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Cover of book "Hester" and Massachusetts port similar to Salem

“Hester”: The Best Book Club Questions

If you are considering Hester for your book club or just want to know more about it, you are in the right place!

Quick Links to Information in this Guide:

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

Background Information

Literary Travel: Concord (Hawthorne’s Home) and Salem

Hester: Questions for Discussion and Reflection

Warm up questions 

Tip: Try to start with an easy, open ended question and encourage as many people as possible to respond to it. The sooner participants enter the conversation, the more likely they are to continue to contribute.

  1. Is there anything unique that runs through your family? (for example, left handedness, or particular names…we aren’t looking for deep and dark here) 
  1. What countries did your family immigrate from? What do you know about their story? 
  1. In what ways have women in your family earned a living? 

Digging Deeper 

Tip: Don’t try to rush through all of the questions. Consider asking group members to choose which questions interest them. Give people a chance to think: don’t worry if there are a few seconds of silence.

  1. In your view, why are Nat and Isobel attracted to each other? 
  1. How does Nat’s preoccupation with his family history affect him?
  1. What is the relationship between Salem’s historical Witch Trials and the novel’s point of view regarding slavery? 
  2. Do you feel that Albanese creats an effective backstory for Hester in Isobel?

Wrapping Up 

  1. Does Albanese’s portrayal of Isobel change how you view the character of Hester in The Scarlet Letter? 
  1. Albanese includes detailed back matter in her novel explaining her studies of Nathaniel Hawthorne and how she developed the plot of Hester. To what degree do you agree or disagree with her idea that there must have been a “Hester” in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life. Does it matter? 
  1. At the end of The Scarlet Letter, Hester takes on the characteristics of a nun (which ironically Puritans did not have) and ends her life, by choice, in isolation. Isobel’s later life is less extreme. What is your response to the two endings? 

Background Information for Hester

The Setting and the Point of View of Hester and The Scarlet Letter  

You might have forgotten that it The Scarlet Letter was written as a historical novel. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, but the novel is set in 1642. In 1642, Massachusetts was a British colony controlled by Puritans. In 1850, Massachusetts was a state, and the United States was heading into the Civil War.

The Puritans definitely did not write and publish novels!

Instead of trying to imagine a Hester in 1642, Albanese sets her story in 19th century Salem. She makes the author of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a character. Isobel is a character Albanese imagines as the basis for Hester, the wearer of the scarlet letter. Since she needs a way to get Hawthorne’s family history into the novel, she uses flashbacks throughout. She also uses flashbacks to reveal Isobel’s family history. Isobel’s history affects her life as strongly as Hawthorne’s affects his, which adds balance and depth to the story. Isobel’s family history also shows how people are judged for being different, especially when others don’t understand.

Although Hester is set in Salem, The Scarlet Letter is set in Boston. It’s not clear when Hawthorne lived in Salem as a young adult, as depicted in Hester, but Albanese has done a lot more research into Hawthorne than I have, and anyway Salem makes sense as a setting because of it’s connection to witchcraft.

In summary, the novel Hester begins in 1829. The italicized sections flash back to the 17 century to fill in the Hathorne (later Hawthorne) family’s involvement with the Salem Witch trials and Isobel’s family history as the descendent of an escaped “witch”.  

Witches and Enslaved People in Hester  

Because Hester is set in the 19th century and not the 17th, Albanese adds to the story by integrating characters and plots related to the “Underground Railroad”, which is a system of way stations that existed prior to the U.S. Civil War to help enslaved individuals escape and get safe passage through the “free” states, and into Canada. This subplot highlights the irony of the guilt that Hawthorne (and others) felt over the “sins of the fathers”, i.e. falsely accusing women of being witches in Puritan Massachusetts, while ignoring or even indirectly supporting slavery in Massachusetts.

In the novel, Isobel is surprised that Nat doesn’t see the relationship between the 17th century oppression of women through the threat of witchcraft and the 19th century oppression of enslaved persons and even the legally “free”. Laws in 1850 gave those searching for “runaway slaves” the right to hunt and remand them from northern states.

More Background Information for Hester

Synesthesia 

Albanese does a good job of explaning synesthesia in the note at the beginning of Hester. It is a real, although rare condition. Two kinds of syntesthesia run in Isobel’s family: grapheme-color synesthesia, in which letters are associated with specific colors, and chromesthesia, when sounds evoke color, shape, and texture.  

When I Googled synthesia, I found some interesting links that might be fun to discuss. You can use this tool to see what your name looks like to someone with synesthesia, and check out this (highly subjective) article on what those colors might evoke to someone with synesthesia.  

The Salem Witch Trials 

If you aren’t familiar with the Salem Witch Trials that figure heavily in the plot, the trials were real, the threat of witchcraft was not. Albanese describes what happened well and accurately in Hester.

Belief in witchcraft had started to die out in Europe by the time of the Salem Witch Trials, but not so much in the colonies. The last person to be convicted of witchcraft in the North American Colonies was Grace Sherwood in 1706. She lived in what is now Virginia Beach, VA, and Virginia Beach still has a major road named “Witchduck”.

Hawthorne’s follow up to The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, is set in Salem and alludes to witchcraft.

Puritans 

Although we like to think that the United States was founded on “religious freedom”, remember that early settlers, particularly the Puritans, didn’t want to have freedom of religion as we envision it today: the freedom to practice as you choose, or not practice at all. To be fair, there was more freedom of religion in Massachusetts than there was in Europe, but we would find it repressive today. Isobel encounters vestiges of this practice when she arrives in Salem and it told she has to 1. Choose a Puritan meeting house, and 2. Attend services regularly. 

The Puritans were subject to varying levels of Persecution in Europe, which made them determined to make the colonies different.

The Scarlet Letter and Romanticism

Cover of "The Scarlet Letter", the basis for "Hester"

Written in 1850, The Scarlet Letter is an example of the Romantic period in literature. Although the full title is The Scarlet Letter: A Romance”, Romantic literature doesn’t have to do with love or romance. It is more about a fascination with nature, that you see both in The Scarlet Letter and Hester. There is also an emphasis on feelings.R

Most Romantic literature, like most books at the time, came from England, and it greatly influenced American authors. Some of Hawthorne’s American contemporaries include Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe.  

Gothic literature is an offshoot of Romanticism, which include Poe’s work and The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne’s follow up to The Scarlet Letter.

Literary Travel: Hawthorne’s Home in Concord, Massachusetts

The three story home of Hawthorne in Concord, Massachusetts where Nat, a character in Hester, ultimately lived.
Touring Hawthorne’s home in Concord, Massachusetts is free!
John Phelan, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hester is set in Salem, and The Scarlet Letter is set in Boston. Although Hawthorne lived in both places, he lived in Concord during the last years of his life.

Hawthorne lived near Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts. He lived next door to the Alcott family, whose second oldest daughter, Louisa May Alcott, wrote Little Women.

If you visit Concord, you can visit Nathanial Hawthorne’s house, The Wayside, for free; there’s a charge for the Alcott’s home, Orchard House (well worth it).

Walden Pond, where Thoreau famously lived, has nature trails and a public beach.

You can visit The House of the Seven Gables along with a lot of other witch hunt related sites in Salem, Massachusetts. Some of the venues are pretty touristy, so choose carefully.

Both towns are easy day trips from Boston.

Cover of "The House of the Seven Gables", set in Salem, where "Hester" is set.