Finishing The Scarlet Letter

As my American Seminar students read The Scarlet Letter, we had some great whole-class discussions–from characters and themes to what the heck is happening and why do people talk in Old English–and wrapping up the book was no different.

To spark discussion over the last few chapters, I used the following set of questions:**

  1. Do you support Hester and Dimmesdale’s decision to escape together? Why or why not? What do you hope for them? Explain.
  2.  What opinion does Dimmesdale seem to have of himself in chapter 20? What does this opinion lead him to think and do?
  3. What events on Election Day shake Hester’s confidence in the future that she and Dimmesdale have planned? In what ways has she lost control of the situation?
  4. What acknowledgement does Pearl want Dimmesdale to make and before whom? What would be the practical consequences if Dimmesdale did such a thing? What would be the spiritual or moral consequence?

**These questions are from a textbook version of The Scarlet Letter. I did not create these questions nor do I claim ownership of them.

 

I presented these questions via the computer and the students were to select one, then use their Chromebooks to work on an in-class response–their response and a short response to someone else.

Their responses were so interesting! To follow up the next day, I shared some anonymous student responses on the board and we debated, as a whole-group class, if we agreed or disagreed with the person who posted the response.

Here were some of the student responses I thought were the most intriguing or argument-provoking:

  • Do you support Hester and Dimmesdale’s decision to escape together? Why or why not? What do you hope for them? Explain.

 

I do not support Hester and Dimmesdale’s decision to leave together, because in a sense, they are just trying to run away from their own feelings of guilt and the consequences of their sin. This sort of mentality is not only immature, but is also ineffective in the fact that no matter how hard you try or how far you run, you will still have these feelings of guilt and the memories of what you did. There is no running from it, because it is inside of you and something you cannot change. I hope for them to realize this and their mistake, and stay in the colony, not because I wish for them to suffer, but because I wish for them to be able to find a way to deal with the consequences of their actions, instead of just hiding from it. The way they are now, they are hiding and fearing the consequences of their decision, but the only way to truly someday be at peace is to TAKE IT LIKE A MAN, because running and hiding does nothing to help you at all except tear you apart mentally.

I believe Hester and Dimmesdale are making the correct decision in running away to England. If they remain in Boston they will have nothing but unhappiness and loneliness until the day they die, while life in England may give them an opportunity to be happy for the first time in 7 years, as well as giving Pearl a father. Admittedly, Dimmesdale leaving would mean that he is abandoning his flock in Boston, but Puritan New England had no shortage of ministers, so his followers would find someone else eventually. Morally, running away may still not be the most righteous decision, but if Dimmesdale is to be believed he has already sinned so greatly he can’t really do more damage to his soul than he already has, so there’s really nothing to lose here. The decision is between staying and living in misery until they both die and go to hell, or leaving and having a few years together as one big happy family until they die and go to hell, which is an incredibly simple decision.

I think that Hester and Dimmesdale shouldn’t escape together because of Pearl. Pearl represents the A, the sin and sorrow that have been there for so many years. If they escape together, Pearl will always be there reminding them of their sin and guilt. I don’t believe that they will actually be able to forget there past and move on, and Pearl will constantly remind them. I hope that Hester and Dimmesdale can start a new life together without leaving, showing they are strong together and that they don’t have to run away from their problems. This way the townspeople know that having Pearl was not a mistake it was a “blessing”.

 

  • What opinion does Dimmesdale seem to have of himself in chapter 20? What does this opinion lead him to think and do?

Dimmesdale’s opinion of himself in chapter twenty is that he is very high and mighty. At this exact moment in time he is very happy and excited that he is leaving with Hester and Pearl for the mother country. He strongly believes that he can do just about anything he wants, including committing as many sins as possible. This leads Dimmesdale to think about the different sins that he could commit and not feel guilty about because this is one, if not the last, time that he will see the townspeople. One sin that Dimmesdale thinks about committing is teaching kids, that have just learned to talk, some unfavorable words. Another thought, involves taking to a lady that has been going to the church for years. He thinks about telling her, in private, an “unanswerable argument against the immortality of the human soul.” In reality he tells the kind old lady something that make her smile brightly. The old women looks extremely happy, but Dimmesdale can’t remember what he had said to her.

 

  • What events on Election Day shake Hester’s confidence in the future that she and Dimmesdale have planned? In what ways has she lost control of the situation?

The main event that shakes Hester’s confidence is the time when she finds out that Chillingsworth will be accompanying Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl on their voyage to England. This shakes her confidence because the whole purpose of her and Dimmesdale escape to England is to escape the wrath society and the people of Boston have put upon Hester and any of her acquaintances. Therefore, if Chillingsworth is also going back to England, he will bring the negative connotation of Hester that has developed in Boston. If people find out about Hester, and the reason for her escape to England, it will defeat the purpose of starting her life anew in a new place. The other event that shakes her confidence is her interaction with Mistress Hibbins. Mistress Hibbins approaches Hester and informs her of her knowledge of Dimmesdale’s role in Hester’s sin. Hester therefore realizes that people will notice their connection if she and Dimmesdale stay in Boston too long, but if they escape and Chillingsworth comes with, she will not be able to escape the secret there either. Because of these events, Hester realizes that she will be unable to escape the wrath of society on herself and Dimmesdale regardless of where they go, and she has lost the control of who knows about her secret. Before now, she was able to control who knew about Dimmesdale’s role in her sin, and now that other people are realizing the connection, she has lost control of her secret.

 

  • What acknowledgement does Pearl want Dimmesdale to make and before whom? What would be the practical consequences if Dimmesdale did such a thing? What would be the spiritual or moral consequence?

Pearl refuses to let her father’s hidden sin go by unrecognized. She wants Rev. Dimmesdale to stand before the community with her and her mother and confess his part in the crime that Hester has outwardly suffered for. Pearl realizes that it is unfair for her mother to expect her to love Dimmesdale, when Dimmesdale cannot muster up enough love, or courage, to claim them as his own in public. Pearl does not let her affection and sympathy for the minister show through until he has climbed the scaffold with them and is breathing his last breath. Understandably, Dimmesdale is trying to escape the consequences for his actions, which would include harassment in front of the community, stripping of his good reputation, and likely even his death. However, fate or Divine Intervention had different plans. Before Hester and Dimmesdale can move their family and their former shame behind, and leave for England, Dimmesdale is compelled to do just as Pearl wants.

 

I thought these responses were great! And debating them as a class was really beneficial to talk about all the important aspects of the end of the novel! As a follow-up activity, I created a set of four specific questions–they channeled and highlighted the main topics of the day’s debate–and assigned them for homework. For the in-class response, the students only had to respond to one question in a more lengthy response. Now they had a chance to briefly answer all the questions from the discussion.

Here are the questions that I assigned for homework based on our discussion:

  1. Do you believe that if Dimmesdale confessed, the story would be different? How so? Explain.
  2. How have Hester and Dimmesdale’s roles changed by the end of the book?
  3. Do you believe that Dimmesdale has been forgiven for his sin on the scaffold? If so, how/why? If not, how/why? Talk about Pearl and her role here?
  4. What is the theme or message of the book and where do you see it reflected in the next?

After answering them, the next class period was focused on choosing one and gearing it towards writing a final essay! To read more about the final essay, click here.

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