Places: The Scarlet Letter

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1850

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Seventeenth or eighteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Massachusetts Bay Colony

*Massachusetts Scarlet Letter, TheBay Colony. Early American New England colony established by British Puritans who were seeking religious freedom. This is the primary setting of the novel in which all the other places to be mentioned are found. While ostensibly seeking a place of freedom, the Puritans had created a society more repressive than America has ever known through the present day. Beauty and creativity in the surroundings the Puritans themselves created were not valued. A premium was instead placed on utilitarianism and frugality.

While there must surely have been sunshine and beautiful landscapes in the actual area, Hawthorne focuses on the starker, gray quality of New England as those qualities seem to reflect the personalities of its citizens. Hester has been jailed, then ostracized, for her crime of committing adultery and having a child out of wedlock. As a result, there are very few bright spots in her world. The hard, dark landscape with its cleared fields and minimalist human-made structures mirrors the rigid mind-set which represses her.

Prison and courtyard

Prison and courtyard. Colony’s jail, in which readers first encounter Hester and her daughter, Pearl. The jail cell where Hester spends the days of her imprisonment is presented as small and gloomy. It is in the prison’s courtyard, also plain and cheerless, where Hester is dragged in front of the townspeople to parade her shame on the scaffold.

Interestingly, there is a spot of color in the prison yard. In the midst of the weeds and ugliness, a rosebush blooms. This can be seen as the landscape yielding up some hope for relief in all the surrounding bleakness.


Forest. Wilderness area surrounding the township. The forest is the scene of a meeting between Hester and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. It is a place of nature, beauty, and freedom from inhibitions. The sensual quality of the untamed land is a perfect backdrop for the forbidden lovers and the complete opposite of the repression of the settled areas of the colony. It is also in the covering of the forest that Hester is able to shed her shame, physically (by removal of the “A”) as well as mentally, and be a more free-spirited woman.

King’s Chapel Church

King’s Chapel Church. Church at which Arthur Dimmesdale is the pastor. The church is a typical New England building of worship–square and boxy–suggesting that something is pent in by its shape. It is within the cloak of the church that Dimmesdale hides from his part of the guilt of the adultery and where Hester’s sin is condemned in the name of God; it does not project an image of love or forgiveness.


Scaffold. Platform in the center of town, near the prison, where prisoners are brought for public viewing. The scaffold is the scene of Hester’s initial shame as well as the novel’s climax. Although it is under darkness of night that Dimmesdale stands on the platform with Hester to finally accept his shame, it is its openness that is important. It is elevated and open, a place for the revelation of secrets.

Sources for Further StudyBaym, Nina “The Scarlet Letter”: A Reading. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Full-length critical introduction that examines the setting, characters, and themes. One fascinating chapter treats the scarlet “A” as a character. Includes a chronology and extended bibliography.Bloom, Harold, ed. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Part of the Modern Critical Interpretations series. Offers seven fascinating, fairly sophisticated critical essays written after 1962. Contains several approaches to the work as not a novel but as a typical American romance.Boudreau, Kristin. “Hawthorne’s Model of Christian Charity.” In Sympathy in American Literature: American Sentiments from Jefferson to the Jameses. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. This chapter relates Hawthorne’s novel to the question of Christian charity in the writings of Puritan governor John Winthrop.Colacurcio, Michael J. New Essays on “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Offers serious students a brief review of the different critical approaches brought to the novel from the time of its publication to the 1980’s.Durst Johnson, Claudia. Understanding the Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. This volume is an excellent source book for historical and critical texts relating to Hawthorne’s novel.Gerber, John C., ed. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “The Scarlet Letter”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Twenty essays for the beginning student that explore background, form, techniques, and interpretations. Includes a useful chronology that pairs dates in Hawthorne’s life with historical events.Gross, Seymour, ed. A “Scarlet Letter” Handbook. San Francisco: Wadsworth, 1960. A discussion of Hawthorne’s earlier fiction, followed by a collection of brief essays on themes, characters, symbolism, and structure. Includes topics for discussion and student papers and an annotated bibliography.Thomas, Brook. “Love and Politics, Sympathy and Justice in The Scarlet Letter.” In The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Richard H. Millington. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. This essay examines the question of marriage as it relates to the Puritan tradition and to Hawthorne’s novel.Turner, Arlin. The Merrill Studies in “The Scarlet Letter.” Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1970. Essays for the general reader, including pieces on Hawthorne’s process of composition, reviews of the novel dating back to its publication in 1850, nineteenth century commentary, and a sampling of twentieth century approaches.
Categories: Places