TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Explain how Hawthorne uses nature and the natural world as a means of exposing the hypocrisy and oppressiveness of Puritan society.
2. Compare Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s characters. Does one character seem stronger or more sympathetic than the other? Does one suffer a greater punishment than the other? What does each character lose and gain as a result of the adultery?
3. In chapter 17, Dimmesdale tells Hester that they are not “the worst sinners in the world”; rather, Chillingsworth’s campaign of revenge against them is worse because “he has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of the human heart.” Do you think Dimmesdale is right? Why or why not?
4. In chapter 19, Pearl refuses to join her mother and Dimmesdale because Hester has removed her cap and the scarlet letter from her dress. What does this incident reveal about Pearl’s character? What does Hawthorne suggest by this scene?
5. Though the novel focuses on Hester, Dimmesdale, Pearl, and Chillingsworth, numerous other characters appear in The Scarlet Letter. How do they function in the novel? Does Hawthorne use them simply to further the plot, or do some of them serve larger thematic purposes?
IDEAS FOR REPORTS AND PAPERS
1. Writers often use patterns of imagery (repeated references to places, objects, activities) to highlight their themes. Choose a specific pattern of imagery-such as light and darkness-and show how Hawthorne uses it to illuminate a particular character or theme in the novel.
2. Read Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Compare the protagonist of that story with Dimmesdale. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different? What do they reveal about Hawthorne’s attitude toward the Puritan ministry?
3. Look up the definition of “Gothic fiction” in a handbook of literature or in an encyclopedia. How does Hawthorne use Gothic elements in this novel? Is The Scarlet Letter a Gothic novel? Why or why not?
4. Read a short history of the Puritan movement in New England. How accurate is Hawthorne’s portrait of seventeenth-century Puritan society? What details does he highlight for artistic purposes? Does he distort the facts? For what purposes?
5. The story of Hester’s life as a branded adulteress is preceded by a long introduction titled “The Custom House.” Why do you think Hawthorne included this narrative? What purposes does it serve? Can the rest of the novel be read effectively without it?
6. Hawthorne sets the action of chapters 3, 12, and 23 at the scaffold in the town common. Compare the three scenes. What does each reveal about the principal characters in the novel? How do Hester and Dimmesdale change in the second and third scenes?