The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Things You Didn't Know

Every book has a story—check out these 10 unusual facts about The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The Scarlet Letter | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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A favorite of English teachers everywhere, The Scarlet Letter was once considered too scandalous for high-school students. Today, Nathaniel Hawthorne's most famous work is among the most frequently analyzed and dramatized works of American literature.

Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston, The Scarlet Letter tells the story of a young woman publicly disgraced for having a child out of wedlock. The protagonist, Hester Prynne, has been described as "the first true heroine of American fiction."

When Hawthorne delivered his manuscript in February 1850, he cautioned his publisher it would probably not be popular. He needn't have been so humble: it was an instant best seller, selling out within days. Its appeal has endured ever since, and The Guardian ranked it #16 on its list of the best 100 novels written in English.

1. The Puritans really did make people wear letters for adultery.

A 1658 law in Plymouth Colony stipulated that anyone who committed adultery would be whipped and then forced to wear "two Capitall letters namely A D cut out in cloth and sowed on theire [uppermost] Garments on theire arme or backe." If the adulterer were seen in public without those letters, he or she would be publicly whipped again.

2. Some early reviewers of The Scarlet Letter condemned it as smut.

Not everyone is a fan of Hawthorne's work. An 1851 review written by a minister said:

Why has our author selected such a theme? Why ... should the taste of Mr. Hawthorne have preferred as the proper material for romance, the nauseous amour of a Puritan pastor, with a frail creature of his charge, whose mind is represented as far more debauched than her body? Is it, in short, because a running underside of filth has become as requisite to a romance, as death in the fifth act to a tragedy?

3. The Scarlet Letter flew off the shelves because of its scandalous introduction.

Hawthorne had been a Custom House surveyor in Salem, Massachusetts, but was fired after being accused of corruption. Hawthorne unsuccessfully fought the charges and withdrew from the public eye to write The Scarlet Letter. He wrote "The Custom-House" both as an introduction to the novel and a response to the charges. Many people who purchased the novel were much more interested in the political critique than the story itself. The first two print runs, totaling 5,500 copies, sold out quickly.

4. Nathaniel Hawthorne did not become rich from writing The Scarlet Letter.

Despite its popularity, Hawthorne did not become rich from The Scarlet Letter. Sales dwindled after the first two print runs, and Hawthorne would go on to sell only 7,800 copies in his lifetime. In fact, he earned only $1,500 in royalties from his best-selling novel—and it took him 14 years to get even that. It isn't very surprising, then, that he accepted the much more lucrative position as U.S. Consul to Liverpool in 1853.

5. The Scarlet Letter was one of the first novels to be mass produced.

Mass production of books was just taking off in the United States when The Scarlet Letter was published. Before the rise of mechanized printing in the mid-19th century, many books were handmade and sold in small quantities. The first printing of The Scarlet Letter included 2,500 copies, which sold out in 10 days.

6. Though acclaimed by the Library of Congress, The Scarlet Letter is often the target of book bans.

The Library of Congress rated The Scarlet Letter as one of the 100 books that helped shape America. Yet it is also one of the many titles from that list that activist groups often seek to have banned from school reading lists, claiming the novel is obscene and pornographic.

7. Hawthorne's wife wept when he read the final chapter of The Scarlet Letter to her.

When Hawthorne finished the final chapter of The Scarlet Letter in February 1850, he read it out loud to his wife Sophia, who began to weep. "It broke her heart," said Hawthorne, who was not discouraged by her reaction.

[It] sent her to bed with a grievous headache—which I look upon as a triumphant success! Judging from its effect on her and the publisher, I may calculate on what bowlers call a ten-strike!

8. The Scarlet Letter was considered too scandalous for film—until a silent film star convinced a studio otherwise.

Lillian Gish, a silent film star, wanted to star in the film adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. She was told by the head of MGM that the book was banned from being filmed. Gish wrote to the MGM 'moral watchdog' and other church groups around the country to assure them the movie would be made in good taste. The ban was lifted and The Scarlet Letter was released in 1926 to rave reviews.

9. The 2010 teen comedy movie Easy A was inspired by The Scarlet Letter.

The movie's protagonist, Olive (played by Emma Stone), is an unpopular high school student. When a rumor spreads about her losing her virginity to a college guy, Olive decides to openly embrace the attention. Inspired by The Scarlet Letter—which she is reading in English class—she voluntarily starts to wear a scarlet "A" affixed to her clothing.

10. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the campaign biography for President Franklin Pierce.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the campaign biography for his old friend from Bowdoin College, Franklin Pierce. Despite not knowing much about political writing, Hawthorne was willing to write a glowing character reference. The biography embellished many of Pierce's accomplishments, catered to Southern sensibilities, and paved the way for him to get elected as the 14th President of the United States. Hawthorne was rewarded with a lucrative diplomatic post to England.

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