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Foreshadowing in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

This lesson will take a look at some of the ways Nathaniel Hawthorne uses foreshadowing in his novel The Scarlet Letter. Learn what foreshadowing is, what it is used for, and how it works in this novel.

What is Foreshadowing, Anyway?

What is foreshadowing? If you've ever read a book, watched a movie or a TV show you've certainly encountered it. Foreshadowing is a collection of hints and little bits of plot that point toward one of the larger events coming in the story. Getting a hint here and there through foreshadowing helps to build suspense in a story. It keeps our attention and makes things more exciting. Let's take a look at Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter to see how he uses foreshadowing to build suspense in that story.

Who is That Man?!

In the opening of the novel, as Hester Prynne stands exposed to shame on the town scaffold, Hawthorne pays particular attention to one member in the crowd of onlookers. The narration lingers on this man, describing him as 'well stricken in years, a pale, thin, scholar-like visage...the left shoulder a trifle higher than the right.' Hawthorne provides a much more detailed physical description of this man than of any of the other people in the crowd, so as readers, our attention is piqued.

Hawthorne also shows us that Hester Prynne has some definite connection to this man. She sees him in the crowd and is thrust into her 'memory's picture-gallery' where she sees vistas from the past. Later, we read that from her scaffold, Hester looks on this stranger with 'so fixed a gaze that, at moments of intense absorption, all other objects in the visible world seemed to vanish, leaving only him and her.' What profound connection is there between these two? Hawthorne leaves us wanting to know.

The last bit of foreshadowing we are given regarding this stranger is his odd fixation on the details of Hester's crime. When he learns that she stands there condemned for adultery but will not disclose her partner in this crime, the stranger is abnormally interested, saying 'he will be known! he will be known! he will be known!' It's unusual for a character to say something three times in a row like that. What is it with this guy? If he's a stranger, why is he so intent on discovering who this woman's lover is? All of these hints come together later when we learn that this man is actually Hester's long lost husband. These instances of foreshadowing help us to suspect that and create suspense as we wait to discover the mystery.

The Mysterious Minister

Foreshadowing is also used to build suspense regarding the town's minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Our first clue comes when Dimmesdale is assigned to admonish Hester to reveal her lover's name. He has an odd understanding of the man's position, saying 'Take heed how thou deniest to him--who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself--the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!' He seems to know an awful lot about what her secret lover might be feeling.

Our suspicions are encouraged as we get to know the Reverend Dimmesdale. He is obviously laboring under some secret guilt. He is always telling his parishioners that he is 'altogether vile' and 'the worst of sinners.' We also learn that he has taken to whipping himself as some kind of penance. What horrid thing is hiding within this pious minister to make him feel such things about himself?

Roger Chillingworth gives us the most specific piece of foreshadowing about the sad minister when he says, 'He hath done a wild thing ere now, this pious Master Dimmesdale, in the hot passion of his heart!' We eventually learn that the 'wild thing' done 'in the hot passion of his heart' was to commit adultery with Hester Prynne. The pious Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is, in fact, Hester Pyrnne's lover! The hints Hawthorne drops along the way build suspense leading up to the discovery of this scandalous information.

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