity to protect him. Part of the tragedy for Hester is the recognition that Dimmesdale fully identifies with his role as a minister. She knows full well that disclosure would not merely ruin his reputation but would destroy him. Were his identity revealed, his punishment would most likely be far worse because, as a clergyman, he betrayed his responsibilities to care for the souls of his parishioners. Also and practically, Hester was spared the death sentence because of her particular circumstances, while Dimmesdale would have no extenuating circumstance to shield him from the death penalty. She also has a strong sense of personal responsibility. She can't expose him as doing so would be a betrayal and a sign of disrespect. He has to act on his own behalf. Hester's exchanges with the town officials and her husband introduce the themes of sin and guilt and public and private truth. Hester publicly accepts the guilt that town officials and townspeople heap on her for what they see as her sin. Her lover's sin may be equal, but his guilt and truth remain private.

What is significant about the fact Hester Prynne sewed and embroidered the scarlet letter on her own dress, rather than having someone, such as a friend, do it for her?

In sewing the letter on her dress herself, Hester accepts the guilt, exemplifying the themes of sin and guilt and public and private truth. Since Hester was responsible for committing the sin being punished, it is only just that she make the symbol of it herself. Of course, in fashioning the letter herself, Hester also has the opportunity to put her stamp on it. Had another woman from the town sewn the letter, it would undoubtedly have been plain and perhaps black, symbolizing sin. By presenting it beautifully, Hester turns the tables on the punishment, expressing her strength of character and independence.

Hester Prynne was required only to wear a plain red A on her chest. Why then did she embroider the scarlet letter so elaborately?

By embroidering the A in such an elaborate style, Hester is very publicly accepting the punishment for her sin while simultaneously wearing it proudly. As one of the townswomen comments, "What is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for punishment?" The scarlet letter is so elaborately embellished that everyone stares at it, and even people who knew Hester well before this event, "were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time." The embroidery introduces readers to Hester's courage, her autonomy, her brilliant creativity, her needlework skill, and her depth of feeling. It reveals much of who she is. Of course it sends a message to her tormenters. In a way, it is a very seductive demand for respect and acknowledgment of her as more than the sum of her sin. Just as the miraculous A is a living work of art and Hester the suffering artist, readers may recall that Hawthorne, in "The Custom-House" fiction is burned by the A. The artist suffers for his or her art—and Hester is both a suffering artist and an artist at suffering.

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