Hester Prynne has a secret. No, not the fact that she committed adultery. Everybody in her Puritan town knows about that. Between the baby and the scarlet letter A on her chest, her sin isn’t something that Hester can really do much to hide.
But her partner in crime?
That’s a deep, dark secret. And Hester isn’t telling.
So who is Hester’s fellow adulterer in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter? You’ll find out long before Hester’s vengeful husband does. But that’s mostly because Hawthorne’s novel is a study in guilt—how guilt changes us, and how guilt (and sin) affect our community.
It’s not light reading. That’s why 60second Recap® Decoder™ is here–to help you crack the code that makes The Scarlet Letter seem so inaccessible…and makes it one of the enduring stories in American literature.
The Scarlet Letter : Context and Resources
On a Sunday in early June, 1849, an obscure tax collector in Salem, Massachusetts found out that he’d been fired. (“Politics,” they said.) The man was 44 years old, with a wife and three children. Now he was broke.
Before his turn as a government bureaucrat, he’d penned earnest little essays and morality tales. Of course, he hadn’t made much money as a writer, but he had to do something. So he sat down and wrote a furious monograph about his life at the office, in Salem’s Custom House.
And then he wrote on, scribbling out a full-blown novel, his first since an anonymous effort published after college. In five months, the man produced a gloomy allegory about sin, hypocrisy, and guilt. A few weeks later, in March, 1850, The Scarlet Letter exploded onto the landscape of American culture, and sold out its first run of 2,500 copies in 10 days.
Here’s a look at the technology that made Nathaniel Hawthorne’s career-making opus one of the first mass-produced books in America, utilizing new mechanized technology that enabled publishers to print thousands of copies in a single printing.
Technology, however, does not explain The Scarlet Letter’s popularity: The book has never been out of print . Nor does it explain the notoriety achieved the moment it was published. For that, look to the book’s subject, adultery.
Here’s a collection of initial critical responses to The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne was well-connected to the literary establishment, and many of its leading personalities closed ranks around The Scarlet Letter and its author. But others criticized the work. Religious leaders were especially withering in their condemnation of the book’s subject and author.
Guilt as a theme and a muse
Hawthorne had never been one to court controversy, let alone notoriety. He got both with The Scarlet Letter. What prompted him to write it?
Guilt is a prominent theme in The Scarlet Letter. Not surprisingly, scholars have speculated that The Scarlet Letter was formed by Hawthorne’s own guilty conscience. But guilty conscience over what?
Here’s a review of Hawthorne’s paternal ancestry, a line that includes Hawthorne’s infamous great-great grandfather, Judge John Hathorne, a leading magistrate in the 17th century Salem witch trials. Hawthorne added the “w” to his name while an undergraduate at Bowdoin College, perhaps to distance himself from his family’s ignominious past. One theory is that Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter as a kind of literary therapy session–his effort to exorcise the stain of his family’s heritage.
Other scholars wonder why a witch-hunting ancestor might have inspired Hawthorne’s incendiary focus on adultery. Nathanial Hawthorne’s son, Julian, later reported that author Herman Melville told him “there was some secret in my father’s life which has never been revealed.” This secret, Julian said, “accounted for the gloomy passages in his books.”
Here’s a skeptical review of Hawthorne’s Secret by Phillip Young, assessing claims that Hawthorne’s “secret” involved an incestuous relationship with his sister, Elizabeth, after whom he later modeled The Scarlet Letter‘s protagonist, Hester Prynne.
Additional Hawthorne resources
Guilt may have played a role in the writing of The Scarlet Letter, but so did Hawthorne’s need for money.
Here’s an overview of Hawthorne’s early adult years, beginning with Bowdoin College. It identifies a pattern of borrowing and spending that defined his adult life. Contemporaries observed that Hawthorne “was always impractical and inept in managing his financial affairs.” Those affairs suffered a serious setback after he lost as much as $1,500 he’d invested in a transcendentalist utopian commune, Brook Farm.
Here’s an excerpt from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature exploring Hawthorne’s life and connection to the transcendentalist movement of the early-to-mid 19th century.
Here’s an interactive feature on Hawthorne’s life presented by the Phillips Library of the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. It includes a look at The Spectator, the newspaper Hawthorne produced with his sister when he was a teenager.
Here’s the Hawthorne in Salem website, which offers a wealth of information about Hawthorne’s life and work.