The Scarlet Letter

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
Downloaded: Dartmouth College via iBooks


Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts to a Puritan family with a long New England history. His great-great-great-grandfather William Hathorne, was amongst the first wave of Puritan migrants from England and became an important member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a judge. Nathaniel’s great-great-grandfather John Hathorne was also a judge and took part in the Salem witch trials. Nathaniel Hawthorne changed his surname to distance himself from these ancestors.

Hawthorne studied at Bowdoin College in Maine (1821–25) where he became friends with future poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future US president Franklin Pierce. After graduation, Hawthorne began his writing career with a number of short stories and a novel published anonymously. In 1842, he married Sophia Peabody who had introduced him to the Transcendentalist movement and the two moved to Concord, Massachusetts where they rented The Old Manse, a storied building which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Hawthorne’s landlord and neighbour was the author Ralph Waldo Emerson. After three years, the Hawthornes moved back to Salem and Nathaniel took up a position at Custom House (1846–1849). He lost his job after a change of government in Washington DC and returned to writing. In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter. It was one of the first mass-produced books in the United States and was an immediate success.

Soon after, the Hawthornes moved to Lenox, Massachusetts where Nathaniel Hawthorne became friends with the author Herman Melville who was then completing his sixth novel. While the nature of their relationship remains the subject of much debate, it seems clear that Hawthorne inspired Melville to revise the novel from a straightforward whaling story into the complex finished product work that we know today as Moby Dick. Melville dedicated the novel, published in 1851, to Hawthorne.

In 1852, the Hawthornes returned to Concord and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a biography of his friend Franklin Pierce to support the latter’s presidential campaign. When Pierce was elected US President in 1852, he appointed Hawthorne as US Consul in Liverpool. Hawthorne and his family lived in England and Italy before returning to Concord in 1860. Hawthorne died four years later and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord together, where other luminaries such as Emerson and Henry David Thoreau also lie in rest.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is recognised as one of the leading figures of the New England literary scene that bloomed in the 19th century, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803– 1882), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), Herman Melville (1819–1891), Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) and Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888).

Hawthorne is best known for his novels, especially The Scarlet Letter which was included in a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time published by the Observer (2003). It was one of the 88 initial books included in the exhibition “Books That Shaped America” organised by the Library of Congress in 2012.

What is the story about?

The main character Hester Prynne is one of the earliest heroines in American literature and well known through many adaptations for other mediums andreferences in popular culture. In 17th century Boston, Hester was condemned as a sinner for commiting adultery. The story traces her road to redemption which contrasts starkly with the paths taken by the two men closely linked to her, Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth.


Hawthorne’s works are informed by the Puritan way of life that he was very much a part of. The Scarlet Letter explores the issues of sinning and repentance, punishment and acceptance, revenge and forgiveness.

Finally …

Surprisingly not a difficult read.