My university students have found very helpful this overview lecture/handout on "The Scarlet Letter." It begins with an analysis of the theme, showing how each major character represents a major American philosophical movement up to Hawthorne’s time: 17th-century Puritanism (Minister Dimmesdale, Hester’s secret lover); 18th-century Rationalism (Chillingworth, her husband and a cold-hearted rationalist); and two aspects of early-19th-century Transcendentalism: Romanticism (the passionate Hester, she of the scarlet letter) and Naturalism (the illegitimate Pearl, a “child of nature”).
Other sections of the lecture/handout analyze the historical background of the novel, its structure, its symbolism (of names, color, and religion), and its major and minor characters.
A special section is devoted to the use of words beginning with the letter “A.” I usually begin by asking students a question with an obvious answer: “What does the scarlet ‘A’ stand for?” The immediate response is “duh, adultery!” I reply, “A large number of key words in the novel, around 500, begin with the letter ‘A.’ However, ‘adultery’ and its variants, I hate to burst your bubble, never appear.” With that hint, I have found my students more carefully read the novel, looking to prove me wrong or to find the c. 500. Pages 11-16 of this handout lists chapter-by-chapter the key “A” words, with my commentary on the thematic importance of many of them.
Designed as a lecture or a handout, there are no blanks to be filled in; hence, no answer key is needed.
Prepared by Professor William Tarvin, Ph.D., who has published many articles on literature in scholarly journals.