For the 1953 Ellery Queen novel, see The Scarlet Letters.
For other uses, see Scarlet Letter (disambiguation).
The Scarlet Letter: A Romance, an 1850 novel, is a work of historical fiction written by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is considered his "masterwork". Set in 17th-century PuritanMassachusetts Bay Colony, during the years 1642 to 1649, it tells the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. Throughout the book, Hawthorne explores themes of legalism, sin, and guilt.
In an extended introduction, Hawthorne describes his employment in the Salem Custom House, and how he purportedly found an old document and a piece of cloth embroidered with the letter "A" in a pile of old papers. This fictitious document being the germ of the story that Hawthorne writes, as follows.
In June 1642, in a Puritan Boston, Massachusetts, a crowd gathers to witness the punishment of Hester Prynne, a young woman who has given birth to a baby of unknown parentage. She is required to wear a scarlet "A" on her dress when she is in front of the townspeople to shame her. "A" stands for adulteress, although this is never said explicitly in the novel. Her "punishment" (because adultery is illegal at the time) is to stand on the scaffold for three hours, exposed to public humiliation, and to wear the scarlet "A" for the rest of her life. As Hester approaches the scaffold, many of the women in the crowd are angered by her beauty and quiet dignity. When demanded and cajoled to name the father of her child, Hester refuses.
As Hester looks out over the crowd, she notices a small, misshapen man and recognizes him as her long-lost husband, who has been presumed lost at sea. When the husband sees Hester's shame, he asks a man in the crowd about her and is told the story of his wife's adultery. He angrily exclaims that the child's father, the partner in the adulterous act, should also be punished and vows to find the man. He chooses a new name – Roger Chillingworth – to aid him in his plan.
The Reverend John Wilson and the minister of Hester's church, Arthur Dimmesdale, question the woman, but she refuses to name her lover. After she returns to her prison cell, the jailer brings in Roger Chillingworth, a physician, to calm Hester and her child with his roots and herbs. He and Hester have an open conversation regarding their marriage and the fact that they were both in the wrong. Her lover, however, is another matter and he demands to know who it is; Hester refuses to divulge such information. He accepts this, stating that he will find out anyway, and forces her to hide that he is her husband. If she ever reveals him, he warns her, he will destroy the child's father. Hester agrees to Chillingworth's terms although she suspects she will regret it.
Following her release from prison, Hester settles in a cottage at the edge of town and earns a meager living with her needlework, which is of extraordinary quality. She lives a quiet, somber life with her daughter, Pearl, and performs acts of charity for the poor. She is troubled by her daughter's unusual fascination with Hester's scarlet "A". The shunning of Hester also extends to Pearl, who has no playmates or friends except her mother. As she grows older, Pearl becomes capricious and unruly. Her conduct starts rumours, and, not surprisingly, the church members suggest Pearl be taken away from Hester.
Hester, hearing rumors that she may lose Pearl, goes to speak to Governor Bellingham. With him are ministers Wilson and Dimmesdale. Hester appeals to Dimmesdale in desperation, and the minister persuades the governor to let Pearl remain in Hester's care.
Because Dimmesdale's health has begun to fail, the townspeople are happy to have Chillingworth, a newly arrived physician, take up lodgings with their beloved minister. Being in such close contact with Dimmesdale, Chillingworth begins to suspect that the minister's illness is the result of some unconfessed guilt. He applies psychological pressure to the minister because he suspects Dimmesdale is Pearl's father. One evening, pulling the sleeping Dimmesdale's vestment aside, Chillingworth sees a symbol that represents his shame on the minister's pale chest.
Tormented by his guilty conscience, Dimmesdale goes to the square where Hester was punished years earlier. Climbing the scaffold, he admits his guilt but cannot find the courage to do so publicly. Hester, shocked by Dimmesdale's deterioration, decides to obtain a release from her vow of silence to her husband.
Several days later, Hester meets Dimmesdale in the forest and tells him of her husband and his desire for revenge. She convinces Dimmesdale to leave Boston in secret on a ship to Europe where they can start life anew. Renewed by this plan, the minister seems to gain new energy. On Election Day, Dimmesdale gives what is called one of his most inspired sermons. But as the procession leaves the church, Dimmesdale climbs upon the scaffold and confesses his sin, dying in Hester's arms. Later, most witnesses swear that they saw a stigma in the form of a scarlet "A" upon his chest, although some deny this statement. Chillingworth, losing his will for revenge, dies shortly thereafter and leaves Pearl a substantial inheritance.
After several years, Hester returns to her cottage and resumes wearing the scarlet letter. When she dies, she is buried near the grave of Dimmesdale, and they share a simple slate tombstone engraved with an escutcheon described as: "On a field, sable, the letter A, gules" ("On a field, black, the letter A, red").
The major theme of The Scarlet Letter is shaming and social stigmatizing, both Hester's public humiliation and Dimmesdale's private shame and fear of exposure. Notably, their liaison is never spoken of, so the circumstances that lead to Hester's pregnancy, and how their affair was kept secret never become part of the plot.
Elmer Kennedy-Andrews remarks that Hawthorne in "The Custom-house" sets the context for his story and "tells us about 'romance', which is his preferred generic term to describe The Scarlet Letter, as his subtitle for the book – 'A Romance' – would indicate." In this introduction, Hawthorne describes a space between materialism and "dreaminess" that he calls "a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbues itself with nature of the other". This combination of "dreaminess" and realism gave the author space to explore major themes.
The experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin results in expulsion and suffering. But it also results in knowledge – specifically, in knowledge of what it means to be immoral. For Hester, the Scarlet Letter is a physical manifestation of her sin and reminder of her painful solitude. She contemplates casting it off to obtain her freedom from an oppressive society and a checkered past as well as the absence of God. Because the society excludes her, she considers the possibility that many of the traditions held up by the Puritan culture are untrue and are not designed to bring her happiness.
As for Dimmesdale, the "cheating minister", his sin gives him "sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his chest vibrate[s] in unison with theirs." His eloquent and powerful sermons derive from this sense of empathy. The narrative of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is quite in keeping with the oldest and most fully authorized principles in Christian thought. His "Fall" is a descent from apparent grace to his own damnation; he appears to begin in purity but he ends in corruption. The subtlety is that the minister's belief is his own cheating, convincing himself at every stage of his spiritual pilgrimage that he is saved.
The rose bush's beauty forms a striking contrast to all that surrounds it – as later the beautifully embroidered scarlet "A" will be held out in part as an invitation to find "some sweet moral blossom" in the ensuing, tragic tale and in part as an image that "the deep heart of nature" (perhaps God) may look more kindly on the errant Hester and her child than her Puritan neighbors do. Throughout the work, the nature images contrast with the stark darkness of the Puritans and their systems.
Chillingworth's misshapen body reflects (or symbolizes) the anger in his soul, which builds as the novel progresses, similar to the way Dimmesdale's illness reveals his inner turmoil. The outward man reflects the condition of the heart; an observation thought inspired by the deterioration of Edgar Allan Poe, whom Hawthorne "much admired".
Another theme is the extreme legalism of the Puritans and how Hester chooses not to conform to their rules and beliefs. Hester was rejected by the villagers even though she spent her life doing what she could to help the sick and the poor. Because of the social shunning, she spent her life mostly in solitude, and wouldn't go to church.
As a result, she retreats into her own mind and her own thinking. Her thoughts begin to stretch and go beyond what would be considered by the Puritans as safe or even Christian. She still sees her sin, but begins to look on it differently than the villagers ever have. She begins to believe that a person's earthly sins don't necessarily condemn them. She even goes so far as to tell Dimmesdale that their sin has been paid for by their daily penance and that their sin won't keep them from getting to heaven, however, the Puritans believed that such a sin surely condemns.[dubious– discuss]
But Hester had been alienated from the Puritan society, both in her physical life and spiritual life. When Dimmesdale dies, she knows she has to move on because she can no longer conform to the Puritans' strictness. Her thinking is free from religious bounds and she has established her own different moral standards and beliefs.
It was long thought that Hawthorne originally planned The Scarlet Letter to be a shorter novelette, part of a collection named Old Time Legends, and that his publisher, James Thomas Fields, convinced him to expand the work to a full-length novel. This is not true: Fields persuaded Hawthorne to publish The Scarlet Letter alone (along with the earlier-completed "Custom House" essay) but he had nothing to do with the length of the story. Hawthorne's wife Sophia later challenged Fields' claims a little inexactly: "he has made the absurd boast that he was the sole cause of the Scarlet Letter being published!" She noted that her husband's friend Edwin Percy Whipple, a critic, approached Fields to consider its publication. The manuscript was written at the Peter Edgerley House in Salem, Massachusetts, still standing as a private residence at 14 Mall Street. It was the last Salem home where the Hawthorne family lived.
The Scarlet Letter was first published in the spring of 1850 by Ticknor & Fields, beginning Hawthorne's most lucrative period. When he delivered the final pages to Fields in February 1850, Hawthorne said that "some portions of the book are powerfully written" but doubted it would be popular. In fact, the book was an instant best-seller, though, over fourteen years, it brought its author only $1,500. Its initial publication brought wide protest from natives of Salem, who did not approve of how Hawthorne had depicted them in his introduction "The Custom-House". A 2,500-copy second edition included a preface by Hawthorne dated March 30, 1850, that stated he had decided to reprint his Introduction "without the change of a word... The only remarkable features of the sketch are its frank and genuine good-humor ... As to enmity, or ill-feeling of any kind, personal or political, he utterly disclaims such motives".
The Scarlet Letter was also one of the first mass-produced books in America. In the mid-nineteenth century, bookbinders of home-grown literature typically hand-made their books and sold them in small quantities. The first mechanized printing of The Scarlet Letter, 2,500 volumes, sold out within ten days, and was widely read and discussed to an extent not much experienced in the young country up until that time. Copies of the first edition are often sought by collectors as rare books, and may fetch up to around $18,000 USD.
On its publication, critic Evert Augustus Duyckinck, a friend of Hawthorne's, said he preferred the author's Washington Irving-like tales. Another friend, critic Edwin Percy Whipple, objected to the novel's "morbid intensity" with dense psychological details, writing that the book "is therefore apt to become, like Hawthorne, too painfully anatomical in his exhibition of them". English writer George Eliot called The Scarlet Letter, along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1855 book-length poem The Song of Hiawatha, the "two most indigenous and masterly productions in American literature". Most literary critics praised the book but religious leaders took issue with the novel's subject matter.Orestes Brownson complained that Hawthorne did not understand Christianity, confession, and remorse. A review in The Church Review and Ecclesiastical Register concluded the author "perpetrates bad morals."
On the other hand, 20th-century writer D. H. Lawrence said that there could not be a more perfect work of the American imagination than The Scarlet Letter.Henry James once said of the novel, "It is beautiful, admirable, extraordinary; it has in the highest degree that merit which I have spoken of as the mark of Hawthorne's best things—an indefinable purity and lightness of conception...One can often return to it; it supports familiarity and has the inexhaustible charm and mystery of great works of art."
The following are historical and Biblical references that appear in The Scarlet Letter.
- Anne Hutchinson, mentioned in Chapter 1, The Prison Door, was a religious dissenter (1591–1643). In the 1630s she was excommunicated by the Puritans and exiled from Boston and moved to Rhode Island.
- Ann Hibbins, who historically was executed for witchcraft in Boston in 1656, is depicted in The Scarlet Letter as a witch who tries to tempt Prynne to the practice of witchcraft.
- Richard Bellingham, who historically was the governor of Massachusetts and deputy governor at the time of Hibbins's execution, was depicted in The Scarlet Letter as the brother of Ann Hibbins.
- Martin Luther (1483–1545) was a leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany.
- Sir Thomas Overbury and Dr. Forman were the subjects of an adultery scandal in 1615 in England. Dr. Forman was charged with trying to poison his adulterous wife and her lover. Overbury was a friend of the lover and was perhaps poisoned.
- John Winthrop (1588–1649), second governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
- King's Chapel Burying Ground, mentioned in the final paragraph, exists; the Elizabeth Pain gravestone is traditionally considered an inspiration for the protagonists' grave.
- The story of King David and Bathsheba is depicted in the tapestry in Mr. Dimmesdale's room (chapter 9). (See II Samuel 11-12 for the Biblical story.)
- John Eliot (c. 1604–1690) was a Puritan missionary to the American Indians whom some called “the apostle to the Indians." He is referred to as "the Apostle Eliot" at the beginning of Chapter 16, A Forest Walk, whom Dimmesdale has gone to visit.
Adaptations and influence
Main article: The Scarlet Letter in popular culture
The Scarlet Letter has inspired numerous film, television, and stage adaptations, and plot elements have influenced several novels, musical works, and screen productions.
- ^Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1850). The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (2 ed.). Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields. Retrieved July 22, 2017 – via Internet Archive.
- ^"Sinner, Victim, Object, Winner | ANCHORS: JACKI LYDEN". National Public Radio (NPR). March 2, 2008. (quote in article refers to it as his "masterwork", listen to the audio to hear it the original reference to it being his "magnum opus")
- ^Kennedy-Andrews (1999), p. 8–9.
- ^ ab"The Scarlet Letter". Sparknotes. Retrieved 2012-08-07.
- ^Davidson, E.H. 1963. Dimmesdale's Fall. The New England Quarterly36: 358–370
- ^ abcThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, CliffNotes from Yahoo! Education
- ^Charvat, William. Literary Publishing in America: 1790–1850. Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1993 (first published 1959): 56. ISBN 0-87023-801-9
- ^Parker, Hershel. "The Germ Theory of The Scarlet Letter," Hawthorne Society Newsletter 11 (Spring 1985) 11-13.
- ^Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. Random House: New York, 2003: 209–210. ISBN 0-8129-7291-0.
- ^Wright, John Hardy. Hawthorne's Haunts in New England. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008: 47. ISBN 978-1-59629-425-7.
- ^ abcMcFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004: 136. ISBN 0-8021-1776-7
- ^Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is my Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 299. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
- ^Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is my Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 301. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
- ^Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is my Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 301–302. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
- ^Davidson, Mashall B. The American Heritage History of the Writers' America. New York: American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc., 1973: 162. ISBN 0-07-015435-X
- ^Schreiner, Samuel A., Jr. The Concord Quartet: Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Friendship That Freed the American Mind. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006: 158. ISBN 978-0-471-64663-1
- ^Crowley, J. Donald, and Orestes Brownson. Chapter 50: [Orestes Brownson], From A Review In Brownson's Quarterly Review." Nathaniel Hawthorne (0-415-15930-X) (1997): 175–179. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.
- ^Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. Random House: New York, 2003: 217. ISBN 0-8129-7291-0.
- ^ abMiller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is my Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 284. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
- ^James, Henry (1901). Hawthorne. Harper. pp. 108, 116.
- ^Schwab, Gabriele. The mirror and the killer-queen: otherness in literary language. Indiana University Press. 1996. Pg. 120.
- ^Hunter, Dianne, Seduction and theory: readings of gender, representation, and rhetoric. University of Illinois Press. 1989. Pgs. 186-187
- Boonyaprasop, Marina. Hawthorne’s Wilderness: Nature and Puritanism in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown (Anchor Academic Publishing, 2013).
- Brodhead, Richard H. Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1973.
- Brown, Gillian. "'Hawthorne, Inheritance, and Women's Property", Studies in the Novel 23.1 (Spring 1991): 107-18.
- Cañadas, Ivan. "A New Source for the Title and Some Themes in The Scarlet Letter". Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 32.1 (Spring 2006): 43–51.
- Kennedy-Andrews, Elmer (1999). Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Scarlet Letter. Columbia Critical Guides. Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231121903.
- Korobkin, Laura Haft. "The Scarlet Letter of the Law: Hawthorne and Criminal Justice". Novel: a Forum on Fiction 30.2 (Winter 1997): 193–217.
- Garrtner, Matthew. "The Scarlet Letter and the Book of Esther: Scriptural Letter and Narrative Life". Studies in American Fiction 23.2 (Fall 1995): 131-51.
- Newberry, Frederick. Tradition and Disinheritance in The Scarlet Letter". ESQ: A journal of the American Renaissance 23 (1977), 1–26; repr. in: The Scarlet Letter. W. W. Norton, 1988: pp. 231-48.
- Reid, Alfred S. Sir Thomas Overbury's Vision (1616) and Other English Sources of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter. Gainesville, FL: Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, 1957.
- Reid, Bethany. "Narrative of the Captivity and Redemption of Roger Prynne: Rereading The Scarlet Letter". Studies in the Novel 33.3 (Fall 2001): 247-67.
- Ryskamp, Charles. "The New England Sources of The Scarlet Letter". American Literature 31 (1959): 257–72; repr. in: "The Scarlet Letter", 3rd edn. Norton, 1988: 191–204.
- Savoy, Eric. "'Filial Duty': Reading the Patriarchal Body in 'The Custom House'". Studies in the Novel 25.4 (Winter 1993): 397–427.
- Sohn, Jeonghee. Rereading Hawthorne's Romance: The Problematics of Happy Endings. American Studies Monograph Series, 26. Seoul: American Studies Institute, Seoul National University, 2001; 2002.
- Stewart, Randall (Ed.) The American Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Based upon the original Manuscripts in the Piermont Morgan Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932.
- Waggoner, Hyatt H. Hawthorne: A critical study, 3rd edn. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
The Custom House is largely an autobiographical sketch describing Hawthorne's life as an administrator of the Salem Custom House. It was written to enlarge the tale of The Scarlet Letter, since Hawthorne deemed the story too short to print by itself. It also serves as an excellent essay on society during Hawthorne's times, and it allows Hawthorne to add an imaginative literary device, the romantic pretense of having discovered the manuscript of The Scarlet Letter in the Custom House.
Hawthorne (as narrator) was granted the position of chief executive officer of the Custom House through the president's commission. His analysis of the place is harsh and critical. He describes his staff as a bunch of tottering old men who rarely rise out of their chairs and who spend each day sleeping or talking softly to one another. Hawthorne tells the reader that he could not bring himself to fire any of them, so after he assumed leadership, things stayed the same.
Salem is a port city that failed to mature into a major harbor. The streets and buildings are dilapidated, the townspeople are very sober and old, and grass grows between the cobblestones. The Custom House serves the small ship traffic going through the port, but it is usually a quiet place requiring only minimal work.
The connection between Salem and the Puritans is made early on. Hawthorne's family originally settled in Salem, and he is a direct descendent of several notable ancestors. He describes his ancestors as severe Puritans decked out in black robes, laying harsh judgment upon people who strayed from their faith. When discussing his ancestors, Hawthorne is both reverent and mocking, jokingly wondering how an idler such as himself could have born from such noble lineage.
Much of the story then deals with long descriptions of the various men with whom he worked in the Custom House. General Miller, the Collector, is the oldest inhabitant, a man who maintained a stellar career in the military but who has chosen to work in the Custom House for the remainder of his years. As for the Inspector, his job was created by the man's father decades earlier, and he has held the position ever since. The Inspector is the most light-hearted of the workers, constantly laughing and talking in spite of his age.
The upstairs of the Custom House was designed to accommodate a large movement of goods through the port, and it is in ill repair since it soon became extraneous. Hawthorne says that the large upstairs hall was used to store documents, and it is here that he has found an unusual package. The package contains some fabric with a faded letter A imprinted on the cloth, with some papers describing the entire story behind the letter. This is the story that Hawthorne claims is the basis for The Scarlet Letter.
Three years after taking his job as Surveyor, General Taylor was elected President of the United States, and Hawthorne received notice of his termination. Hawthorne remarks that he is lucky to have been let go, since it allowed him the time to write out the entire story of The Scarlet Letter. He finishes “The Custom-House” with a description of his life since leaving his job as Surveyor, and comments that "it may be ... that the great-grandchildren of the present race may sometimes think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days."
“The Custom-House” is a stand-alone section of the novel. It resembles more a tract or a personal essay than an introduction to a piece of fiction, but it offers plenty of insights that will support the rest of The Scarlet Letter. For one thing, we gain a sense of why the narrator feels the need to tell the story. As a man of youth and vigor, he feels somewhat at odds with the Puritan nature of his society. He himself seems to feel a deep resentment for the strict fidelity to rules and values that would deem his whole personality, and his ambition to write, as frivolous or even sinful.
Though we cannot necessarily conflate the narrator of “The Custom-House” with Hawthorne himself, despite their biographical similarities, we can observe the tension that both feel in their frustrations of having to choose between their art and their livelihood: "In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion. It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life, that this wretched numbness held possession of me." There seems to be a conflict raging internally, preventing the author from beginning his story. It goes beyond not having time to write. Instead, the question is whether the story is worth telling in the writer’s society. This reflection provides a literary answer about the significance of “The Custom-House”: it adds import and weight to the story to come. The narrator is suggesting that the story goes against the social mores that preserve order among the people. Having to go his own way as a writer, but stuck in his desk job, the narrator worries about losing his muse, worrying that he has "ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs." He has the suspicion that his intellect has been "dwindling away," so much that the story of The Scarlet Letter would no longer be possible for him to write. The act of writing the novel, then, is itself an act of resistance against the increasing solipsism of his own nature, as well as against a society that would banish the artist as decadent or unproductive in a commercialized society.
The narrator notes that upon losing his job as the Customs purveyor, his soul finally broke free, allowing him to write the story of The Scarlet Letter and fulfill his true calling. Indeed, he cannot even remember his days of being at The Custom House, despite it being not too long ago. It is as if once he finally began doing what he was meant to do, his mind erased all the time he wasted, all the resentment that he associated with "Uncle Sam," who sucked away his passion and imagination. Still, he laments that in this community, he will never be afforded the respect he thinks he deserves as a writer and will never be welcomed genially. Instead, he is a citizen of "somewhere else," figuring that his "good townspeople will not much regret" him.
Certainly a reader requires some adjustment to Hawthorne's highbrow language in this chapter. It is remarkably ornate, laden with adjectives and adverbs, and with rich vocabulary. More stifling at times, however, is the interiority of the prose. That is, Hawthorne is more concerned with feelings, thoughts, and emotions than with the unfolding of a real-time story, reflecting a romantic turn after the classical prose of the late eighteenth century. Indeed, the sin of adultery has long since been committed by the time we arrive at the first page of the narrative proper. A number of critics argue that this style presents one of the first examples of distinctly American writing, with its own history and stories and language.
Perhaps the most compelling occurrence in “The Custom-House” comes when the narrator discovers a scarlet letter on a small piece of cloth along with the set of papers that become the foundation of his novel. In an almost fantastical moment, the narrator puts the letter to his breast, prompting an explosion of heat and feeling. In this single recollection, the narrator establishes why the story must be told and why we the reader want to hear it: there is an innate power in that scarlet letter which must be unlocked, which demands to be heard. The story, the letter—neither is dead. This device has been used commonly in literature—that is, when someone discovers an ancient artifact, it retains some of its power, and the finder has the responsibility to put it to rest. In this case the narrator, despite his torpid slumber of insipid duty to job and country, has been awakened to his mission, and he accepts it, revealing to us the mystery of the letter, no matter the consequences for him and his community.