The Scarlet Letter

Students read the renowned novel The Scarlet Letter, exploring and analyzing the themes of sin, compassion, and hypocrisy as they played out in seventeenth-century Puritan New England.

Unit Summary

As one of the most widely read novels in the American literary canon, The Scarlet Letter is a fitting end to this course. In his renowned novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne explores the themes of sin, compassion, and hypocrisy as they play out in seventeenth-century Puritan New England. As students track Hawthorne’s development of his characters, plot, and themes, they will analyze his use of such literary techniques as symbols, motifs, and evocative names to communicate his message to his readers. Critical of the relationship between religion and law in Puritan society, Hawthorne raises questions about the society and its treatment of the individuals that will likely resonate with students as being as applicable to today’s society as they are to the world of Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth.

To further develop students’ understanding of the thematic topics, they will listen to several podcasts during this unit that engage with themes and questions similar to those raised in the novel. As a culminating task, students will be asked to produce their own podcast that explores one of the key thematic questions through the lens of a current societal issue.

Texts and Materials

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Core Materials

  • Book: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (American Renaissance Books, 2009)    —  1280L

Supporting Materials

See Text Selection Rationale


This assessment accompanies Unit 7 and should be given on the suggested assessment day or after completing the unit.

Unit Prep

Intellectual Prep


  • Read and annotate the novel.
  • Read and annotate all of the paired texts.
  • Listen to the podcasts.
  • Take the unit test and draft a potential essay.
  • Read and consider the key thematic questions both in relation to the novel and in relation to current events or other lenses through which students may develop their answers to these questions.

Essential Questions


  • Sin and Redemption: What is sin? Are sin and evil synonymous? Can one be redeemed for one’s sins? If so, how?
  • Compassion and Forgiveness: Do compassion and forgiveness have the power to overcome sin and evil? Who has the power to forgive: the victim? God? Society? 
  • Isolation: How does isolation from others impact an individual? What is the impact on a society when it isolates some of its members?
  • Female Identity: Must women be “good wives” or “evil witches”? Is it possible, in the eyes of society, to allow women to be some combination of the two or something entirely different? Are men also held to this standard?
  • Hypocrisy: What is the price of hypocrisy? Can one be hypocritical and still be a positive contributor to society?

Writing Focus Areas


Unit Focus: Clear and concise thesis that effectively addresses the prompt

Spiraling Literary Analysis Writing Focus Area

  • Clear and logical analysis of textual evidence
  • Effectively incorporating advanced vocabulary in written assignments



Literary Terms

juxtaposition, diction, characterization, tone, mood, motif, theme, pathos, symbolism, allusion

Roots and Affixes

mal-, venge-, be-, in-, necro-


edifice (1), frailty (2), inauspicious (2), portal (2), sentiment (2), solemnity (2), demeanor (2), venerable (2), virtue (3), dismal (4), severity (4), haughty (4 & 5), evanescent (4), ignominy (4, 6 & throughout the novel), ignominious (10), conspicuous (7), penetrative (8), imperceptible (9), iniquity (9 & 10), sage/sagacity (11), hypocrisy (12), quell (14), avenge (15), vengeance (15), besmirch (17), inscrutable (19), inevitability (19 & 33), vanity (21), penance (21), discourse (22), revelation (23), incredulity (24), impassioned (24 & 25), radiance (25), despondency (25), sprite (26), placidity (26), caprice (27), impelled (30), deprived (30), dauntless (32), convex (34), transgressions (35), warily (37), proximity (37), tremulous (38 & 43), averred (40), appellation (40), infamy (41), contagion (41), zeal (41), fervent (42), emaciated (42), scrutinized (44), affinity (44), integrity (47), ghastly (48), irreverently (50), recounted (51), proffering (52), somniferous (52), malice (53), latent (53), avenger (53), odious (54), abhorrence (54), eminent (54), ethereal (55), inconceivable (55), somnambulism (57), expiation (58), tumultuousness (61), malevolence (63), despondency (64), pristine (65), irksomeness (65), requital (65), calamity (66), transfigured (67), semblance (69), auspicious (69), wrought (70), visage (70), lurid (71), blighted (74), malignant (74), nuptial (74), purport (76), resolve (78), vainly (78), melancholy (80), despondency (80), somber (82), devoid (83), penance/penitence (84), misanthropy (84), sanctity (86), habituated (88), estranged (88), intolerant (92), intangible (93), imperious (94), mollified (94), intrusive (96), disquietude (97), incited (98), gratuitous (101), preternaturally (104), countenance (104 & 106), impracticable (106), mirthful (106), relinquish (107), deportment (108), mien (109), consternation (109), contiguous (109), eminence/eminent (110), fortitude (110), delusion (111), necromancy (112), pathos (113), indefatigable (114), audacity (114), inevitable (115), rapture (116), pathos (116), conjectural (121), futile (121), fidelity (122), reverence (124), revelation (124)

Idioms and Cultural References

Ann Hutchinson (2), Queen Elizabeth (3), hussy (3), Goodwives (3), town-beadle (4), Puritanic code of law (4), infernal pit (13), alchemy (15), Paracelsus (15), “into the pit” (16), Black Man (18), Cain (22), Providence (24), leech (33), Elizabethan Age (33), mail (33), King James’ reign, charger (35), Elixir of Life (41), “providential hand” (43), David and Bathsheba (45), Ann Hutchinson (68), horn-book (76), transfiguration (85), minstrel (106), quarterstaff (106), fie (112), stigma (121), gules (125)

Content Knowledge and Connections


Previous Fishtank ELA Connections

Future Fishtank ELA Connections

Lesson Map


  • “Puritan Life”

  • “Nathaniel Hawthorne”

  • The Scarlet Letter

Explain the lifestyle and values of Puritan New England in the mid-1600s.

Make inferences about the author’s potential tone and purpose in the novel.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 1: The Prison Door

Describe the mood, tone, and setting as established by Hawthorne in Chapter 1.

Analyze Hawthorne’s use of symbolism to introduce a major theme of the novel.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 2: The Marketplace

Analyze Hawthorne’s portrayal of Hester and her situation in Chapter 2.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 3:The Recognition

Identify the significance of the scarlet letter in Chapters 2 and 3.

Analyze the narrator’s characterization of Dimmesdale in Chapter 3.


  • The Scarlet Letter

  • “Online ‘Shaming’ a New Level of Cyberbullying for Girls”

Identify and analyze Hawthorne’s development of the themes of shame, judgement, and isolation in Chapter 2.

Compare Hawthorne’s treatment of these themes with a modern podcast on a similar theme.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 4: The Interview

Analyze Hawthorne’s characterization of Roger Chillingworth.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 5: Hester at Her Needle

Analyze Hester’s decision to stay in Boston.

Analyze how Hawthorne develops the theme of isolation in Chapter 5.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 6: Pearl

Analyze and explain Pearl’s role as a symbol in the novel.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 7:The Governor’s Hall

Compare Hester’s scarlet letter and her daughter, Pearl.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 8: The Elf-Child and the Minister

Synthesize two assessments of Hester’s motherhood.

Explain how name reveals character in the novel. 


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 9: The Leech

Describe the author’s characterization of Dimmesdale.

Analyze the developing relationship between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 10: The Leech and His Patient and Chapter 11: The Interior of a Heart

Analyze how Hawthorne uses the relationship between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale to develop the theme of evil and sin.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 12: The Minister’s Vigil

Analyze the author’s characterization of Dimmesdale at this point in the novel.

Compare the two scenes that have occurred on the scaffold, analyzing their significance in the novel.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 13: Another View of Hester

Analyze the “other views” of Hester that the author presents in this chapter.


  • “Inside The Hole: What Happens To The Mind In Isolation?”

Analyze how the author develops the idea of isolation in the podcast.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 14: Hester and the Physician

Explain techniques Hawthorne uses to develop theme in this chapter.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 15: Hester and Pearl and Chapter 16: A Forest Walk

Describe Hester’s feelings toward Chillingworth and the reasons for these feelings.

Analyze the significance of Hester’s desire to find Dimmesdale in the woods.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 17: The Pastor and His Parishioner

Analyze how the author develops the theme of sin and redemption in this chapter.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 18: A Flood of Sunshine and Chapter 19: The Child at the Brook-Side

Identify and analyze the significance of Hester’s decision to remove the scarlet letter from her breast.

Explain the significance of Pearl’s reaction to Reverend Dimmesdale.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 20: The Minister in a Maze

Analyze and explain how Hawthorne uses this chapter to convey Dimmesdale’s internal conflict and foreshadow his fate.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 21: A New England Holiday

Identify and analyze Hawthorne’s use of juxtaposition in “A New England Holiday.”


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 22: The Procession

Analyze the author’s development of the plot, symbols, and themes of the novel in Chapter 22.


  • The Scarlet Letter — Chapter 23: The Revelation and Chapter 24: The Conclusion

Explain the significance of Hester’s return to the Puritan community at the end of the novel.



  • The Scarlet Letter — Entire Text

Initiate and effectively participate in whole-class discussion about the major themes of the novel.





Listen to, analyze, and evaluate podcasts by two or three other students.

Common Core Standards

Language Standards
  • L.11-12.4 — Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 11—12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.

  • L.11-12.5 — Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Reading Standards for Informational Text
  • RI.11-12.1 — Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

  • RI.11-12.3 — Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.

  • RI.11-12.6 — Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness, or beauty of the text.

Reading Standards for Literature
  • RL.11-12.1 — Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

  • RL.11-12.2 — Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • RL.11-12.3 — Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

  • RL.11-12.4 — Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)

  • RL.11-12.9 — Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

Speaking and Listening Standards
  • SL.11-12.1 — Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11—12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

  • SL.11-12.2 — Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.

  • SL.11-12.3 — Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.

  • SL.11-12.4 — Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.

  • SL.11-12.5 — Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

Writing Standards
  • W.11-12.1 — Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

  • W.11-12.4 — Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

  • W.11-12.6 — Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.

  • W.11-12.8 — Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and over-reliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.

  • W.11-12.9 — Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.