The Scarlet Letter
By Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s background influenced him to write the bold novel The Scarlet Letter. One
important influence on the story is money. Hawthorne had never made much money as an author and the
birth of his first daughter added to the financial burden (“Biographical Note” VII). He received a job at
the Salem Custom House only to lose it three years later and be forced to write again to support his
family (IX). Consequently, The Scarlet Letter was published a year later (IX). It was only intended to be
a long short story, but the extra money a novel would bring in was needed (“Introduction” XVI). Hawthorne
then wrote an introduction section titled “The Custom House” to extend the length of the book and The
Scarlet Letter became a full novel (XVI). In addition to financial worries, another influence on the
story is Hawthorne’s rejection of his ancestors. His forefathers were strict Puritans, and John
Hathorne, his great-great-grandfather, was a judge presiding during the S!
alem witch trials (“Biographical Note” VII). Hawthorne did not condone their acts and actually spent a
great deal of his life renouncing the Puritans in general (VII). Similarly, The Scarlet Letter was a
literal “soapbox” for Hawthorne to convey to the world that the majority of Puritans were strict and
unfeeling. For example, before Hester emerges from the prison she is being scorned by a group of women
who feel that she deserves a larger punishment than she actually receives. Instead of only being made to
stand on the scaffold and wear the scarlet letter on her chest, they suggest that she have it branded on
her forehead or even be put to death (Hawthorne 51). Perhaps the most important influence on the story is
the author’s interest in the “dark side” (“Introduction” VIII). Unlike the transcendentalists of the
era, Hawthorne “confronted reality, rather than evading it” (VII). Likewise, The Scarlet Letter deals
with adultery, a subject that caused much scandal when it w!
as first published (XV). The book revolves around sin and punish
ment, a far outcry from writers of the time, such as Emerson and Thoreau, who dwelt on optimistic themes
(VII). This background, together with a believable plot, convincing characterization, and important
literary devices enables Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter to the develop the theme of the heart
as a prison.
The scaffold scenes are the most substantial situations in the story because they unify The
Scarlet Letter in two influential ways. First of all, every scaffold scene reunites the main characters
of the novel. In the first scene, everyone in the town is gathered in the market place because Hester is
being questioned about the identity of the father of her child ( Hawthorne 52). In her arms is the
product of her sin, Pearl, a three month old baby who is experiencing life outside the prison for the
first time (53). Dimmesdale is standing beside the scaffold because he is Hester’s pastor and it is his
job to convince her to repent and reveal the father’s name (65). A short time later, Chillingworth
unexpectedly shows up within the crowd of people who are watching Hester after he is released from his
two year captivity by the Indians (61). In the second scene, Dimmesdale is standing on top of the
scaffold alone in the middle of the night (152). He sees Hester and Pearl wal!
k through the market place on their way back from Governor Winthrop’s bedside (157). When Dimmesdale
recognizes them and tells them to join him, they walk up the steps to stand by his side (158).
Chillingworth appears later standing beside the scaffold, staring at Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl. In
the final scaffold scene, Dimmesdale walks to the steps of the scaffold in front of the whole town after
his Election day sermon (263). He tells Hester and Pearl to join him yet again on the scaffold (264).
Chillingworth then runs through the crowd and tries to stop Dimmesdale from reaching the top of the
scaffold, the one place where he can’t reach him (265). Another way in which the scenes are united is
how each illustrates the immediate, delayed, and prolonged effects that the sin of adultery has on the
main characters. The first scene shows Hester being publicly punished on the scaffold (52). She is
being forced to stand on it for three hours straight and listen to peop!
le talk about her as