If ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by N. Hawthorne is part of your syllabus, chances are that your instructor will have you write a literary analysis. Through this assignment, they will give you a better chance to grow familiar with the basic ideas and concepts of the text. However, to get a good grade, you will need to go beyond a mechanical surface analysis and present well-thought-out ideas about the work.
In addition to reading the book, you need to know a few facts to create an exceptional literary analysis. So, here is a list of 10 essential facts that can help you better understand ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and come up with your own topic for an effective analysis. If you want something a little more direct, refer to or list of 20 essay topics for ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by N. Hawthorne for a literary analysis.
- ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is the most famous book by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The setting is seventeenth-century Puritan New England. The events of the book take place during 1642 -1649. It is a tragic tale of love and the consequences of betrayal. The Puritanical attitudes and values play a major role in the social narrative of the novel. They are also the driving force behind the gender expectations and themes.
- The novel was one of the first American books to be mass-produced. During that era, books were hand bound and sold in small quantities. The first mechanized printing of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ produced 2,500 copies; all of them were sold out within ten days. The book enjoyed immense popularity and was widely read and discussed in all circles. This reception was quite rare for that period in literary history. The merits of the work were further recognized by the 20th century author D.H. Lawrence, who said that ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was a perfect work of American imagination.
- The overarching themes of the narrative are the struggle between sin and righteousness. The individual’s role and the role of the society are explored throughout the novel. The minor characters and the community’s behavior reflect how individuals were expected to behave during those times. There was a strict code of conduct which was to be followed by all, which is why transgressors were judged harshly.
- The protagonist, Hester Prynne, is made to wear a scarlet letter A to mark her as an adulteress and display her shame to the world. The letter is meant as a physical reminder of Hester’s affair with the “cheating minister” Dimmesdale. As the story progresses, this symbol of shame transforms. It shifts from standing for “Adulterer” to meaning “Able”, and then finally takes on a vague, indeterminate meaning. This transformation is meant to show the meaninglessness of the system and punishment, and judgment of the community.
- Another major theme explored is that of the extreme Puritan legalism. Hester makes the choice of not conforming to this mode of thinking. She rejects their beliefs and rules. Hester spends her life trying to help out the poor and the sick as much as possible. The rejection of the society forces her to re-evaluate her values. As a result, she does not mix with the society and ends up living a largely solitary life.
- Solitude is a major factor in bringing about the transformation in her thoughts and beliefs. It allows her to explore her own and society’s ideas of guilt and sin. Her thoughts go beyond the Puritan beliefs, making her begin to see her sin from a different perspective.
- The extent of the change in Hester’s beliefs is obvious from the fact that she begins to believe that the earthly sins can be atoned for and do not necessarily result in eternal damnation. Hester communicates this belief when she tells Dimmesdale that the sin they committed has been paid for as a result of their daily penance. This is in sharp contrast with Puritanical beliefs which hold that the sin of adultery condemns a person to Hell and cannot be forgiven.
- Hester is physically and spiritually alienated from the Puritan society. Her thinking becomes free from the religious bounds placed on it and she develops her own moral standards. This character development becomes clear when Hester decides to move on after the death of Dimmesdale. She can no longer conform to the strict beliefs of the Puritanical society.
- ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was first published in the year 1850 by Ticknor & Fields. Its publication marked the beginning of Hawthorne’s most lucrative period.
- Hester’s daughter, Pearl is fascinated by the scarlet letter her mother wears. Pearl reacts to it with an attitude of joy and curiosity whereas the Puritanical elders see it as a sign of the devil. The mirthful personality of Pearl saves Hester from falling into the abyss of darkness. Instead of making her feel more ashamed, the child becomes her saving grace.
These facts cover most of the themes and ideas presented by Nathaniel Hawthorne in what is believed to be his masterpiece; but, as with any work of literature, there can be no exhaustive list of facts. You can explore the novel further if you have enough time. However, if you are in a hurry this list will give you the push you need to become creative and begin working on your assignment.
Tired of all the guides and never-ending instructions?
If you need help with writing this assignment, check out our guide on how to write a literary analysis on ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by N. Hawthorne for a concise format and more guidelines. Best of luck!
Maddern, C. (2010). Medieval literature. Harlow, England: Longman/Pearson.
Lawrence, D. (1964). Studies in classic American literature. New York: Viking Press.
Hester and Pearl in The Scarlet Letter by NathanielnHawthorne/Introductory Page. (2016). Hawthorneinsalem.org. Retrieved 6 April 2016, from http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/Literature/Hawthorne&Women/ScarletLetter/Introduction.html
Charvat, William. Literary Publishing in America: 1790–1850. Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1993 (first published 1959): 56. ISBN 0-87023-801-9
Parker, Hershel. “The Germ Theory of The Scarlet Letter,” Hawthorne Society Newsletter 11 (Spring 1985) 11-13.
“The Classic Text: Traditions and Interpretations”. Uwm.edu. 2001-10-09. Retrieved 2016-04-06.
Schwab, Gabriele. The mirror and the killer-queen: otherness in literary language. Indiana University Press. 1996. Pg. 120.