The Scarlet Letter: Discussion Questions

As you read the novel, respond to 6 of the following prompts or questions. You should write a meaty analytical paragraph for each response. Choose questions that are spaced out throughout the book—try to pace yourself by doing one question per night (there are 8 total reading assignments).

This assignment will be worth 2 homework grades and 2 participation grades, and will be graded on the quality and thoughtfulness of your answers. Responses should be typed. Discussion questions are due on Wednesday, September 23.

Chapter 3: The Recognition

1.      In what ways is patriarchal, masculine, and religious power established in this chapter? What clues does Hawthorne give us about this structure?

Chapter 4: The Interview

2.      What positive use does Chillingworth’s medicine have in this scene? What does this act imply about his character? His relation to Pearl?


3.      Why does Chillingworth pass over Hester’s sin and focus his revenge on her lover? Is his attitude logical? In what way is he a guilty party to Hester’s sin?

Chapter 5: Hester at Her Needle

4.      What might be the symbolic meanings of Hester’s new lifestyle? (Consider both where she lives and her occupation.)

Chapter 6: Pearl

5.      What is the symbolic meaning of Pearl’s name?


6.      What does Hawthorne signify about Pearl’s character through her relation to nature?

Chapter 7: The Governor’s Hall

7.      What do you think Hester means to say to the town fathers through Pearl’s dress? Is she conscious of the message she is sending?


8.      Pearl makes Hester look at the distortion of the scarlet letter in the suit of mail. Why is the armor (the symbol of masculine knighthood and warfare) an appropriate surface to reflect and enlarge the scarlet letter and to distort Hester’s face?

Chapter 8: The Elf-Child and the Minister

9.      What connection is there between Pearl’s assertion that she has no heavenly father and her claim that she was “plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses” by the prison door? What do her words signify about the relationship of the female processes of nature and the patriarchal order of the Puritan church and society? To which does Pearl belong?


10.  What is suggested by the fact that Mistress Hibbins, the representative of the Black Man, resides in the governor’s house? Why is this important?

Chapter 9: The Leech

11.  What skills does Chillingworth the physician offer to Dimmesdale? Why is this helping relationship ironic?

Chapter 10: The Leech and His Patient

12.  Why does Chillingworth probe into Dimmesdale’s problems and urge him to share his pain? What is evil about Chillingworth’s seemingly concerned effort to relieve Dimmesdale’s pain?


13.  What are Hester and Pearl doing in this chapter? What is suggested by the place where they are? By the objects Pearl plays with?


Chapter 11: The Interior of a Heart


  1. In your opinion, what are the most important revelations made about Dimmesdale in this chapter? Why?


Chapter 12: The Minister’s Vigil


  1. What is important about the light that appears in the sky and the various ways in which it is interpreted?


  1. What is the significance of Chillingworth’s appearance in this scene?


Chapter 13: Another View of Hester


  1. Compare what has been happening to Hester since Pearl’s birth with what has been happening to Dimmesdale—socially, physically, intellectually, spiritually.


  1. What are the signs of Hester’s intellectual growth? Of her spiritual confusion? Notice her questions about theological doctrines and the position of women in a patriarchal society.

Chapter 14: Hester and the Physician


  1. What is Pearl doing in this chapter? What is its symbolic meaning in contrast to what Hester is doing?


  1. What does Chillingworth mean when he says, “Let the black flower blossom as it may!”? What is the symbolic meaning of this flower in connection with other examples of flower imagery in the novel?


Chapter 15: Hester and Pearl


  1. What is revealed about Hester’s feelings toward Chillingworth? Is she justified in her attitudes toward him? In what ways is he guilty of wronging her?


  1. What effect is created by Hawthorne’s contrast between the horrors of Chillingworth and the pleasures of Pearl’s child’s play?


  1. What is the symbolic meaning of Pearl’s “green A”? What meanings of the A are revealed in this chapter through the conversation of Pearl and Hester. What does Pearl understand? Does Hester project her own understandings on to Pearl?


Chapter 16: A Forest Walk


  1. Notice Pearl’s play with the sunshine and Hester’s attitude toward Pearl, herself, and the sunlight. What does the sunshine symbolize? Compare the meaning suggested by the sunshine here to Hawthorne’s use of sunlight in “The Market Place” when Hester stands on the scaffold. What is the meaning of these differences in the use of sunshine?


  1. What are the differences in the attitudes toward the Black Man shown by Pearl and by Hester? Why does Pearl have no fear of the darkness the forest represents? Why did the Puritans fear the forest?


Chapter 17: The Pastor and his Parishioner


  1. The title of this chapter establishes a hierarchy of roles in which Dimmesdale is the authority figure and comforter and Hester is the one to be led and comforted. Are these roles fulfilled in the chapter or are they reversed? What is the significance of Hawthorne’s reminder of these churchly roles in his chapter title?


  1. Why is Hester’s assertion that he will not be alone a radical position for Hester to take, considering the society in which they live? What does her suggestion reveal about her understanding of her relationship to Dimmesdale?





Chapter 18: A Flood of Sunshine


  1. What has Hester learned from wearing the scarlet letter? What is the source of her strength and confidence in this interview with Dimmesdale?


  1. How does nature signify its blessings on them? Does Hawthorne use this symbol of nature to affirm their decision? Is there any ambiguity in this positive presentation of the result of their new declaration of their devotion to each other?


Chapter 19: The Child at the Brook-side


  1. Why is Pearl a “living hieroglyphic”? Describe her appearance. Why does Hawthorne emphasize the natural setting in this presentation of Pearl’s appearance?


  1. What difficulties does Hester have in persuading Pearl to respond to the minister? Is Pearl’s behavior normal? Is it symbolic? If so, what is its meaning? What psychological need dominates Hester’s behavior in this chapter?


  1. Find the details of Hawthorne’s descriptions and comments on the brook. What does the brook symbolize?


Chapter 20: The Minister in a Maze


  1. Compare the minister’s maze to Hester’s own labyrinth of doubts in “Another View of Hester.” Are their problems the same? Why is Dimmesdale in a maze, considering the decisions that have just been made?


Chapter 21: The New England Holiday


  1. Describe Pearl’s appearance and her “bird-like” movement. What does Hawthorne’s use of bird imagery in describing Pearl signify? What is her attitude toward the jailer? Toward sailors and Indians in the town?


  1. Examine Hawthorne’s descriptions of the sailors and the Indians. What qualities of human nature are represented by these strangers? How are they different from the townspeople?


  1. What is the symbolic meaning of the sea? (Recall the location of Hester’s house and Pearl’s play with water in the novel.)


Chapter 22: The Procession


  1. Describe the procession. In what way is Hester’s identity represented among the town’s men of status?


  1. How does Hester feel when she looks at Dimmesdale? In what ways is she cut off from him in this scene?


  1. Notice the way Hawthorne recapitulates the positions of Hester and Dimmesdale in the first scaffold scene through the last paragraph of this chapter. What has changed?


Chapter 23: The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter


  1. In this third and last scaffold scene, notice the ways in which Dimmesdale turns to Hester for strength. How does this last confession meet his needs? Is it a solution that helps Hester?


  1. What symbolic role does the sun play in this confession scene?


  1. What change is brought about in Pearl by Dimmesdale’s confession? How does he give Pearl an identity that she has previously lacked? Is this new identity desirable?


  1. As Dimmesdale dies, Hester’s chief concern is being with him in heaven. What is his chief concern? Is Hester a frail woman who puts human love before religious devotion and penitence? Is Dimmesdale a misguided religious devotee who values his status in heaven more than he values human love and devotion?


Chapter 24: Conclusion


  1. Why does Hawthorne begin the chapter by suggesting that the meaning of Dimmesdale’s action in his confession is ambiguous? Why do some townspeople deny his guilt?


  1. How does Hawthorne develop the theme of the evil of hidden sin and the moral value of honesty with the world and with the self? Is his method effective?


  1. What is the significance of what happens to both Pearl and to Hester at the end of the novel?


  1. Examine the last paragraph of the novel. Are Hester and Dimmesdale united? What is the symbolic meaning of the colors and the heraldic device that mark their graves?