The Scarlet Letter Themes
The Scarlet Letter is a novel that describes the psychological anguish of two principle characters, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimondale. They are both suffering under, while attempting to come to terms with, their mutual sin of adultery in a strict Puritan society. As critics immediately recognized upon publication of the novel in 1850, one of its principal themes involved conflict between the individual and society.
Hawthorne represents the stern and threatening force of Puritan society in the first sentence of the first chapter, where he describes a “throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray,” who stand before the prison door “which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes,” and behind which was Hester Public Guilt vs.
Private Guilt Perhaps the foremost purpose of The Scarlet Letter is to illustrate the difference between shaming someone in public and allowing him or her to suffer the consequences of an unjust act privately.
According to the legal statutes at the time and the prevailing sentiment of keeping in accordance with a strict interpretation of the Bible, adultery was a capital sin that required the execution of both adulterer and adulteress–or at the very least, severe public corporal punishment.
Indeed, even if the husband wanted to keep his wife alive after she committed adultery, the law insisted that she would have to die for it. It is in this environment that Hester commits adultery with Dimmesdale, but we come to see that the public shaming cannot begin to account for all the complexities of the illicit relationship–or the context of it.
What Hawthorne sets out to portray, then, is how the private thoughts, the private torture and guilt and emotional destruction of the people involved in the affair, are more than enough punishment for the crime. We wonder whether the state or society has any right to impose law in private matters between citizens. Does adultery really have no impact upon the lives of others? If not, it should not be seen as a crime against the village.
A more charitable reading of the Bible would come later in reflections on the New Testament interpretation of adultery law, namely, that the public need not step in to punish a crime when we ourselves have our own sins to be judged. Each person suffers enough already for his or her own sins. Punishment vs. Forgiveness One of the more compelling themes of the novel is embodied by Chillingworth, who seems the arbiter of moral judgment in the story, since Dimmesdale–the minister and the supposed purveyor of righteousness–is himself tainted as a party to the crime.
Chillingworth is surprisingly forgiving of Hester’s crime. We sense that he understands why she would forsake him. After all, he is deformed, he is older, he has not been nearby, while she is beautiful and passionate. Indeed, we get the feeling that Chillingworth’s self-loathing allows him to forgive Hester, but this attribute also increases the relentlessness and rage with which he goes after Dimmesdale. In Dimmesdale, he sees the vigor and passion which Hester desires and which he himself does not possess.
Like a leech, he’s out to suck Dimmesdale of his life force, not just to punish the minister for the crime of fornicating with his wife, but also to symbolically appropriate Dimmesdale’s virility. And as the novel continues, Chillingworth seems to grow stronger while Dimmesdale seems to weaken. That pattern continues until Dimmesdale dies in an act of defiance, his public demonstration of guilt, which essentially leaves Chillingworth stripped bare of his power to punish or forgive. The Scarlet Letter The scarlet letter is symbolic in a number of different ways, but perhaps most in the ways that the sinners choose to wear it.
Hawthorne’s generative image for the novel was that of a woman charged with adultery and forced to wear the letter A upon her clothes, but upon wearing it, decided to add fancy embroidery as if to appropriate the letter as a point of pride. Hawthorne read about this choice in an actual case in 1844, recorded it in his journal, and thus The Scarlet Letter was born as Hester Prynne’s story. Hester, a knitter by trade, sees the letter as a burden laid on by society, an act of community-enforced guilt that she is forced to bear, even though it seems to make little difference for her private thoughts.
Dimmesdale, however, as the town minister, wears his own scarlet A burned upon his flesh, since it is the community’s rage he fears the most. Thus we see the difference between a woman who has made peace with the crime, publicly confesses, and endures the suffering the community imposes, and a man who imposes his own punishment because he cannot bear to reveal the crime to the community. Civilization vs. Wilderness Pearl embodies the theme of wilderness over against civilization. After all, she is a kind of embodiment of the scarlet letter: wild, passionate, and completely oblivious to the rules, mores, and legal statutes of the time.
Pearl is innocence, in a way, an individualistic passionate innocence. So long as Dimmesdale is alive, Pearl seems to be a magnet that attracts Hester and Dimmesdale, almost demanding their reconciliation or some sort of energetic reconciliation. But as soon as Dimmesdale dies, Pearl seems to lose her vigor and becomes a normal girl, able to marry and assimilate into society. The implication is thus that Pearl truly was a child of lust or love, a product of activity outside the boundaries imposed by strict Puritan society.
Once the flame of love is extinguished, she can properly assimilate. The Town vs. the Woods In the town, Hester usually is confronted with the legal and moral consequences of her crime. Governor Bellingham comes to take her child away, Chillingworth reminds her of her deed, and she faces Dimmesdale in the context of sinner (his reputation remains untarnished despite his role in the affair). But whenever Hester leaves the town and enters the woods, a traditional symbol of unbridled passion without boundaries, she is free to rediscover herself.
The woods also traditionally emblematize darkness. In the darkness of night, Hester is free to meet Dimmesdale, to confess her misgivings, and to live apart from the torment and burdens of the guilt enforced by the community. Dimmesdale too is free at night to expose his guilt on the scaffold and reconcile with Hester. Memories vs. the Present Hester Prynne’s offense against society occurred seven years earlier, but she remains punished for it. Hester learned to forgive herself for her adultery, but society continues to scorn her for it. One might remember Jean Valjean’s permanent identity as criminal after a single minor crime in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. ) Indeed, Hester reaches peace with her affair and in that peace comes to see the town as insufficiently forgiving in its thoughts and attitudes. Pearl is enough of a reminder of the wild choices in her past, and as Pearl grows up, Hester continues to live in the present rather than in the past. Reverend Dimmesdale, meanwhile, is haunted in the present by sins past and seems to reflect (along with Chillingworth) the town’s tendency to punish long after the offense.
In suppressing his own confession, Dimmesdale remains focused on coming to terms with a sinful past instead of looking squarely at the problems of the present. Many of the major themes of The Scarlet Letter are introduced in the opening scene. Some of these themes were sin, nature’s kindness to the condemned and the dreary lifestyle of puritan society. The first chapter has little action but it sets up these major themes. The tone of the whole story was set in this chapter. The opening scene of The Scarlet Letter, many major themes were introduced. SIN
Sin is a part of everyday life. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, revolves around the theme of sin and the effects it has on the mind, body, and soul A sin was committed by three of the main characters in the novel and throughout the novel Hawthorne tries to point out that sin, no matter how trivial or how substantial, is still sin. There have been debates on exactly who is the biggest sinner, but in Hawthorne’s case, I think he believes that the sins were equal and throughout the novel he develops each of them, trying to get the reader to understand is reasoning.
Adultery, which was the sin surrounding two of the main characters, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, was the sin in which the novel was based on. Hester committed adultery with Dimmesdale, a Puritan pastor, and had a child (Pearl) as living proof of her sin. She confessed her sin and was looked down upon by the citizens living in the town. “She would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion. Basically, she was an example of what nobody should become The sin of adultery was confessed by one of the two, but Arthur Dimmesdale decided to keep it a secret, which in time tore him apart.
Being a pastor, he was afraid of the consequences that would result from his confession, so for seven long years he and Hester kept it a secret, and were never seen together in public Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, and the other sinner in this novel, sought revenge on whoever the father to Pearl was. He oon suspected Dimmesdale, and would not rest until got revenge on him. Chillingworth pretended to be a physician and was to take care of Dimmesdale, but at the same time he was slowly poisoning him and punishing him physically and mentally. As you can see sin was evident in all three of these characters’ lives. Hawthorne not only dealt with just the sin, but how sin can affect a person if not professed To go even deeper into the first theme, Hawthorne, throughout the novel, explains how unconfessed sin can eat away at the conscience and destroy the soul.
Hester, who had confessed her sin of adultery, wore the scarlet A as a symbol of her faithless sin and through most of the novel lived as a social outcast in the Puritan society. She was looked at as an example of what not to be. Pearl, Hester’s lively, uncontrollable daughter is the living result of Hester’s sin, and for the most part the two lived together in shame and guilt. In the end, as a result of Hester’s confession, the sin does not destroy her, but instead makes her stronger and braver and she flourishes in spite of the symbol on her chest.
Dimmesdale, who committed adultery with Hester, waits until the sin completely destroys him before he confesses. Throughout the story, while Hester was being put through the ignominy of her sin, Dimmesdale hides his sin, failing to name himself the other adulterer or claim Pearl as his daughter. His relief soon comes in the tragic ending, as Dimmesdale confesses his adultery and stands openly with Hester and Pearl. As he finally admits his sin, his guilty conscience is lifted and he frees himself from Chillingworth’s grasp, which allows him to finally die, free of guilt.
Sin was, without a doubt, a major part of these three characters’ lives, and Hawthorne does a great job of revealing that to his readers. He points out the immorality in each character, and explained how sin haunted Arthur Dimmesdale until he willingly confessed it. Through his thorough explanation of each of the three characters and their roles in the novel, he definitely proves that sin is equally terrible no matter how illogical it may seem. Nature’s kindness The prison was very bleak and worn down and old. It was very unforgiving for the prisoners. The only sign of hope was a rosebush that grew near the prison.
But on one side of the porta land rooted almost on the threshhold, was a wild rosebush, covered, in this month of june, with its delicate jems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom. ” Nature was the only thing kind to the condemned. This theme was very important later in the book when Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearl met in the forest. A major them in The Scarlet Letter was nature’s kindness to the condomned Revenge Revenge is a dish best served cold. (And with a side of fries.
But isn’t everything best served with a side of fries? ) Roger Chillingworth seems to agree, as you can no doubt tell by the extremely frosty fake name that he chooses. He spends seven years psychologically torturing Hester’s lover Dimmesdale, keeping him alive just so he can squeeze out just… a… little…. more vengeance. Unfortunately, revenge in The Scarlet Letter is also served with an unexpected side: the loss of humanity. It turns out that God is the only one who gets to do the revenging around these parts, and he’s got a little surprise for our anti-hero Justice and Judgment
Some laws can straddle the religious/secular divide pretty comfortable. Stealing? We’re pretty sure God wouldn’t want you to do that. Murder? Definitely not. But what about driving without your license? Or doing some underage drinking (which Shmoop firmly disapproves of)? Does God care about those laws? If you lived in Puritan America as represented by The Scarlet Letter, the answer would be yes: there’s no difference between God’s law and man’s law. Breaking colonial law is the same as breaking God’s law. On the one hand, great: at least there’s clarity, right?
On the other hand, the conflation of God’s law with man’s law creates an intolerant, authoritarian society with no room for human mistakes. Not too cool The Forest and the Wilderness To the townspeople, the forest is the unknown. It’s outside of the town, it’s full of American Indians and scary creatures and worst of all, and it’s utterly lawless. The town is ruled by law and religion; the forest a place of passion and emotion. We see this when the narrator compares Hester’s outcast state to a forest: “She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest”.
In other words, Hester is cast out of the rules and order of the town, forced to live in a metaphorical forest: a wilderness of shadowy right and wrong. Obviously, Hester’s little cottage is “on the outskirts of the town… out of the sphere of that social activity which already marked the habits of the emigrants”. Into the Woods But while the Puritans seem to be kind of terrified of the forest, the narrator isn’t. In fact, the narrator associates Nature with kindness and love from the very beginning of this story, when the wild rosebush reminds all that “the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him”.
It’s not that the woods are all sweetness and light. They can be dangerous, too. Here, the forest seems to represent potential: that part of human nature that can’t be squashed and beaten into submission. It’s a place where the soul can be free, with all its wild passions and crazy ideas and secret sorrows; it’s a place for Hester and Dimmesdale to meet in solitude, and love, and anguish where they “deeply” can know each other If life on the town is all surface and appearance and rules, then life in the forest is all depth and emotion. And you can’t live like that—you can’t live in the woods. But you sure can visit every once in a while
Moral Law Vs. Natural Law “At the dramatic center of The Scarlet Letter is the idea of the awesomeness and inescapability of the Moral Law, to which all else is […]
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter focuses on seven years in the lives of four people living in a puritan community in seventeenth century Boston. Hester Prynne, the wife of Roger […]
Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne continually uses witchcraft and the devil as a theme. Hester Prynne, the main character, emerges from a prison in the first few pages of […]
One main theme present in the work “The Scarlet Lette” is that of sin and guilt. Nathaniel Hawthorne attempts to show how guilt can be a form of everlasting punishment. […]
According to research in the field of psychology, guilt manifests itself in many ways. Often those who feel guilty see assurances for their feeling in the action of others—even when […]
Reverent Dimmesdale’s journey through the story shows how his insecurities effect his decisions. Dimmesdale often let his thoughts of rejection from his life as a loved godly man take away […]
Knowledge and sin connect in the Judeo-Christian tradition in the story of Adam and Eve. Sin becomes the outcome in the story of Adam and Eve when they get thrown […]
“Inside each of us, there is the seed of both good and evil. It’s a constant struggle as to which one will win. And one cannot exist without the other” […]
Introduction: Nathaniel Hawthorne is a great romantic novelist in America in the 19th century. His novel, The Scarlet Letter, is considered as the first American psychological novel written by Nathaniel […]
The Scarlet Letter is a novel that describes the psychological anguish of two principle characters, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimondale. They are both suffering under, while attempting to come to […]