The Scarlet Letter is unquestioningly a pillar of American Literature (some argue the greatest American novel), but what does it have to offer young adult readers? Apart from peeling back layer after layer of symbolism, is there worth in making this novel required reading?
There are very few books that I remember enjoying from my own high-school experience--no fault of my teachers but my own--and The Scarlet Letter was one of them. Nothing about the premise of the novel drew me to the story: Puritans and unwed mothers are not the primarily interests of a teenage boy. What eventually hooked me was the subtle hint of the supernatural at every turn of the story. Hawthorne is the master of teasing the reader with a hint of fantasy, only to have it contradicted by a practical viewpoint of the event. I was fascinated by the thought of the scarlet letter glowing in the dark jail, Chillingworth sprouting bat's wings and flying away, and the scarlet A drawn into the sky like a sign from God.
Years later when it came time for me to teach literature--trying to engage reluctant students like I had been--I knew that The Scarlet Letter was a novel I wanted to include. Yet for many students who fit into the category of "average learner" the novel was too lengthy and its language too complex. Fortunately, I lit upon the idea of experiencing the story as a script-story, a technique that has brought it alive for my students.
By teaching The Scarlet Letter, I realized the underlying themes, not the supernatural elements that had enthralled me, are what make the story so powerful. Sin, forgiveness, and redemption are timeless ideas. Just like Hester Prynne, young people struggle with the consequences of bad choices. They, too, must accept responsibility for their actions without letting past mistakes determine their future. The high-school hallways are just as severe as Hawthorne's version of Puritan Boston. The story also teaches other important life lessons—that morality is not determined by society and that seeking revenge harms you more than it does your enemy.
While the novel has been successful with my students in the past, this year the students took to it with a new intensity. They truly connected with the characters and analyzed them on a deeper level.
So here are my five reasons for teaching The Scarlet Letter.
- Some Hester Prynne students feel defined by their mistakes. They need to know that forgiveness is possible.
- Some students believe there are not far-reaching consequences for their actions. They need to realize that their decisions (even at a young age) impact those around them.
- Students need to realize that personal conviction, not their society, should determine their sense of right and wrong.
- Some Chillingworth students are harboring resentment toward others, and their hatred will destroy them instead of their enemy.
- Some Dimmesdale students harbor crippling guilt that needs to be relieved by forgiveness.
And "Because it's a classic" didn't even factor into the list.
Resources: A Reader's Theater script-story version of The Scarlet Letter with teaching materials is available for sale in the website store. Click here for more information.