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. Style involves 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.” How was this style created, and what is its effect on the reader?
The Scarlet Letter explores 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 Letter is 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?)
- 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 sticky notes 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.
Be sure to follow the reading schedule Ms. Antonacci provided.