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.

Watch 10 Celebrities Read Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven"

by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” published in 1845, has been inspiring fellow artists for nearly 175 years. From Christopher Walken to Neil Gaiman, here are 10 celebrities putting their own spin on Poe's iconic verses.

1. Neil Gaiman

Literary wunderkind Neil Gaiman is putting his love of all things creepy to good use this year by teaming up with Worldbuilders—a self-described "geek-centered nonprofit supporting humanitarian efforts worldwide"—to assist their group in their fundraising efforts by staging his own candelit reading of Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem.  

2. Christopher Walken

Everyone does a Christopher Walken impression, but rarely do they come close to matching the unique inflection of the real deal. For the Poe tribute album Closed on Account of Rabies (1997), Walken recited the classic narrative poem as various haunting sound effects moaned and whistled in the background.

3. James Earl Jones

There are very few actors whose voices are as iconic as James Earl Jones's. From Darth Vader in the Star Wars films to Mufasa in The Lion King, you always know when the veteran thespian—who had a stutter as a child—is behind a character because of the deep, theatrical boom of his voice.

4. Vincent Price

The legendary actor—and the creepy voice in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—needs no introduction to horror fans (or to those who remember the old Tilex mildew remover commercials). The clip above isn't the only time that Price was recorded reciting Poe’s poetry. If you want more, check out the hour-long Halloween special An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe (1970), during which Price reads “The Tell-Tale Heart,” "The Sphinx," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Pit and the Pendulum."

5. Sir Christopher Lee

Known to younger generations as the actor who played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings franchise, the late Christopher Lee has more than 270 acting credits to his name, dating all the way back to the mid-1940s. Of those credits, Lee has lent his skills and voice to numerous legendary characters, including Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, and Dracula several times over.

6. Stan Lee

If Stan Lee hadn't gone into comics, he could very well have been a voice actor—at least based on his 2008 reading of "The Raven," a poem he said he at one point had memorized.

7. William Shatner

To the world, William Shatner will always be Captain Kirk. The character is so closely tied to the actor’s personality that it’s hard not to see them as the same person, which makes it harder to watch—or take seriously—a young Shatner reciting “The Raven” on stage during Dick Clark’s Magical, Musical Halloween (1983).

8. John Astin

Known primarily for the role of Gomez Addams in the television show The Addams Family, John Astin’s eyes and mustache add to the creepiness (and unintentional humor) of his dramatic reading of "The Raven," as he stands in full costume.

9. Basil Rathbone

Many recordings were made of this Shakespearean stage actor and star of many a Sherlock Holmes movie as he read the works of authors like Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and, of course, Poe. In the recording above, his voice fluctuates from calm and almost musical to loud and quite terrifying as things begin to escalate between man and bird.

10. Tay Zonday

If you're familiar with the Internet at all, then you probably know Tay Zonday. The deep-voiced YouTube celebrity rose to Internet fame with his song and music video "Chocolate Rain" back in 2007, and he has been using his natural voice to delight and unsettle audiences ever since.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

12 Facts About William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

It’s safe to say that there are few people on Earth who don’t know the story of Romeo and Juliet. William Shakespeare's tragic story of two star-crossed lovers has been adapted hundreds—if not thousands—of times over the years, and not always exactly in the Bard’s own words. There have been musical versions, opera renditions, and more than 100 film and TV versions of the play. While George Cukor’s 1936 film, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie, and Baz Luhrmann’s modern (for 1996) adaptation are some of the best known big-screen interpretations of the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets, West Side Story is yet another take on the tale. What is it about this 16th-century play that has had such a lasting impression on readers and audiences? Read on to find out more about William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet .

1. William Shakespeare wasn’t the first person to write about the Montagues and the Capulets.

The Montagues and the Capulets—the two families at the center of the family rivalry that makes Romeo and Juliet’s love an impossible predicament—were kicking around long before William Shakespeare got a hold of them. In “Divine Comedy,” the epic poem that took Dante more than 10 years to complete, he makes the following reference:

"Come and see, you who are negligent, / Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi: / One lot already grieving, the other in fear. / Come, you who are cruel, come and see the distress / Of your noble families, and cleanse their rottenness."

Dante’s “Divine Comedy” was written more than 250 years before Shakespeare was even born.

2. Romeo and Juliet is based on an Arthur Brooke poem.

Cribbing ideas from other writers was a totally normal thing to do back in Shakespeare’s time, so it’s hardly surprising that the story of Romeo and Juliet isn’t exactly an original one. The Bard based his star-crossed lovers on the main characters in Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.”

Much like Shakespeare’s tale, Brooke’s poem is set in Verona, Italy. According to the British Library, “Brooke’s poem describes the ‘deadly’ feud between two wealthy, noble families—Capulet and Montague. Against this backdrop of ‘blacke hate,’ he tells the ‘unhappy’ tale of a beautiful youth, Romeus Montague, whose heart is entrapped by the wise and graceful Juliet Capulet.”

3. It wasn’t always called Romeo and Juliet.

When it was first published, Romeo and Juliet went by a much more descriptive—and much longer—title : The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

4. The first publication of Romeo and Juliet is thought to be an unauthorized version of the play.

Romeo and Juliet was originally published in 1597, in the First Quarto. But Shakespeare scholars have long argued that this version of the play was not only incomplete, but unauthorized. The 1599 version, published in the Second Quarto, is the version of Romeo and Juliet we all know and love today.

5. The ending of Romeo and Juliet was hardly a surprise.

Romeo and Juliet kicks off with a prologue that tells the reader exactly where the play is going:

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

So much for suspense! What the prologue does do, however, is set the stage for the actors to fill in the details of the very broad strokes of the play’s first lines.

6. Juliet is just 13 years old.

We know that Romeo and Juliet are a young couple in love—but it’s easy to miss just how young Juliet is. In Act I, Scene III, Lady Capulet says that Juliet is “not [yet] fourteen.” She is actually just about two weeks shy of her 14th birthday. Romeo’s exact age is never given.

7. The couple’s courtship was indeed a whirlwind.

Romeo and Juliet,Act II- Scene-VI
Sir John Gilbert, Melhoramentos Edition // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Talk about a whirlwind romance! Given that we know Juliet is just 13 years old, her impetuousness might seem more understandable. But from the time they meet to the time they marry, Romeo and Juliet have known each other less than 24 hours.

8. There is no balcony in Romeo and Juliet ‘s “balcony scene.”

One of Romeo and Juliet's most iconic moments is what has become known as “The Balcony Scene,” which occurs in Act II, Scene 2. There’s just one problem: The word balcony is never mentioned in Shakespeare’s play. There’s a good reason for that, too: according to Merriam-Webster, the earliest known usage of the term, originally spelled balcone, didn’t occur until 1618—more than 20 years after Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. According to the play, the scene takes place at Capulet’s Orchard when “Juliet appears above at a window.”

9. It wasn’t until 1662 that a woman played the role of Juliet.

A 17th-century image of Mary Saunderson, an English actress.
A 17th-century image of English actress Mary Saunderson.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

As anyone who has seen Shakespeare in Love knows, back in the Bard’s days and up until 1660, all stage roles were performed by men. But in 1662, actress Mary Saunderson stepped onto the stage as Juliet; she is believed to be the first woman to play the iconic role.

10. One writer dared to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending.

Irish poet and lyricist Nahum Tate, who became England’s poet laureate in 1692, had a penchant for messing around with Shakespeare’s words. In addition to rewriting Shakespeare’s King Lear as 1681’s The History of King Lear—in which he tacked on a happy ending to the tragedy (Cordelia married Edgar)—he did the same with Romeo and Juliet. Unlike his version of King Lear, which became quite popular, his alternate ending for Romeo and Juliet didn’t seem to stick.

11. One theater director eliminated Rosaline from the play altogether.

When we first meet Romeo, it is not Juliet but another woman, Rosaline, upon whom the young lothario has set his sights. But then he meets Juliet and all bets are off. When staging his own version of Romeo and Juliet in 1748, actor/playwright David Garrick opted to lose the Rosaline character altogether as he believed it lessened the impact of Romeo’s love for Juliet and made him seem too “fickle.”

12. Romeo has become shorthand for a male lover.

Romeo and Juliet has had a lasting effect on the English language, including its popularization of words like ladybird and phrases like wild goose chase. But Romeo, too, has his own dictionary entry: in addition to being defined as “the hero of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet who dies for love of Juliet” by Merriam-Webster, Romeo has also come to mean “a male lover.”

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