The 2017 AP English Literature Free Response Questions focus on varying themes and are each structured differently. For an overview of the three prompt types you may encounter read The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. Here we will discuss the third FRQ prompt which allows you to choose a particular work of literature as the focus of your essay.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a book all AP English Literature students should be familiar with. Herein we will discuss how to determine if the given prompt is appropriate for this particular literary work and give you an idea of what to review before your exam.
The Scarlet Letter Themes for AP English Literature
In order to choose a literary work to answer your prompt, it’s important to examine the themes which are outlined in the assigned essay. If the theme is not relevant or well established in a work, you will do well to choose another title to examine. The following are the main themes which you may discuss in your The Scarlet Letter AP English Lit Essay.
Sin is a theme which is heavily discussed throughout the book. Because of its setting in Puritan Boston, the sin of adultery is an especially grievous one, usually punishable by death. However, the townspeople agree to spare Hester Prynne’s life and make her a living testament to the evil of sin.
Hypocrisy is another prevalent theme in The Scarlet Letter. The hypocrisy of Reverend Dimmesdale is discussed at length throughout the book. His self-hatred stems not from his original sin, but from his hypocritical inability to admit to wrongdoing.
Guilt and Blame are two intertwined themes you will notice within the story. Both Prynne and Dimmesdale are changed by the guilt they feel for their actions. Meanwhile, Chillingworth seems free of guilt for his own reprehensible actions until he dies, leaving Pearl his fortune. The townspeople blame Prynne for her sin and look upon her with disdain and pity. This fate is one Dimmesdale escapes through his own cowardice. And, Chillingworth is decided to be the real villain by both Prynne and Dimmesdale when they realize his misdeeds.
Individuality and Conformity are another two related themes found in this work. Hester Prynne is humiliated, shunned, and outcast due to her non-conformity to the strict rules of the Puritanic society. The people of Boston mark her as the example to all other would-be-individuals of what ill fate will befall them if they refuse to conform.
Nature is also an important theme explored throughout the story. The contrast of natural beauty with the stark and lifeless existence of Puritan society is introduced immediately into the story. Hawthorne paints a mesmerizing description of natural scenes through the book which presents a remarkable contrast to the society his characters live in.
Puritanism is the contrasting theme to Nature found within the story. Puritan society is depicted as drab, confining, and unforgiving. The beliefs held by the townspeople cause them to judge others harshly and see things in an incredibly dark way.
The Occult is a theme which is discussed sympathetically throughout the book. The author suggests that the witch hunt was simply a by-product of Puritan fear of individuality. The strict rules set by society cause anyone who is different to be looked at suspiciously and aligned with the occult.
How to Use the Scarlet Letter for the 2017 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
The Scarlet Letter is a well known literary work which you should be familiar with. It may well be a viable choice for the AP English Lit free response question. However, that is dependent on the question. Each year the 3rd FRQ is different, and the CollegeBoard supplies a list of suggested books to reference for your essay. The absence of a book from the list does not disqualify it from use, that being said; it’s important to know how to choose which book to use for the given analysis.
In preparation for your exam, it’s a good idea to read previous years’ free response questions posted on CollegeBoard. The following review is for the 2016 FRQ prompt.
2016 FRQ 3: Many works of literature contain a character who intentionally deceives others. The character’s dishonesty may be intended to either help or hurt. Such a character, for example, may choose to mislead others for personal safety, to spare someone’s feelings, or to carry out a crime.
Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.
While The Scarlet Letter is not on the suggested list for this prompt, you could choose to use it. The theme of deception is represented throughout the book in various forms. As the prompt has instructed you to focus on one of the characters your analysis could go several directions. Whichever you choose, be sure to make a clear argument which supports your thesis statement. Remember that answering the prompt is your goal, not outlining the entire plot or all the prevalent themes.
If you chose to focus on the main character of Hester Prynne a likely thesis you could defend is as follows. In The Scarlet Letter the character of Hester Prynne refused to reveal the identity of her lover. This intentional deception was at great personal detriment in order to spare the fate of the man she loved. To support this thesis, you could cite chapter 3 when Hester is presented to the town’s people upon the scaffold. She is holding her newborn baby and when asked to name the man who committed the sin with her she refuses. After many public pleas from the clergymen of the town, her response is thus.
“ ‘Never,’ replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman, ‘It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony as well as mine!’ “
Hester Prynne views this decision as compassionate towards Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the father of her child. But, ironically Dimmesdale was the one begging to have his name revealed. Throughout the book, we see how Prynne bears the shame and isolation for them both as a badge of honor. She believes that living as a martyr for them both will spare him pain. However, in truth Dimmesdale punishes himself for his cowardice in not naming himself and suffers greatly both mentally and physically.
Additionally, in chapter 5 we see how Hester Prynne stayed in Boston, despite the shame and isolation she endured, in order to martyr herself in atonement for her sins.
“…perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom.”
Another choice you could make in answering this prompt would be to focus on the deception perpetrated by Dimmesdale. A possible thesis statement for the essay would be as follows. In The Scarlet Letter the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale deceives the townspeople by hiding his identity, as Hester Prynne’s lover. This dishonesty is borne out of fear causing him to suffer throughout the story for his hypocrisy. In support of this thesis, you might cite Dimmesdale’s plea to Hester, in chapter 3, whereas he implores her to reveal his own name, knowing he lacks the courage to do so.
“Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life.”
Furthermore, we see throughout the story how Dimmesdale’s silence becomes his undoing. He carves an “A” into his own skin over his heart, whips himself, and generally loathes himself for his deceit. In the following quote, from chapter 11, we can see a bit of that self-mutilation and pity.
“Inward trouble drove him to practices more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome than with the better light of the church in which he had been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders, laughing bitterly at himself the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly because of that bitter laugh.”
Arthur Dimmesdale’s deceit is important in the story because of the juxtaposition between his inward torment and Hester Prynne’s acceptance of her outward shame. While Prynne is judged and isolated, with her daughter, she finds enjoyment in life and feels that she is redeeming herself through suffering. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale’s inability to confess his sins publicly causes an inward struggle which manifests itself in his sullen demeanor, physical illness, and self-harm.
The last possible way you could answer this prompt for The Scarlet Letter would be to focus on the dishonesty of Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband. A possible thesis would be as follows. In The Scarlet Letter Roger Chillingworth took on a false persona and deceived the townspeople, to avoid connection with Hester Prynne out of selfishness and malice. Support for this thesis can begin with his first arrival to the story, in chapter 3, when he signals Prynne not to reveal his identity as he watches her on the scaffold.
“When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne fastened on his own, and saw that she appeared to recognize him, he slowly and calmly raised his finger, made a gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips.”
The deception which is perpetrated by Chillingworth is of a selfish nature. He chooses to assume a new identity and career, as a doctor, in order to hide his connection to Prynne. Furthermore, he becomes suspicious of the affliction tormenting Reverend Dimmesdale and uses his position as town physician to station himself closely to the clergyman. Once he is sure of the connection between Dimmesdale and Prynne, Chillingworth’s actions become even more malicious. He is transformed into an ugly and evil character by way of his own dishonesty. This is seen, in chapter 9, where he is described as an evil man who the townspeople fear is in service to Satan himself.
“At first, his expression had been calm, meditative, scholar-like. Now there was something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed, and which grew still the more obvious to sight the oftener they looked upon him. . . To sum up the matter, it grew to be a widely diffused opinion that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, like many other personages of special sanctity, in all ages of the Christian world, was haunted by either Satan himself or Satan’s emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth.”
In conclusion, The Scarlet Letter has many themes you may find helpful for the last Free Response Question on the AP English Literature Exam. When reading the prompt and deciding on what literary work to use for your essay, remember to choose a work where the theme outlined in your prompt is prevalent.
In the case of The Scarlet Letter sin, hypocrisy, guilt, blame, individuality, conformity, nature, Puritanism, and the occult are a few of the more prominent themes discussed. However, as we saw with the 2016 prompt example, this story has many underlying themes which you may examine for your The Scarlet Letter AP English Lit Essay.
For more help preparing for your AP English Literature exam we suggest you readThe Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs and The Ultimate Guide to 2015 AP English Literature FRQs. And, for writing advice for the AP English Lit free response questions, Albert.io’s AP English Literature section has practice free response sections with sample responses and rubrics.
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Posted on Tuesday, February 3, 2009 in The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 1860s
|Born||July 4, 1804(1804-07-04)|
Salem, Massachusetts, United States
|Died||May 19, 1864 (aged 59)|
Plymouth, New Hampshire, United States
|Occupation||Novelist, Short story writer, Custom House worker, United States Consul|
Nathaniel Hawthorne (born Nathaniel Hathorne; July 4, 1804 – May 19, 1864) was a 19th centuryAmericannovelist and short story writer. He is seen as a key figure in the development of American literature for his tales of the nation’s colonial history.
Shortly after graduating from Bowdoin College, Hathorne changed his name to Hawthorne. Hawthorne anonymously published his first work, a novel titled Fanshawe, in 1828. In 1837, he published Twice-Told Talesand became engaged to Sophia Peabodythe next year. He worked at a Custom Houseand joined a TranscendentalistUtopiancommunity, before marrying Peabody in 1842. The couple moved to The Old Mansein Concord, Massachusetts, later moving to Salem, the Berkshires, then to The Waysidein Concord. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, followed by a succession of other novels. A political appointment took Hawthorne and family to Europe before returning to The Wayside in 1860. Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864, leaving behind his wife and their three children.
Much of Hawthorne’s writing centers around New England and many feature moral allegories with a Puritan inspiration. His work is considered part of the Romantic movement and includes novels, short stories, and a biography of his friend, the United States President Franklin Pierce.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts — his birthplace is preserved and open to the public.William Hathorne, who emigrated from England in 1630, was the first of Hawthorne’s ancestors to arrive in the colonies. After arriving, William persecuted Quakers. William’s son John Hathorne was one of the judges who oversaw the Salem Witch Trials. Having learned about this, the author may have added the “w” to his surname in his early twenties, shortly after graduating from college. Hawthorne’s father, Nathaniel Hathorne, Sr., was a sea captain who died in 1808 of yellow fever in Suriname. Young Nathaniel, his mother and two sisters moved in with maternal relatives, the Mannings, in Salem, where they lived for ten years.
Hawthorne was hired in 1839 as a weigher and gauger at the BostonCustom House. After public flirtations with local women Mary Silsbee and Elizabeth Peabody, he had become engaged in the previous year to the illustrator and transcendentalistSophia Peabody. Seeking a possible home for himself and Sophia, he joined the transcendentalistUtopian community at Brook Farm in 1841 not because he agreed with the experiment but because it helped him save money to marry Sophia.
Salem Custom-House where Hawthorne worked
After three years of engagement, Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody on July 9, 1842 at a ceremony in the Peabody parlor. The couple moved to The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, where they lived for three years. There he wrote most of the tales collected in Mosses from an Old Manse. Hawthorne and his wife then moved to Salem and later to the Berkshires, returning in 1852 to Concord. In February, they bought The Hillside, a home previously owned by the Alcotts. Hawthorne renamed it The Wayside. Their neighbors in Concord included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Like Hawthorne, Sophia was a reclusive person. She was bedridden with headaches until her sister introduced her to Hawthorne, after which her headaches seem to have abated. The Hawthornes enjoyed a long marriage, often taking walks in the park. Sophia greatly admired her husband’s work. In one of her journals, she writes: “I am always so dazzled and bewildered with the richness, the depth, the… jewels of beauty in his productions that I am always looking forward to a second reading where I can ponder and muse and fully take in the miraculous wealth of thoughts.”
Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne had three children: Una, Julian, and Rose. Una was a victim of mental illness and died young. Julian became a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction. Rose married George Parsons Lathrop and they became Roman Catholics. After George’s death, Rose became a Dominican nun. She founded the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne to care for victims of incurable cancer.
In 1846, Hawthorne was appointed surveyor (determining the quantity and value of imported goods) at the Salem Custom House. Like his earlier appointment to the custom house in Boston, this employment was vulnerable to the politics of the spoils system. A Democrat, Hawthorne lost this job due to the change of administration in Washington after the presidential election of 1848. Hawthorne wrote a letter of protest to the Boston Daily Advertiser which was attacked by the Whigs and supported by the Democrats, making Hawthorne’s dismissal a much-talked about event in New England. Hawthorne was deeply affected by the death of his mother shortly therafter in July, calling it, “the darkest hour I ever lived.”
Grave of Nathaniel Hawthorne