The Scarlet Letter

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The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne's father died at sea when Hawthorne was just four years old. His mother raised him alone in Salem. He went on to attend Bowdoin College, from which he graduated in 1824. He married Sophia Peabody in 1842, and the two enjoyed a long loving marriage that produced three children. Hawthorne could not support the family as a writer, so he worked as a surveyor for the Custom House in Salem from 1846-1849. Hawthorne befriended other now-famous writers throughout his life, including Longfellow, Thoreau, and Melville. He died in 1864 after spending six of his last years in Europe.
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Historical Context of The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter paints a very unflattering portrait of the Puritans, a religious group that dominated late seventeenth-century English settlement in Massachusetts. Puritanism began in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603). The name "Puritanism" came from the group's intent to purify the Church of England by making government and religious practice conform more closely to the word of God. The Puritans were often persecuted in England, and a group of them sailed to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620 in search of a place to practice their religion without interference. Though today Puritans are often thought of as the foundation of American society, Hawthorne criticizes the Puritans' harsh religion and society.

Other Books Related to The Scarlet Letter

The literary movement known as Transcendentalism flourished during the 1830s and 1840s, primarily in Massachusetts. The Transcendentalists believed in the power of the human mind to shape and determine experience. They favored a more personal view of religion in which people could connect directly with God. The Transcendental view of religion stood in stark contrast to the practices of groups like the Puritans, who believed in strict societal governance of religion. Transcendentalism's most famous works are Thoreau's Walden (1854) and Emerson's Essays, most notably "Nature" (1836). Though Hawthorne is not considered a Transcendentalist, many of the movement's central tenets appear in his work.
Key Facts about The Scarlet Letter
  • Full Title: The Scarlet Letter
  • When Written: 1848-1850
  • Where Written: Salem, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1850
  • Literary Period: Transcendentalism
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: Boston, Massachusetts in the 1640s
  • Climax: Dimmesdale's confession and death
  • Antagonist: Roger Chillingworth; the Puritans
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Scarlet Letter

Hawthorne and the Salem Witch Trials: Nathaniel Hawthorne was a direct descendent of John Hathorne, (1641-1717), a Puritan justice of the peace. Justice Hathorne is best known for his role as the lead judge in the Salem Witch Trials, in which he sentenced numerous innocent people to death for allegedly practicing witchcraft. Nathaniel added a "w" to his name to distance himself from his infamous ancestor.