10 Fascinating Facts About The Scarlet Letter

NYPL
NYPL

These days, we tend to think about The Scarlet Letter in relation to high school students struggling with their English papers, but we didn’t always see the book that way. When Nathaniel Hawthorne published the novel on March 16, 1850, it was a juicy bestseller about an adulterous woman forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her chest by a community steeped in religious hypocrisy. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the classic tome.

1. HAWTHORNE WAS SO ASHAMED OF HIS PURITAN ANCESTORS, HE CHANGED HIS NAME.

Hawthorne, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts, was aware of his messy Puritan heritage. His great-great-grandfather William Hathorne came to Salem in 1636. As the Massachusetts Bay delegate, he tried to rid the town of Quakers by having them whipped and dragged through the street half naked. His son, John Hathorne, was even worse. As a magistrate during the Salem witch trials of 1692, he examined more than one hundred accused witches, and found them all guilty. Hawthorne detested this legacy and distanced himself from his ancestors by adding the “W” to the spelling of his name.

2. HE STARTED THE SCARLET LETTER AFTER HE WAS FIRED FROM HIS JOB.

Unable to support his family by publishing short stories, Hawthorne took a politically appointed post at the Salem Custom House in 1846. Three years later, he was fired because of a political shakeup. The loss of his job, as well as the death of his mother, depressed Hawthorne, but he was also furious at Salem. "I detest this town so much that I hate to go out into the streets, or to have people see me,” he said.

It was in this mood that he started The Scarlet Letter.

3. HESTER AND DIMMESDALE’S AFFAIR MAY BE MODELED AFTER A PUBLIC SCANDAL.

In 1846, Hawthorne's sister-in-law Elizabeth Peabody published the work of Hungarian linguist Charles Kraitsir. Two years later, it was discovered that Kraitsir’s wife had seduced several of his students at the University of Virginia. He left his wife and daughter in Philadelphia and fled to Peabody for help. Peabody responded by going to Philadelphia in an attempt to gain guardianship of the daughter. This didn’t go over so well with the wife. She followed Peabody back to Boston and confronted her husband. In response, Peabody and Kraitsir tried to get her committed to a lunatic asylum. The press got wind of the story and Kraitsir was skewered for looking weak and hiding behind Peabody’s skirts. Hawthorne watched as the scandal surrounding a woman’s affairs played out on the public stage, right as he was starting The Scarlet Letter.

4. THE PURITANS REALLY DID MAKE PEOPLE WEAR LETTERS FOR ADULTERY.

Hawthorne must have known there was historical precedence for The Scarlet Letter. According to a 1658 law in Plymouth, people caught in adultery were whipped and forced “to weare two Capitall letters namely A D cut out in cloth and sowed on theire vpermost Garments on theire arme or backe.” If they ever took the letters off, they would be publicly whipped again. A similar law was enacted in Salem.

In the town of York (now in Maine) in 1651, near where Hawthorne’s family owned property, a woman named Mary Batchellor was whipped 40 lashes for adultery and forced to wear an ‘A’ on her clothes. She was married to Stephen Batchellor, a minister over 80 years old. Sound familiar?

5. HAWTHORNE’S EDITOR TOOK CREDIT FOR TALKING HIM INTO WRITING THE NOVEL.

In an 1871 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, editor James T. Fields wrote about being Hawthorne’s champion. Not only did he try to get Hawthorne reinstated in his Custom House post, Fields said he convinced Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter as a novel. One day, while trying to encourage the despondent writer ("'Who would risk publishing a book for me, the most unpopular writer in America?' 'I would,' said I"), Fields noticed Hawthorne’s bureau. He said he bet Hawthorne had already written something new and that it was in one of the drawers. Hawthorne, flabbergasted, pulled out a manuscript. “How in Heaven's name did you know this thing was there?” he said. He gave Fields the “germ” of The Scarlet Letter. Fields then persuaded Hawthorne to alter “the plan of that story” and write a full-sized book. The rest is history.

Or is it? Hawthorne’s wife Sophia said of Fields’s claims: “He has made the absurd boast that he was the sole cause of the Scarlet Letter being published!" She added that Edwin Percy Whipple was the one who encouraged Hawthorne.

6. THE NOVEL IS ONE OF THE FIRST TO FEATURE A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER.

Hester Prynne is a tall, dignified character who endures her outcast status with grace and strength. Although she has fallen to a low place as an adulteress with an illegitimate child, she becomes a successful seamstress and raises her daughter even though the authorities want to take the child away. As such, she’s a complex character who embodies what happens when a woman breaks societal rules. Hawthorne not only knew accomplished women such as Peabody and Margaret Fuller, he was writing The Scarlet Letter directly after the first women's rights convention in New York in 1848. He was one of the first American writers to depict “women’s rights, women’s work, women in relation to men, and social change,” according to biographer Brenda Wineapple.

7. THE SCARLET LETTER IS FULL OF SYMBOLS.

As you probably know, Hawthorne hits you in the head with symbolism throughout The Scarlet Letter, starting with the characters’ names—Pearl for an unwanted child, Roger Chillingworth for a twisted, cold man, Arthur Dimmesdale for a man whose education cannot lead him to truth. From the wild woods to the rosebush by the jail to the embroidered ‘A’ itself, it’s easy to see why The Scarlet Letter is the book that launched a thousand literary essays.

8. HAWTHORNE LOVED THE WORD "IGNOMINY."

In the 87,000-plus words that make up The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne used “ignominy” 16 times, “ignominious” seven times, and “ignominiously” once. He apparently had affection for the word, which means dishonor, infamy, disgrace, or shame. Either that, or he needed a thesaurus.

9. PEOPLE THOUGHT THE NOVEL WAS SCANDALOUS.

While the reviews were generally positive, others condemned The Scarlet Letter as smut. For example, this 1851 review by Reverend Arthur Cleveland Coxe: “Why has our author selected such a theme? … Is it, in short, because a running underside of filth has become as requisite to a romance, as death in the fifth act to a tragedy? Is the French era actually begun in our literature? … we honestly believe that "the Scarlet Letter" has already done not a little to degrade our literature, and to encourage social licentiousness.” This kind of rhetoric didn’t hurt sales. In fact, The Scarlet Letter’s initial print run of 2500 books sold out in 10 days.

10. HAWTHORNE DIDN’T MAKE MUCH MONEY FROM THE NOVEL.

The Scarlet Letter made Hawthorne a well-known writer, allowed him to purchase a home in Concord, and insured an audience for books like The House of Seven Gables. However, The Scarlet Letter didn’t make Hawthorne rich. Despite its success in the U.S. and abroad, royalties weren’t that great—overseas editions paid less than a penny per copy. Hawthorne only made $1500 from the book over the remaining 14 years of his life. He was never able to escape the money troubles that plagued him.

Save Up to 93 Percent on 8 Gaming Accessories and Enter to Win a Free Nintendo Switch Bundle

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The 12 Best Stephen King Movies and TV Shows You Can Stream Right Now

Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (1983).
Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (1983).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 2017 Andy Muschietti's It—an adaptation of horror legend Stephen King’s 1986 novel—became the highest-grossing horror film of all time. It was a fitting badge of honor for King, the prolific horror novelist who has seen many of his books and stories transferred to film, often with only mixed success.

Fortunately, there's still plenty of King-inspired material that lives up to his name. Take a look at 12 movies and television shows currently streaming that capture the essence of King’s work.

1. Carrie (1976)

The first Hollywood adaptation of King’s work—from his very first novel published in 1974—is drenched in dread. As high school wallflower Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) struggles with an overbearing mother and vindictive mean-girl classmates, her latent telekinetic powers begin bubbling to the surface. When she's pushed too far, Carrie delivers a prom night no one will soon forget.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

2. Creepshow 2 (1987)

A macabre King vibe inspired this anthology, a sequel to 1982's Creepshow that the writer collaborated on with horror master George A. Romero. The standout: "The Raft," about a group of college kids who find a sentient sludge at a lake that makes their weekend getaway anything but relaxing.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

3. 11.22.63 (2016)

King’s revisionist take on the Kennedy assassination comes to life in this Hulu original series. James Franco stars as a professor who discovers he can travel back in time to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting at the motorcade in Dallas. Unfortunately, those heroics have consequences in the future.

Where to stream it: Hulu

4. Gerald’s Game (2017)

Carla Gugino’s weekend getaway with her husband turns into an endurance test when she finds herself alone and handcuffed to a bed. Slowly, creeping horrors both real and imagined begin to materialize. To keep her sanity—and her life—she’ll need to escape by any means necessary.

Where to stream it: Netflix

5. In the Tall Grass (2019)

King's 2012 novella—co-written with his son, Joe Hill—is a classic King conceit of taking the mundane and making it terrifying. After chasing a boy into a thick patch of farm land grass, two siblings realize that it harbors dangerous and mystifying entities. Patrick Wilson co-stars.

Where to stream it: Netflix

6. Christine (1983)

In what may be some kind of record, this 1983 adaptation of the King novel was released the same year as its source material. Teenage outcast Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) buys a 1958 Plymouth Fury, a car that appears to have its own plans for Arnie and the high school bullies taunting him.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

7. The Shining (1980)

Widely regarded as the best King adaptation of all time, this Stanley Kubrick film is actually not all that well-liked by King himself: He felt it failed to capture key elements of his 1977 novel (in 1997, King remade it as a miniseries starring Steven Weber). But it’s an undeniably rich and evocative horror show, with writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) slowly becoming unwound as he and his family settle in for an isolated winter at the Overlook Hotel.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

8. The Mist (2007)

King's 1980 novella casts a group of strangers who are trapped in a grocery store, a malevolent mist outside seemingly obscuring monstrous predators. As their peril increases, the danger inside becomes just as threatening. The ending, changed from King's own, remains one of the biggest gut-punch twists in film.

Where to watch it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

9. The Dark Half (1993)

King's 1989 novel about a writer who has to fend off a physical manifestation of his pseudonym is brought to eerie life by Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

10. The Dead Zone (1983)

Christopher Walken has the weight of the world on his shoulders as Johnny Smith, a teacher who emerges from a coma with psychic powers. When he encounters a power-mad politician (Martin Sheen) with destructive tendencies, Johnny must decide whether to take drastic action. King's 1979 novel also inspired a USA Network television series starring Anthony Michael Hall, which is available on Amazon Prime.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

11. Children of the Corn (1984)

King's short story from 1978's Night Shift collection imagines a small town in which children are free to explore their most violent impulses without any parental supervision. Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton are a couple who stumble upon their community and quickly come to regret it.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

12. Stephen King's A Good Marriage (2014)

When Joan Allen finds some incriminating evidence pointing to her perfect husband (played by Anthony LaPaglia) being a serial killer, she must decide between the love of her life and a monster who takes lives. The film is based on the novella of the same name in King's 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

This story has been updated for 2020.