Historical Study Questions
| Cliff’s Notes (1960)
1. Discuss the unity of The Scarlet Letter.
2. How can one justify Hawthorne’s including the “Custom House” as part of the novel?
3. How does Hawthorne employ the setting in the opening chapter to set the mood for the story?
4. Discuss the significance of the three scaffold scenes.
5. To what degree does Hawthorne use colors in the book, and for what purposes? What are the colors he uses most often?
6. What is the function of the “Conclusion”? What is its effect on the unity and general artistic quality of the novel?
7. How does Hawthorne employ the forest as a symbol?
8. Discuss the increasing irony of Dimmesdale’s position from the opening scaffold scene until the climax of the book. Does Hawthorne employ any other irony in the book?
9. Which character occupies the central position in the climax of the book? How does his action in the climax affect the other three characters?
James Lamar Roberts, ed., The Scarlet Letter: Notes (Lincoln, Neb. : Cliffs Notes, 1960), 66-68http://archive.org/details/scarletletternot00robe
| Macmillan “School Edition”(1961)
10. How do you feel about the way Hester and Pearl were treated by the townspeople? Suppose you asked these people to justify their actions. What reasons would they have given? Do you think they took pride in searching out and punishing wrong-doers? Why? Would you say that this attitude had changed in recent years? If so, in what ways and to what extent?
11. In your opinion, what was Hester’s moral duty to Dimmesdale and his moral duty to her? Did Chillingworth also have a moral duty? if so, what was it and to whom? What reasons can you give for his never taking revenge on Hester, even after Dimmesdale’s death? Why did his own death occur so soon after?
12. Mr. Dimmesdale gave several reasons for a man’s not confessing his guilt. Which do you think was his reason? Explain why you think a person can or cannot hide his guilt without destroying himself. What meaning do you find in the statement, “to the untrue man, the whole universe is false”?
13. Hawthorne suggests that, without Pearl, Hester might have been a reformer or prophetess. Which of the necessary qualities did she possess? Why do you think she found so little comfort in her thoughts about the future of her child, her own existence, and the error she had made in keeping Chillingworth’s secret?
14. In many novels there is a theme: a general truth or an observation about life which is brought out through the story. What would you say was the theme of The Scarlet Letter? Does it apply to present-day life as well as to Puritan life? Give reasons to support your opinion.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, School Edition (New York: Macmillan Company, 1961). 216-217.
Questions about Questions (for writing or discussion):
- Review the contrast between the “New Criticism” and Louise Rosenblatt’s “Transactional Approach” in “Balcony and Scaffold.” Explain how the questions above express one or the other approach.
- How do the two sets of questions entail different goals or learning outcomes? What can you infer about the purposes of teaching The Scarlet Letter?
- Question 10, from MacMillan’s 1961 School Edition of The Scarlet Letter, asks students to relate their reading of The Scarlet Letter to “recent years.” With reference to specific historical events, explain how a student in the 1960s might have responded to this question. Alternatively, transplant the question to today: would you say that the “attitude” about “searching out and punishing wrong-doers” has “changed in recent years?” Explain.
- In this lesson, study guides from the past are used as primary sources: they can tell us something about the experiences of students in the 1960s. Select a discussion or examination question from the present. How might it illustrate present-day approaches to teaching literature for future generations?