A CHAPTER-BY-CHAPTER READING GUIDE FOR THE SCARLET LETTER
A 1636 Plymouth Colony law required anyone convicted of adultery to "wear two Capital letters viz AD cut out in cloth and sowed on theire uppermost Garments on their arme or backe; and if att any time they shallbee taken without the said letters whiles they are in the Govrment soewarn to bee forthwith taken and publickly whipt." Other Massachusetts colonies had their own versions of this law. In fact, "The Capitall Lawes of New-England, as they stand now in force in the Common-wealth, by the Court, in the years 1641, 1642, established within the jurisdiction of Massachusetts," proclaim that "if any person committeth adultery with a married or espoused wife, the Adulterer, and the Adulteresse, shall surely be put to death."
Chapter 1—The Prison Door
Paragraph two explains the typical allotment of land in a Puritan town. What three establishments are early accounted for on Isaac Johnson's lot? What does this information tell us about Puritan values?
How does Hawthorne describe the prison? Identify a significant metaphor in the second paragraph.
A pathetic fallacy is a literary device in which Nature appears to understand human feeling and respond accordingly. An example is believing that the sun is shining because you are happy, or that a day is dark and rainy because you are feeling depressed. Hawthorne employs a significant pathetic fallacy in this opening description. Can you locate it?
What grows near the prison? What does Hawthorne say it symbolizes?
Chapter 2—The Market Place
1. When does the story take place?
2. For what purposes did people sometimes gather in front of the prison door? 3. Who seems especially interested in the punishment that is about to take place?
4. Pay attention to conversation among the women. What is their attitude toward Hester? Are they unanimous?
5. Note the description Of Hester, the novel's heroine. What seem to be her outstanding characteristics? What is unusual about her? What do people notice first when seeing her ("the point which drew all eyes")?
6. Note again the women's conversation. What appears to be their opinion of Hester now?
7. The beadle's words, "A blessing on the righteous colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine," might engender some thinking about values. Does it seem to you that exposing iniquity is worthy of a blessing? Do we seem to feel it proper today to expose personal behavior, especially wrongdoing, to public view?
8. What is Hester's punishment that day? What does Hawthorne say about this kind of punishment, the kind that does not allow the culprit to hide his or her shame?
9. What is purpose of contrasting Hester and her baby to "the image of Divine Maternity"?
Pay particular attention to the description of "the man well stricken in years." Who do you think he is?
Chapter 3—The Recognition
Read carefully the second paragraph. Who is the man at the Indian's side?
Imagine that you are this man. What information do you, a stranger to Boston, learn from the townsman with whom you talk?
The townsman says that the magistrates of Boston have, "in their mercy and tenderness of heart," softened Hester's punishment. What do you think of this mercy?
For what reason do Governor Bellingham and the ministers speak to Hester? Why does Mr. Wilson think Mr. Dimmesdale should speak to Hester? What is Dimmesdale's feeling about this job? Note with care the first description of Dimmesdale.
5. What effect do Dimmesdale' swords have on Hester? On the baby?
6. What kind of father does Hester say her baby will have?
7. Contrast the two ministers' different reactions to Hester's refusal to name her fellow sinner.
Chapter 4—The Interview
1. Why did the jailer send for a doctor for Hester?
2. You ought to know for certain, by the seventh or eighth paragraph of this chapter, just who this man is....
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