The Scarlet Letter:
Overview and Assignments
Introduction As AP students studying language and composition, our purpose in reading The Scarlet Letter is not to study it as a work of fiction, but as a masterpiece of language. While you may or may not find the story to be enjoyable and may or may not learn something about people after reading it, we need to draw our attention to the details of language. Nathaniel Hawthorne is an artist; this novel is his masterpiece. What elements of language did he use? What strategies were chosen with his reader and his purpose constantly in mind? We are ultimately studying his STYLE and the components that comprise it.
Styleinvolves the author’s choice and arrangement of words in sentences (diction and syntax), the use of sensory and/or figurative language, the tone, and the mood. Look for such things as the length and complexity of the sentences; the use of words that are obscure, and occasionally, archaic; his allusions (Old Manse, the War of 1812 in “The Custom House”, etc.); the balanced, often parallel syntax; the occasional metaphors; the excessive—by modern standards—punctuation; and the tone of friendly formality.
As you read, think of adjectives that describe Hawthorne’s style. Think “outside the bubble”, too: How was this style created, and what is its effect on the reader?
“The Custom House”
The first “chapter” of the novel is called “The Custom House”, which is entirely a different style than the actual novel that follows. In “The Custom House”, you will become acquainted with the important events of Hawthorne’s life, as well as some of the conventions that early novel writers used, and with Hawthorne’s prose style. Some questions you should be able to answer after reading this section are: What is romanticism? What is the purpose of this chapter? How does Hawthorne’s family history contribute to his attitude toward The Custom House and his place in society?
- How would you describe Hawthorne’s attitude toward his former job and fellow workers? Why do you think so? (This is asking for TONE and evidence supporting your inference.)
- In this essay, Hawthorne addresses the reader directly. What effect does he create with this manner?
- What effect does the detailed description of the scarlet letter have on you?
The Scarlet Letterexplores the effects of sin, guilt, punishment, and revenge. Below are some themes that run throughout the novel:
- Guilt can destroy a person, body and soul.
- The punishment imposed on us by others may not be as destructive as the guilt we experience.
- True repentence must come from within.
- Revenge destroys the victim and the seeker.
- Even well-intended deceptions and secrets can lead to destruction.
- One must have the courage to be true to one’s self.
- It is by recognizing and dealing with their weaknesses that people grow stronger.
- The choices people make determine what they become.
- Within each person is the capacity for both good and evil.
The Scarlet Letteris considered to be the world’s first truly symbolic novel. Below are some examples of symbols to watch for that carry through and change throughout the novel, though I’ll leave their interpretations up to you:
- The scarlet letter itself/ the letter A
- The names of Pearl, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth
- The forest
- The scaffold
- The prison
- The absence and presence of light
- Colors and absence of color
- The rose
Rhetorical Devices to achieve purpose
Watch for the following as you read. When you find prominent examples of each, actively consider why he used it and how he used it. What is his purpose, and how does using rhetorical devices help him convey his purpose to the reader?
- Contrasts (ie. Good/evil, dark/light, forest/town, color/absence of color, supernatural/ reality, etc.)
- Duality (ie. How does Pearl’s character reflect the duality of the Puritan community?)
· Word Choice (diction)
· Connotations (especially with names); aka characternym (a name that symbolizes or stands for some aspect of the character’s personality)
· Motif (hand over heart, The Black Man, the color red)
· Contradiction/ Irony
As you read the novel, ANNOTATE it for the elements you read about above. If you are using a library copy of the book, use “Post-Its” to annotate. Identify stylistic choices as you read. Analyze for their importance by asking questions, making connections, making predictions, and evaluating their effectiveness while you read. Create and list several high-level questions throughout the novel that are based on your findings.
When we return from Thanksgiving Break (after debates), we will work with the novel in its entirety. You will be expected to bring forth numerous insightful details from the novel that convey Hawthorne’s style and purpose. We will discuss in form of Socratic Seminar the elements you bring to the table.
Below are examples of questions for Chapter 5 that will provoke discussion with attention to specific language devices:
· How does Hawthorne depict Hester’s inner turmoil?
o Diction, figurative language, syntax, irony, tone
o Ex. Chapter 5, paragraph 3—“I might be,… martyrdom.”
· How does Hawthorne use clothing to reveal Hester’s self-perception, the attitude of her neighbors, and the nature of her daughter’s conception?
o Again: diction, imagery, syntax, irony, tone
o Ex. Chap. 5, paragraph 7—“Hester sought not,… wrong, beneath.”
The following two questions require close attention to allusion, irony, imagery, syntax, organization of details, and more:
· What is Hawthorne’s attitude toward Hester?
o Chap. 2, paragraph 11—“The young woman…by herself.”
· What is Hawthorne’s attitude toward the man standing by the Indian in Chapter 3?
o Paragraphs 1 and 2—“From this intense…his lips.”
This one delves deeper into the use of language to develop characterization:
- How does Hawthorne use setting, allusion, metaphor, irony, diction, and tone to reveal Chillingworth’s character in Chapter 9, “The Leech”?
As does this one:
- In Chapter 22, “The Procession”, how does Hawthorne use irony and extended metaphor to reveal the conclusion?
For all, you can see that referring to your list of schemes and tropes will be helpful. This is a great opportunity to become better versed and fluent with using literary and linguistic terms.
The 2017 AP English Literature Free Response Questions focus on varying themes and are each structured differently. For an overview of the three prompt types you may encounter read The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. Here we will discuss the third FRQ prompt which allows you to choose a particular work of literature as the focus of your essay.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a book all AP English Literature students should be familiar with. Herein we will discuss how to determine if the given prompt is appropriate for this particular literary work and give you an idea of what to review before your exam.
The Scarlet Letter Themes for AP English Literature
In order to choose a literary work to answer your prompt, it’s important to examine the themes which are outlined in the assigned essay. If the theme is not relevant or well established in a work, you will do well to choose another title to examine. The following are the main themes which you may discuss in your The Scarlet Letter AP English Lit Essay.
Sin is a theme which is heavily discussed throughout the book. Because of its setting in Puritan Boston, the sin of adultery is an especially grievous one, usually punishable by death. However, the townspeople agree to spare Hester Prynne’s life and make her a living testament to the evil of sin.
Hypocrisy is another prevalent theme in The Scarlet Letter. The hypocrisy of Reverend Dimmesdale is discussed at length throughout the book. His self-hatred stems not from his original sin, but from his hypocritical inability to admit to wrongdoing.
Guilt and Blame are two intertwined themes you will notice within the story. Both Prynne and Dimmesdale are changed by the guilt they feel for their actions. Meanwhile, Chillingworth seems free of guilt for his own reprehensible actions until he dies, leaving Pearl his fortune. The townspeople blame Prynne for her sin and look upon her with disdain and pity. This fate is one Dimmesdale escapes through his own cowardice. And, Chillingworth is decided to be the real villain by both Prynne and Dimmesdale when they realize his misdeeds.
Individuality and Conformity are another two related themes found in this work. Hester Prynne is humiliated, shunned, and outcast due to her non-conformity to the strict rules of the Puritanic society. The people of Boston mark her as the example to all other would-be-individuals of what ill fate will befall them if they refuse to conform.
Nature is also an important theme explored throughout the story. The contrast of natural beauty with the stark and lifeless existence of Puritan society is introduced immediately into the story. Hawthorne paints a mesmerizing description of natural scenes through the book which presents a remarkable contrast to the society his characters live in.
Puritanism is the contrasting theme to Nature found within the story. Puritan society is depicted as drab, confining, and unforgiving. The beliefs held by the townspeople cause them to judge others harshly and see things in an incredibly dark way.
The Occult is a theme which is discussed sympathetically throughout the book. The author suggests that the witch hunt was simply a by-product of Puritan fear of individuality. The strict rules set by society cause anyone who is different to be looked at suspiciously and aligned with the occult.
How to Use the Scarlet Letter for the 2017 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
The Scarlet Letter is a well known literary work which you should be familiar with. It may well be a viable choice for the AP English Lit free response question. However, that is dependent on the question. Each year the 3rd FRQ is different, and the CollegeBoard supplies a list of suggested books to reference for your essay. The absence of a book from the list does not disqualify it from use, that being said; it’s important to know how to choose which book to use for the given analysis.
In preparation for your exam, it’s a good idea to read previous years’ free response questions posted on CollegeBoard. The following review is for the 2016 FRQ prompt.
2016 FRQ 3: Many works of literature contain a character who intentionally deceives others. The character’s dishonesty may be intended to either help or hurt. Such a character, for example, may choose to mislead others for personal safety, to spare someone’s feelings, or to carry out a crime.
Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.
While The Scarlet Letter is not on the suggested list for this prompt, you could choose to use it. The theme of deception is represented throughout the book in various forms. As the prompt has instructed you to focus on one of the characters your analysis could go several directions. Whichever you choose, be sure to make a clear argument which supports your thesis statement. Remember that answering the prompt is your goal, not outlining the entire plot or all the prevalent themes.
If you chose to focus on the main character of Hester Prynne a likely thesis you could defend is as follows. In The Scarlet Letter the character of Hester Prynne refused to reveal the identity of her lover. This intentional deception was at great personal detriment in order to spare the fate of the man she loved. To support this thesis, you could cite chapter 3 when Hester is presented to the town’s people upon the scaffold. She is holding her newborn baby and when asked to name the man who committed the sin with her she refuses. After many public pleas from the clergymen of the town, her response is thus.
“ ‘Never,’ replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman, ‘It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony as well as mine!’ “
Hester Prynne views this decision as compassionate towards Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the father of her child. But, ironically Dimmesdale was the one begging to have his name revealed. Throughout the book, we see how Prynne bears the shame and isolation for them both as a badge of honor. She believes that living as a martyr for them both will spare him pain. However, in truth Dimmesdale punishes himself for his cowardice in not naming himself and suffers greatly both mentally and physically.
Additionally, in chapter 5 we see how Hester Prynne stayed in Boston, despite the shame and isolation she endured, in order to martyr herself in atonement for her sins.
“…perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom.”
Another choice you could make in answering this prompt would be to focus on the deception perpetrated by Dimmesdale. A possible thesis statement for the essay would be as follows. In The Scarlet Letter the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale deceives the townspeople by hiding his identity, as Hester Prynne’s lover. This dishonesty is borne out of fear causing him to suffer throughout the story for his hypocrisy. In support of this thesis, you might cite Dimmesdale’s plea to Hester, in chapter 3, whereas he implores her to reveal his own name, knowing he lacks the courage to do so.
“Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life.”
Furthermore, we see throughout the story how Dimmesdale’s silence becomes his undoing. He carves an “A” into his own skin over his heart, whips himself, and generally loathes himself for his deceit. In the following quote, from chapter 11, we can see a bit of that self-mutilation and pity.
“Inward trouble drove him to practices more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome than with the better light of the church in which he had been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders, laughing bitterly at himself the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly because of that bitter laugh.”
Arthur Dimmesdale’s deceit is important in the story because of the juxtaposition between his inward torment and Hester Prynne’s acceptance of her outward shame. While Prynne is judged and isolated, with her daughter, she finds enjoyment in life and feels that she is redeeming herself through suffering. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale’s inability to confess his sins publicly causes an inward struggle which manifests itself in his sullen demeanor, physical illness, and self-harm.
The last possible way you could answer this prompt for The Scarlet Letter would be to focus on the dishonesty of Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband. A possible thesis would be as follows. In The Scarlet Letter Roger Chillingworth took on a false persona and deceived the townspeople, to avoid connection with Hester Prynne out of selfishness and malice. Support for this thesis can begin with his first arrival to the story, in chapter 3, when he signals Prynne not to reveal his identity as he watches her on the scaffold.
“When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne fastened on his own, and saw that she appeared to recognize him, he slowly and calmly raised his finger, made a gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips.”
The deception which is perpetrated by Chillingworth is of a selfish nature. He chooses to assume a new identity and career, as a doctor, in order to hide his connection to Prynne. Furthermore, he becomes suspicious of the affliction tormenting Reverend Dimmesdale and uses his position as town physician to station himself closely to the clergyman. Once he is sure of the connection between Dimmesdale and Prynne, Chillingworth’s actions become even more malicious. He is transformed into an ugly and evil character by way of his own dishonesty. This is seen, in chapter 9, where he is described as an evil man who the townspeople fear is in service to Satan himself.
“At first, his expression had been calm, meditative, scholar-like. Now there was something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed, and which grew still the more obvious to sight the oftener they looked upon him. . . To sum up the matter, it grew to be a widely diffused opinion that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, like many other personages of special sanctity, in all ages of the Christian world, was haunted by either Satan himself or Satan’s emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth.”
In conclusion, The Scarlet Letter has many themes you may find helpful for the last Free Response Question on the AP English Literature Exam. When reading the prompt and deciding on what literary work to use for your essay, remember to choose a work where the theme outlined in your prompt is prevalent.
In the case of The Scarlet Letter sin, hypocrisy, guilt, blame, individuality, conformity, nature, Puritanism, and the occult are a few of the more prominent themes discussed. However, as we saw with the 2016 prompt example, this story has many underlying themes which you may examine for your The Scarlet Letter AP English Lit Essay.
For more help preparing for your AP English Literature exam we suggest you readThe Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs and The Ultimate Guide to 2015 AP English Literature FRQs. And, for writing advice for the AP English Lit free response questions, Albert.io’s AP English Literature section has practice free response sections with sample responses and rubrics.
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