After being forced to wear a scarlet “A” and live on the outskirts of the colonial Puritan settlement, Hester Prynne struggles to repent and raise her illegitimate daughter, Pearl, alone.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
In “Puritan Laws and Character,” historian Henry William Elson discusses the Puritans, their laws, and the impact they made on early America.
Introduce this text after students have read the prologue to the novel, in order to provide students with historical and cultural background on the Puritanical setting that informs the book. Pair “Puritan Laws and Character” with The Scarlet Letter and ask students to consider how these Puritan laws help shape their views on the motivations of Hester, his puritanical ancestors, and the story he wishes to tell.
In “A Poison Tree,” a speaker allows their hatred and anger to grow, like a poisonous tree.
Introduce this poem after students have read Chapter 4, in order for them to identify themes and make thematic connections across genres. Pair “A Poison Tree” with Chapter 4 and ask students to discuss the shared theme of revenge — what drives the poem’s speaker and Chillingworth to seek revenge? What wrong have they experienced, if any? Alternatively, you may wish to introduce this text after students have read chapters 11, which recounts the progress of Chillingworth’s plot to take revenge against Dimmesdale.
Dickinson, a well-known introvert, cherished isolation. In this poem, she calls public life “dreary” and takes pride in maintaining a private identity.
Introduce this poem after students have read Chapter 8 of the novel, in order for them to analyze character along with themes of isolation and identity. Pair “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” with Chapter 8 and ask students to consider how isolation has shaped the identities of both Hester and Pearl – how does Pearl respond to the questions about who she is and who sent her, and why is this significant?
In “Coping Mechanisms,” the author explains the difference between adaptive and maladaptive coping mechanisms.
Have students read this text after completing Chapter 11, and encourage them to use the psychology to help analyze how the characters within The Scarlet Letter behave after Hester is “branded” for her adultery. Pair “Coping Mechanisms” with Chapter 11 and ask students to compare the coping mechanisms described in the text with the behaviors of Hester and Dimmesdale — how do they cope with the stress and guilt they feel? How has that stress and guilt changed them?
In “Tristan and Isolde: The Love Sin,” a legendary knight and a princess fall in love, but at the cost of betraying their king.
Introduce this poem after students have read Chapter 19 — when Dimmesdale and Hester are reunited in the forest — in order to draw thematic connections across the texts on secretive love and sin. Pair “Tristan and Isolde” with Chapter 1C and ask students to compare the love between both couples and what threatens to keep them apart. How is love represented through the imagery of both the poem and the novel? Consider for example, how the light begins to shine on Hester after she speaks to Dimmesdale. Why do you think this is? What does the light represent?
How do we judge what is right and wrong? Are there some actions that are better or worse that others? These are just a few of the questions raised in this parable about the Jewish judgment day, Yom Kippur, by Joshua Salik.
Introduce this text after students have read Chapter 23, in order to draw thematic connections between sin and morality. Pair “The Worst Sin” with Chapter 23 and ask students to consider how the characters in both stories — particularly God and Dimmesdale — view the concept of sin. What is the worst sin according to the short story, and how does this apply to Dimmesdale and Hester?
Guy de Maupassant was a popular French writer during the 19th century and considered one of the fathers of the modern short story. In this story, a brother and sister mourn the passing of their saintly mother and uncover a shocking secret.
Introduce this text following the novel’s conclusion and have students compared the way the two stories tackle the themes they share, such as sin, redemption, and death. Pair “A Dead Woman’s Secret” with The Scarlet Letter and ask students to compare the legacies of these two women. How is the mother in the short story remembered in contrast to how Hester is remembered — is this fair? How do the themes of morality, adultery, and redemption play out in both texts?
In this short story by American author Edgar Allan Poe, an unnamed narrator visits an old friend and finds a tale of horror within the decaying manor.
Have students read this text after finishing the novel in order to study the genre of Romanticism through a cross-text analysis. Pair “The Fall of the House of Usher” with The Scarlet Letter and ask students to evaluate the elements of these texts that belong to the genre of Romanticism — such as the emphasis on emotion (or melodrama), the focus on the past, the glorification of nature and the use of light and dark imagery.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” a religious man goes into the woods against his wife’s wishes and meets several obstacles that challenge his faith.
Have students read this story after completing the novel, to compare Hawthorne’s writing style across different texts, and then identify and analyze the literary elements he employs. Pair “Young Goodman Brown” with The Scarlet Letter and ask students to pay particular attention to the setting, imagery, and style of both texts. What themes, if any, do the texts share?