The Scarlet Letter is one of the few American works of literature that has justifiably earned the accolade “classic.” Primary among the novel’s virtues are its tightly structured plot and sophisticated exploration of character and motivation. Through the tale of Hester Prynne’s and Arthur Dimmesdale’s transgressions of conventional morality, Hawthorne offers an assessment of the Puritan consciousness, a code of thought and action that helped form the American psyche. He uses historical materials to create a novel about universal, timeless human problems: the struggle of the individual to achieve freedom in a society that imposes considerable restraints, and the dilemma individuals face in balancing personal feelings against social or moral norms.
Set during the mid-seventeenth century, The Scarlet Letter takes place in Boston, Massachusetts, and the surrounding countryside. Any reader familiar with American history will no doubt be predisposed to view critically the high-handed and intolerant attitudes directed toward Hester Prynne by the people of Boston. The placement of the action in an intolerant Puritan community permits Hawthorne to introduce suggestions of other-worldly powers at work: witches, spirits, demons, and even the Devil. Nevertheless, the suggestion that supernatural powers may be responsible for events in the novel is always couched in less-than-definitive language; Hawthorne counters the fantastic explanations that he places in the mouths of his characters with more commonsensical explanations of his own.