'The Scarlet Letter': Important Questions for Discussion

Questions to spark conversation over Hawthorne's most famous novel

"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Getty Images/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos

The Scarlet Letter is a seminal work of American literature written by New Englander Nathaniel Hawthorne and published in 1850. It tells the story of Hester Prynne, a seamstress newly arrived in the New World from England, whose husband, Roger Chillingworth, is presumed dead. She and local pastor Arthur Dimmesdale have a romantic interlude, and Hester gives birth to their daughter—Pearl. Hester is convicted of adultery, a serious crime in the time period of the book, and sentenced to wear the scarlet letter "A" on her clothing for the rest of her life.

Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter more than a century after the events in the novel would have occurred, but it is not difficult to discern his contempt for Boston's Puritans and their rigid religious views.

Below is a list of questions that can be helpful is sparking discussion over The Scarlet Letter:

  • What is significant about the novel's title?
  • The Scarlet Letter is considered a romance by many literary scholars. Do you think that is an accurate categorization? Why or why not?
  • Is Hester Prynne an admirable character? Why or why not?
  • How does Hester evolve through the course of the story?
  • How do we learn the true character of Roger Chillingworth? Is he believable as a villain?
  • Is Arthur Dimmesdale an admirable character? How would you describe him and his relationship with Hester?
  • What does Pearl symbolize? How is her name significant?
  • What is the significance of Pearl not recognizing Hester without her scarlet 'A'?
  • What is the moral statement Hawthorne is making throughout The Scarlet Letter?
  • Do you agree with what how Hawthorne interprets the shortcomings of Puritan society?
  • What are some symbols in The Scarlet Letter? How do they relate to the plot and characters?
  • Does the story end the way you expected? What's significant about the novel's ending?
  • Would you consider The Scarlet Letter to be a work of feminist literature? Why or why not? 
  • How essential are the settings, both geographical and temporal, to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else or in any other time period?
  • Does this novel give you a better appreciation for how women were treated in early New England? Does it give you a new perspective on other events from that region's history, such as the Salem Witch Trials?