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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - LSC-Kingwood

 Pen and ink drawing of Hawthorne


Nathaniel Hawthorne


No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

The Scarlet Letter, Chapter 20





Published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter is set in Boston of the mid-1600s.  It tells the story of Hester Prynne, a woman whose husband is believed lost at sea.  Her newborn child is evidence that she has committed adultery; as part of her pubishment, she must publicly wear a scarlet lette "A". When her husband suddenly reappears, he resolves to discover the identity of the father of Hester's child.  Hester steadfastly refuses to identify her lover. Through the use of rich symbolism and supernatural events, Hawthorne shows the destructive effects of guilt and revenge. Though set in a Puritan community centuries ago, the moral dilemmas of personal responsibility and consuming emotions of guilt, anger, loyalty and revenge are timeless.




Librarian Talk . . . About Getting Started!

As you begin, narrow your topic to a size that you can manage.  Consider keywords that will help you find the information you need. These can be names of people, literary works, events, or broader identifying terms.  Use these keywords for locating information in the library catalog, electronic databases, and on the internet.

Sample Keywords:
Puritans - Massachusetts | Adultery in literature | Puritans in literature| Massachusetts, history - Colonial period | Hawthorne, Nathaniel | Hester Prynne | Scarlet Letter

More about choosing keywords (30 sec.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, to a family that had been prominent in the area since colonial times. A rich lore of family and local history provided much of the material for Hawthorne's works. He graduated in 1825 from Bowdoin College in Maine and moved back to Salem where he began his writing career. In 1836 he moved to Boston where he edited the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge and continued to write. Not able to support himself through writing alone, he took a position in 1839 at the Boston Custom House. His arrival in the Custom House is documented in the preface of this novel. In 1842 he married Sophie Peabody and lived for a time in Concord before returning to Salem where he became the Surveyor of Salem port for four years. He later obtained the position of American Consul for Liverpool and Manchester, England, and he and his family lived in Europe until 1860 when he returned to Massachusetts. He continued writing until his death in 1864.

Main characters

Hester Prynne, the wearer of the Scarlet Letter
Pearl, Hester’s illegitimate daughter
Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband in disguise who seeks revenge for his wife's transgressions
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, father of Hester's child
Governor Bellingham, a wealthy, elderly gentleman
Mistress Hibbins, Bellingham's widowed sister, who is a witch
Reverend Mr. John Wilson, Boston’s elder clergyman who advocates harsh punishment for "sinners"
The Narrator, an unnamed surveyor at the Salem Custom House who relates the story 200 years later

Topics to Consider: Characterization of Hester, Roger, Pearl or Dimmesdale; solitude; the individual vs. society; truth vs. deception; Puritanism; guilt, penitence and redemption; 17th Century medicine; irony; and symbolism.


Librarian Talk ... About Books! 

Get a Library Card. If you are not able to visit a campus library, you may apply online. To get your number more quickly, you may call the LSC-Kingwood Library Circulation Desk at 281-312-1691(wait about 30 minutes) and ask them to process your card. You will still need to come to the library to get your photo Lone Star College student ID/library card. Use the barcode number from your card to:

Your instructor may have placed books on reserve - ask at the Circulation Desk or search for Reserves in the Library Catalog.

  • The catalog is online.
  • Online or e-Books are available in the eBook Collection.  Use the barcode number from your Lone Star College ID or library card to log in from off-campus.
More about finding books (31 sec.)

Use books about The Scarlet Letter to help choose and develop a topic for your paper and to find critical essays on the novel.   You can use some of the reference books listed below to begin developing the topic for your paper or to get background material on Hawthorne's work. 

REF PN50 .L574  -  Literature and Its Times (volume 1)  -  Examines The Scarlet Letter in the context of the historical events that influenced the novel.

REF PN56.4.H69  -  Characters in 19th Century Literature  -  Helps to define the characters.

REF PN 56.A5 L44 - Encyclopedia of Allegorical LiteratureA quick introduction to how Hawthorne's uses allegory in The Scarlet Letter.

REF PN 56.S7 F47 - A Dictionary of Literary Symbols - There is a small section about the use of the scarlet color is literature.

REF PN761.N5  -   Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism (NCLC)  -  A multi-volume set containing excerpts from scholarly articles on many literary works.  Information on Hawthorne is included in more than one volume, but information on The Scarlet Letter is primarily located in volume 10.

REF PN3385 .N68  -  Novels for Students (volume 1)  -  Comprehensive coverage including characters, plot, themes, historical context and selected criticisms.

REF PS153.M56 I34  -  Identities and Issues in Literature  -  Look in the index to find specific pages within the 3 volumes of the set.  Each article discusses a particular issue or theme running through a novel.

REFPS 1880.G3 - A Nathaniel Hawthorne Encyclopedia - Thorough source of information about Hawthorne's life and writings.

The scarlet letter

The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not to tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.

The Scarlet Letter, Chapter 28

Reserve Books: A selection of the circulating books collection is set-asside for you by your instructor. These books are available to you at the circulation desk. You may check out the book for a shorter loan period (generally 2 hours in the library) so that everyone in the class has access to the material.

PS1888 .N29 - Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter(7 day check out)

PS1868 .N48 - New Essays on The Scarlet Letter

PS1868 .C75 - Critical essays on Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

PS1868 .B39 - The Scarlet Letter :A Reading

PS1892.S47 L55 - Writing and Sexuality in Hawthorne's Fiction

PS1892.W6 H39 - Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition (also available as an eBook

PS1892.R6 L8 - Nathaniel Hawthorn and the Tradition of Gothic Romance

 Circulating Books:  Books containing critical analysis of The Scarlet Letter can be found by searching the library catalog.  Try the search terms, Scarlet Letter and criticism. Some of them may have been placed on Reserve by your professor and may be located at the Circulation Desk. Don't forget to include books on the background and setting such as:

F67 .W4 1970  -  The Puritan Oligarchy by Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker

F67 .D68 1988  -  Everyday Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by George Francis Dow  

HQ1438 .N35 R45 - Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England by Elizabeth Reis

Download a digital version of The Scarlet Letter to your e-reader or in EPub and other digital formats from Project Gutenberg

Searchable online text of The Scarlet Letter from

eBook Collection  This is a database of full-text books.  You can search the contents of the books electronically to find information about your topic. The eBook Collection contains information about The Scarlet Letter as well as Puritans. One example ebook is Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Critical Heritage, which includes essays of literary criticism on The Scarlet Letter.


Librarian Talk . . . About Finding Journal and Newspaper Articles!

Electronic databases are purchased by the libraries for your research use. To find articles in newspapers and journals, letters, reference books, illustrations, photographs and more, use your updated library card to login to the following databases. If you find an interesting article that is not full-text, you can request the article online. Or, one of our Reference Librarians can help you get the article. They will need full bibliographic information, your name and address, and your library card/ID barcode number. Send your phone number as well, so they can contact you if they need to. There is a time delay when acquiring articles from outside our system. There is some overlap of articles in the following databases. However, we encourage you to use more than one. All are excellent sources for this topic.   

HINT: For a full list of article databases, go to electronic databases and use the barcode number from your Lone Star College ID or library card to login (if not on campus).  

More about searching databases (25 sec.)

Use databases to find articles from scholarly journals which discuss The Scarlet Letter.  Most of the articles are full text within the database, so you will be able to email them, print them or save them. To login from off-campus, enter your current library card barcode number when prompted.

Literature Resource Center

Full-text articles from reference books and Twayne's Masterworks books.  Also, journal articles, some full text and some excerpted.  Click on "Works Search" and enter Scarlet Letter. You will find overviews and other articles that are not critical essays.  Ask for help if you can't decide which resources are suitable. 

Academic Search Complete

A multi-subject database, with many full-text articles.  Be sure to check the boxes marked  "Full Text" and "Scholarly (Peer-Reviewed) Journals" in order to retrieve the appropriate level of journal article for your research.  Suggested search terms:  Hawthorne AND Scarlet Letter entered in this way.  Many of the articles found in this database may also be in Project Muse and/or JSTOR.

JSTOR Arts & Sciences

Use the Advanced Search page for the best results. Enter the title and the author's last names in the first two search boxes. Click on "Add a Field" to create a third search box and enter keywords from your thesis.  Add more fields to add other keywords. Uncheck the box next the the phrase "include links to external content" to exclude articles which are not full text in the database. Choose the discipline "Language & Literature" from the discipline list to focus your results to journals from that subject area. Because this database is entirely scholarly, all articles are of the appropriate academic level. 

Project MUSE

Begin your search by entering the title of the novel in the search box in quotation marks.  Use the limiters on the left side of the screen to focus your search to Journals, full access (complete articles), or research areas. You can Modify a search to add keywords from your thesis - click on the + mark to add search boxes.  This database is also entirely scholarly, so all articles will be of the appropriate academic level for your research.

Bloom's Literary Database Online  

This database is a collection of many analytical essays discussing literature.  These essays, originally published in print form, are accessible now for research online. Find information about The Scarlet Letter, or read about the life of Nathaniel Hawthorne and his body of work.

Nathaniel Hawthorne a 29 min. video from the database Films on Demand.  To view the video from off campus, login with your library barcode number.  For many, The Scarlet Letter represents the pinnacle of 19th-century literature. In this program, three leading Hawthorne scholars use the novel and several Hawthorne short stories to explore issues of interpretation and literary analysis. Each work is discussed in relation to American culture and political events. Significant details of Hawthorne’s life are also illuminated. Experts include Millicent Bell, a leading Hawthorne scholar; Professor Larry Reynolds, President of the Hawthorne Society; and Professor Brenda Wineapple, author of a biography on Hawthorne.


Librarian Talk . . . About the Internet!

The internet will be a wonderful source of original documents. Browse the sites we have suggested below. Remember, you do want to find reputable sites. Look at:

  1. Accuracy - The information should show proof that is has been researched.
  2. Source - Who wrote the information? Look at the domain:  .edu .gov. org .net are usually valid research sources.
  3. Authority - What are the author's credentials?  (Don't quote from another college freshman's paper.)
  4. Coverage - Does the page have the information you need for your research?
  5. Objectivity - If a work is biased, use it - just make sure your professor knows YOU know. And offer both sides of issues, where applicable.
More about finding internet sources (25 sec.)

The internet will contain information on Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter, but students need to be very careful to evaluate the information for validity, the level of scholarship, the content of the site, and the authority (who created the site).  If you are in doubt about the usefulness of an internet site, check with your instructor before adding it to your works cited.  The sites below have been reviewed by the librarians.

Hawthorne in Salem
Includes historical background, biographical information, literary influences, Hawthorne’s characters and more.  The “Scholar’s Forum” section has papers, articles, and lectures on Hawthorne and his world by Hawthorne scholars.  (A project of North Shore Community College, Massachusetts)

Scarlet Letter Page from Eldritch Press. This site also includes a link to a page on more information about Hawthorne's work with information about Hawthorne's life and his writings. It includes links to a substantial number of literary criticisms.

The Scarlet Letter:  The Classic Text -- Traditions & Interpretations.  
This site examines various editions of the novel and in the process includes background information and analysis.

Some Early Reviews of the Novel:

Massachusetts Quarterly Review  "The Scarlet Letter & Transcendentalism" (1850)
Church Review  "The Writings of Hawthorne" (1851)

SUPPORT: Getting help for your assignment

Librarian Talk about getting help!

Support for a successful paper is more than finding the right resources. Putting it all together takes time and effort. Sometimes it takes additional help from the librarians or tutors. Please consider the following resources if you need additional help. Remember, the expert on the assignment is your professor, who can be contacted through your LSC Online in-class email.

More about getting help (25 sec.)

Citing Sources Using the Library MLA Style Guide | Lone Star College-Kingwood Library guide. Examples of both paper and electronic citations.
Avoiding Plagiarism | Excellent information and guide on how to avoid plagiarism from the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University.
University of Texas Crash Course on Copyright | good information on how to avoid copyright infringement.
Learning  Center | Check our hours for in-house tutoring.

Page by Charles Gillis, 2004. Updated 10/13 MM
Ask Us
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Circulation: 281.312.1691


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