The Scarlet Letter: Study Questions and Answers

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  1. How does the scarlet letter change in the novel?
    • Answer: At first it means adultery. Then it means able. Its meaning then becomes indefinite. It is eventually looked on as a symbol of strength. The townspeople regard it as an object of scorn. Hester regards it as a constant reminder of her sin. Outsiders see it as a novelty and some Native Americans presume it’s a distinguishing mark for someone of status. Pearl, in addition, is considered the embodiment of the letter, a constant agitator to Hester initially, and in the conclusion her benefactress who sends her gifts. In chapter 23, The Revelation of The Scarlet Letter, the Scarlet Letter becomes the mark on Dimmesdale’s chest.
  2. How does Hester change as the novel progresses?
    • Answer: As the novel begins, Hester is scared and an object of public scorn. The letter along with her daughter help her bridle her passions and emotions to the point where she becomes hardened. Hester’s two reminders help her develop strength of character. She performs numerous acts of charity, but does so in isolation, receiving condemnation from the very souls she helps.


  1. Identify and explain two other symbols in The Scarlet Letter.
    • Answer: Other than those listed above, the rosebush at the prison door, and the meteor in chapter 12 are the novel’s two most obvious symbols:
      • The rosebush - The narrator provides several possible interpretations for the rosebush: the triumph of nature over man made contrivances, a foreshadowing of Hester’s blossoming under harsh Puritan rule, or the triumph of the individual against society, a common theme in American Romanticism.
      • The meteor - Dimmesdale feels it symbolizes that he should wear the ‘A’ on his chest. The townspeople believe it means angel in honor of Governor Winthrop who had died. Individual experience plays a major role in the interpretation of symbols.
  2. Other than adultery, what is the major sin committed by each of the three main characters?
    • Arthur Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy is trumped only by his allowing Hester to receive her punishment alone. Looked upon as the town’s most pious man, Dimmesdale hides a sin that destroys him.
    • Hester Prynne hides Chillingworth’s true identity, allowing him to exact revenge on Dimmesdale.
    • Roger Chillingworth violates “the sanctity of a human heart,” the worst sin of them all.

Use of Irony

  1. Discuss examples of irony in the novel.
    • Verbal Irony - Dimmesdale refers to himself as the worst of sinners during his sermons. The congregation believes it to be a sign of humility. Dimmesdale, however, speaks literal truth.
    • Situational Irony - The scarlet letter was meant as a punishment and an object of scorn. Over time, however, it becomes a badge of honor.
    • Dramatic Irony - By the middle of the novel, we all know Dimmesdale is guilty of adultery. The townspeople think he’s the most holy man ever.

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This post is part of the series: The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

Avoid a scarlet ‘F’ with this Scarlet Letter study guide.

  1. Characters from The Scarlet Letter
  2. Chapter Summaries of The Scarlet Letter
  3. Understanding the Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter
  4. Important Quotations from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  5. The Scarlet Letter Study Guide: Practice Questions and Answers