Vocabulary in The Scarlet Letter
An alms-house is a house built by a charitable organization for poor people to live in. Hawthorne’s mention of the alms-house alludes to the importance of religion and community in Salem.
The Puritans were a powerful religious and political force in the 16th century. They emerged when certain Protestants were not satisfied with Henry VIII’s Church of England. Those that segregated became known as Puritans because they wanted the church to return to its “purest” state. New England Puritans were descendants of the pilgrims who traveled to North America, seeking religious freedom. Puritans believed any deviation from biblical teachings would bring the wrath of God on the community, so governments made sins punishable offenses.
Isaac Johnson was a British-born colonist who was one of the four who founded the first church in Charlestown. Although the story is fictitious, Hawthorne incorporates realism and historical facts to enhance the believability of the story. Hawthorne does this because he wants the story to be read as a sort of realistic lesson to teach people about the downfalls of an unforgiving society.
A steeple-crowned hat was popular in new England during the time of the story. A steeple-crowned hat has a high, pointed top that resembles a steeple. Hawthorne implements a religious image in the first sentence of the story to draw readers’ attention to religious themes and symbolism throughout the course of the text. Hawthorne consistently uses religious imagery and symbolism to communicate the importance of rigid Puritan beliefs in 17th century Boston.
The Divine Maternity is a reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Bible claims that Mary was a virgin when she gives birth to Jesus. The comparison between Mary and Hester is interesting because they are both women who have bore children out of wedlock. This comparison is significant because it portrays Hester as holy, even in a scene of suffering.
The town-beadle is a church official who helps keep order in a religious society. The town-beadle does not make laws or enforce laws like the church elders but instead performs tasks, like walking Hester to her position on the scaffold, that the clergymen can’t do because of their religious leadership positions.
In this context a scaffold is a raised wooden platform, in the center of the crowd, that Hester must stand on top of for the purpose of public shaming. The scaffold is a recurring symbol throughout The Scarlet Letter that represents punishment for one’s sins and is meant to raise up sinners for the judgement of the townspeople.
Elizabethan is characteristic of the period of Queen Elizabeth's rule in England from 1558 to 1603. During her rule, Queen Elizabeth stressed the ending of religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants in England. Elizabethan ruff is the clothing fabric ruffle worn around the neck by both men and women, popular during this time in England and New England.
A “farthingale” is a hoop or circular pad of fabric worn around the hips and under skirts to give the garment a desired shape. The farthingale was a common piece of fashion until the second half of the 17th century and was worn mostly for court events and high society functions.
Mistress Hibbins is Governor Bellingham’s sister and thought to be a witch because of her continuous anti-social behavior and extravagant outfits. She is a symbol of rebellion against the strict, puritanical society in Boston.
Antinomian refers to the viewpoint that claims Christians have no obligation to follow socially structured morality because faith alone is all that is necessary for salvation. Notice how this belief will be an underlying theme of conflict among the townspeople throughout the story.
In New England, “gossips” was actually the term for "female friends." By Hawthorne's time, the word "gossip" had grown to receive the negative connotation that remains today. The differences in meaning between the terms gossips and goodwives is a good representation of the difference between how they believe they act and what kind of people they actually are.
The “goodwives” is a term used to describe a specific group of married women in the town. The term itself holds irony because, as we will notice in the story, they tend to not be good, kind, or understanding. They prefer to gossip as they stand in judgement of Hester while she emerges from the prison. They slander her name and even claim that she should be sentenced to death.
In Greek mythology, Nepenthe is an elixir that uses forgetfulness to numb sorrow. By saying that he doesn’t know Nepenthe, Chillingworth is telling Hester that the sorrow she has caused him cannot be cured by forgetting.
In Greek mythology, Lethe is one of the rivers in Hades and was known as the river of forgetfulness. Chillingworth probably says this particular river to allude to the fact that although while he was gone, he did not forget about her, and she ended up, in a way, forgetting about him.
Master Brackett is saying that if Chillingworth can’t make her “more amenable to just authority,” he would take it upon himself to whip the devil out her. The idea of beating someone to remove the devil from them is an ironic practice. Hawthorne uses this theme of irony (what is good in the eyes of the church versus what seems to be truly good) to make social commentary on religious society.
This term refers to the man who was second in power to the chief of the Algonquian Native American tribe. This seems to be the “whiteman,” who caught Hester’s eye, and stood next to the “Indian” in the previous chapter.
This euphemism for the devil was common amongst Puritans in the 17th century. Many believed the Black Man, or Satan, lived in the surrounding forests and held secret meetings with witches at night.
Alchemy began as a study of how to transform certain materials into others. The purpose of alchemy was to purify objects, such as metals and potions, and it eventually became known as the precursor to chemistry. It is interesting that a science of potions, closely related to witchcraft, would be studied by a "good" Puritan such as Chillingworth. Hester is right to be worried here because alchemists would have been known to have formulas for brewing dangerous poisons.
A martyr is someone who is killed because of their religious affiliation or beliefs. In many Christian faiths, martyrdom is revered as one of the most holy acts: to sacrifice oneself for their belief in God.
This sentence claims that humans have a fatal flaw of not being able to leave a place where they have made a mistake. This also could be a reference to the “ghost-like” partner with whom Hester sinned. He is still among the crowds of townspeople judging Hester, and thus haunts the town with a sinful presence.
The word anathema is a formal execration that calls for unearthly punishment upon the person or group being cursed. In this context, “witch’s anathemas” would be the worshiping and curses chanted by the witches compelled by Satan.
Martin Luther was a German priest and an important figure in the Protestant Reformation. He was excommunicated for his differing views with the heads of the church, arguing that eternal salvation was granted by god and could not be purchased by indulgences, among other things. Historically, he is a symbol of a religious man who followed what he believed to be morally right, rather than listening blindly to the word of the church.
"The rod" was a wooden stick used to whip small children or inflict corporal punishment in some way. It was a Puritan norm to get young people to follow the rules, and seems like an ironic punishment to be used by strong believers in God.
The “catechism” is a synopsis of the principles of Christian religion proposed in a series of questions and answers. “Good” Puritan children would have been expected to know the catechism at a young age. In this situation, Mr. Wilson inquires about Pearl’s knowledge of the catechism to gauge Hester’s ability to raise Pearl in a Christian manor.
In this context, “black art” most likely means “black magic,” or the magic and spellcasting practiced by witches and Satan in the forest.
An “apothecary” is someone who sells drugs and medicine to doctors and patients. In this context, the apothecary would distribute medicine to the “aged deacon,” who likely would not be knowledgeable enough in the medical field to order the correct supplies. Even though deacons were not educated medical practitioners, they were trusted with patients because of their perceived connection with God and his will.
In the Christian faith, a “deacon” is an ordained minister ranked an order below that of a priest. In this context, before Roger Chillingworth came to town, Hawthorne points out that a deacon was given duties similar to that of a doctor.
Hawthorne capitalizes the “P” in “Physician” because the “Physician of the soul” is God. It is interesting that Dimmesdale would admit that he needs God to cure his sickness because this suggests that he knows something that could be contributing to his failing health that hasn’t been shared with the readers.
The “Black Man” is another term for Satan that was common during this period in New England. Pearl probably interprets the dwindling physical health of Dimmesdale as Satan's influence on him; however, we wonder if there is more to it than simply his health.
This phrase infers that if people “seek to glorify God” they must do so by listening to their conscience and repenting publicly, rather than rotting away with their sin pinned on their own heart.
“Askance” is an adverb that indicates a suspicious or unfavoring demeanor. In this context, Dimmesdale has a cautious attitude towards the weeds for both literal and symbolic reasons. He looks at them with suspicion because he literally is curious as to what they are, but his look of disapproval also indicates his fear of sin.
A “scourge” is a whip oftentimes used for the purpose of punishment. This paragraph describes how Dimmesdale punishes himself for his adulterous sin. He stands alone in the dark and whips himself until his back is bloodied.
“Rheumatism” is an umbrella word for diseases that are defined by inflammation and pain in joints, bones, and muscles. “Catarrh” is essentially build up of mucus in nasal and throat passageways due to inflammation. We have noticed the conflict between the laws of nature and the laws of a religious society in the story, perhaps this is Dimmesdale’s natural punishment for not being reprimanded by the laws of the Boston Puritan society.
Shadows have been a recurring symbol for the effects of evil throughout the story. In this context, “the shadow of a dream” likely refers to a dark dream that finally pushed Dimmesdale out of his isolated self-punishment and forced him up to the scaffold. Although the dream has brought him to the scaffold, he still chooses to go when no one will see him, which shows how his fear still has control over his desire to be free of guilt.
“Zenith” is the highest point in the sky, directly above an observer. In this context, the “zenith” that Dimmesdale looks up to suggests that he is looking towards heaven; however, instead of seeing God, he sees “the letter A.”
“Somnambulism” means sleepwalking. In this context, the noun is modified by the phrase “a species of.” Because of the modification, we don’t read this as Reverend Dimmesdale actually sleepwalking; instead we interpret this as Dimmesdale in a semi-conscious state where, although he may be not thinking clearly, he is aware of his actions.
“Forthwith” means immediately, so Chillingworth tells Hester that he encourages the magistrate to call for the removal of the scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom. Notice that while Chillingworth has been a man of his word to Hester, he has been deceitful to everyone else. Since Hawthorne has made Chillingworth a two-faced and treacherous character, it is difficult to know whether he tells the truth here, or is simply encouraging Hester with a lie.
A “horn-book” is a book used to teach children during their earliest years. It originates from England as early as 1450, and oftentimes contained the alphabet, the Lord’s Prayer, and the first ten numbers.
All three of these plants are toxic enough to kill humans. Hawthorne uses these three plants in particular because even though they are poisonous, they all have beautiful and vibrant colors that make them appear harmless. In a way, they represent Chillingworth because, although he is not beautiful himself, he appears to mean well, but truly means for the worst.
Scrofula is a disease (and form of tuberculosis) that is defined by swelling of one’s neck glands. It was a common disease among children during this time period.
While Hester’s health has not been worrisome, Dimmesdale’s failing health has been one of the major plot points of the story. In this context, health most likely refers to Hester’s spiritual well-being. The contrasting ways in which they have each bore the scarlet letter on their chests has affected them extremely differently: For Hester, the worst part of the storm has passed and she is able to look towards the sun. For Dimmesdale, “the gloomy sky” always hangs over his head.
In North American English, “deportment” means a person’s behavior, manners, or conduct. In this instance, Hester expects a “more seemly deportment” because she is excited to introduce Pearl to her father for the first time.
A “potentate” is a ruler with great power, oftentimes an autocratic one. In this context, Mistress Mistress Hibbins refers to Satan as one in order to show proper respect for the devil.
In this context, “cure” has two meanings. Chillingworth uses it to describe the potions he has been giving Dimmesdale for the past seven years. However, it is also a code for the revenge that he has been taking over the same period.
The “Election Sermon” was a speech given by a priest of high repute that was meant to convince and inform people in a town on the day of the introduction of a newly elected official.
A “Merry Andrew” is somebody who acts clownish in public. Although the origin of the word is debated, one reputable origin is that it came from the Bartholomew Fair from an entertainer who played the part of a fool . This list embodies the constraints of religious society. Even on a day of festivity there is no room for light-hearted fun.
Necromancy is the practice of communicating with the dead in the hopes to learn knowledge of the past or the future. In this society, the practice of necromancy is surely viewed as a satanic practice.
A “Privy Council” is a group that advises leaders of a nation or smaller governmental body. The term oftentimes refers to such groups operating within a monarchy, but it isn’t constrained to that system.
Building on the earlier annotation of “necromancy” from chapter XXII, a necromancer is a person who practices magic or wizardry, someone who would be believed to be connected with Satan in this Boston society. Chillingworth is described as a necromancer because he has been torturing Dimmesdale for seven years with his potions and secret knowledge of Dimmesdale’s sin.
A “portent” is a sign or indication that something bad is impending. Hawthorne uses it here to indicate that he told this story as a warning for people to not conform to an unjust and unfair society.