In a society governed by Puritans, Hester Prynne is an outcast. Why? Because she had a baby...out of wedlock. (Gasp!) Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, sets it events in the Puritan society of two centuries before, and narrates a tale as scandalous for that time as the stuff in grocery-store paperbacks now. So why is this novel considered one of the greatest American novels, and why do we study it in schools? Hawthorne wrote in the tradition of romanticism, a term used to describe literature that emphasizes individualism and emotion, uses both imagery and symbolism, and looks into humanity’s darker impulses and desires. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s romanticism helps him to critique the hypocrisy of the Puritan religion while also exploring more universal themes of self-consciousness, desire, revenge, shame, and guilt. The result made for one of the first mass-produced books in America, and a volume still on many high schools’ required reading lists today. This primary source set includes photographs, paintings, documents, maps, and items that relate both to the setting of The Scarlet Letter, the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the mid-seventeenth century, and thematic elements within the book.
Additional resources for research
- Hawthorne, Peabody Essex Museum.
- “A Red Hot ‘A’ and a Lusting Divine: Sources for The Scarlet Letter,” by Frederick Newberry, New England Quarterly via Lane Memorial Library.
- Hawthorne in Salem, North Shore Community College.