The scarlet letter is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romance novel that was set in the seventeenth century around the puritan society. The novel explores how this strict society was when it came to punishment for breaking the law. It revolves around the lives of Hester Prynne, a beautiful but adulterous woman, her love child, Pearl, her lover and her husband. It is indeed an intriguing but controversial book.
When trying to decide on an essay topic generally for most novels, there are several angles of looking at. Your essay could be based on;
- Themes used by the author in the book
- Stylistic devices
For scarlet letter essay topics, of course the first step is to read the book. You might have to read the book a couple of times to get a deeper understanding of the storyline. Give yourself sometime between the readings so you can have a clear mind. After the first reading, you can use a highlighter or a notepad to take short notes. They will come in handy when you get down to the actual essay writing. Consider the following;
- Use of symbolism- how does the author use symbolism? Consider the scene at the beginning where Hester is released from prison and taken to the market place. Is the prison symbolic in any way? Compare the town and the forest and the different events that take place in each. What is their significance? The scarlet letter is a symbol in itself. The meteor and pearl are also symbolic and can be interpreted in different ways.
- Use of themes- Hawthorne uses different themes in the novel to bring out different elements. Some of the themes are;
- Justice and judgement
- Gender roles and femininity- why does Hester carry herself with such grace even after she is publicly humiliated? Does it define her character as a feminist? What about the other women in the novel and their gossip? How are the roles of men and women depicted in the book? What professions do they have? Does the society treat them all equally or is there gender discrimination?
- Fate and autonomy- Is Dimmesdale destined to die for his sins? Does Hester get to live because she freely accepts her punishment and pays the price for it?
- Hypocrisy and sincerity – Does Dimmesdale live a miserable life because he is a hypocrite and silently suffer? Does Hester live any better because of her sincerity?
- Light and judgement- why do all the interesting things happen at night?
- Revenge- why is Roger Chillingworth so intent on having revenge on Dimmesdale? Does he still want his wife back? He might as well have left town and carried on with his soaring career as a doctor. Why does he decide to stay?
- The supernatural- What role does Mistress Hibbins play in the book? Is her relationship with the governor significant and what does she do in the woods? What do the other characters feel about the supernatural events?
- Law and religion- what role does the law play in determining how people are treated. Does religion have an influence on the law and people’s behavior?
- The characters in the novel
Hester Prynne- she is a single mother who has a child to take care of. Even with all the humiliation and rejection, she still rises to become a pillar in her community.
Arthur Dimmesdale- what is his significance, being a reverend and a community leader and yet secretly sinning and living as a hypocrite?
Roger Chillingworth- why does he choose to stay even though he has lost his wife? Why is he interested in uncovering the man she cheated on him with and revenging?
Pearl- why is she named Pearl despite being born out of sin. What influences her character?
Mistress Hibbins- why is she so crucial to the whole plot and what is the significance of her actions?
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