March 01, 2021

#08-052: The Scarlet Letter

painting of a serious-looking woman with a red letter "A" sewn on her dress holds a child to her chest, as two men in large hats walk past in the background
Hester and Pearl, with Dimmesdale and Chillingworth behind them

Note: At one time, most American high school students were required to read Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter. Set in the New England of two centuries earlier, it explores the mores of American Puritanism and the more universal themes of sin and guilt.

Get Ready: In this story, religious leaders say one thing and do another. Have you ever seen examples of this kind of hypocrisy?

The main character in The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, has borne an illegitimate child, the father of whom Hester refuses to name. As punishment, she must stand exposed to public humiliation for three hours, after which she must wear a red letter "A" (for "adultery") sewn to the breast of her dresses. Hester's minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, is one of her interrogators.

As she stands on the scaffold, in the crowd she spies her long-lost husband. He chooses to go by the name Roger Chillingworth to root out the identity of Hester's lover and bring him to justice as well. Thus, Hester is at the center of a rather unusual "love triangle."

Hester and her beloved baby, Pearl, settle in a cottage at the edge of town, where Hester ekes out a living doing needlework. Pearl is also shunned, and has no playmates. As she grows older, Pearl becomes a juvenile delinquent, and the church threatens to remove her from Hester's home. Hester approaches the governor to beg that her child stay with her; Dimmesdale and another minister are also there, and he pleads Hester's case. Hester is able to keep Pearl.

Dimmesdale falls ill, and Chillingworth, posing as a physician, moves in to care for him. Here he comes to believe that Dimmesdale's "illness" is in fact a symptom of guilt. In fact, under Chillingworth's influence, Dimmesdale confesses to an empty town square, in the dark of night, that he is Pearl's father.

Hester convinces Dimmesdale to run away with her. He agrees, but at the last minute, confesses his sin publicly, and dies in Hester's arms. Some claim to have seen a mark on his bare chest in the shape of the letter "A." Chillingworth soon dies as well, leaving a small fortune to Pearl. Hester continues to wear the scarlet letter until she dies, when she is buried next to Dimmesdale under a common tombstone marked with a red letter A on a black background.


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Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. adultery
  2. ekes out
  3. illegitimate
  4. juvenile delinquent
  5. love triangle
  6. mores
  7. scarlet
  8. shunned
  9. spies
  10. tombstone

  1. a marker over a grave
  2. sex outside of marriage
  3. born outside of marriage
  4. a bright shade of red
  5. a romantic relationship involving three people
  6. barely earns
  7. sees
  8. cut off from society; ignored
  9. a young person who refuses to obey parents and other authorities
  10. fundamental moral views of a group

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for March 1, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. f; 3. c; 4. i; 5. e; 6. j; 7. d; 8. h; 9. g; 10. a