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
Themes in The Scarlet LetterDifferent themes have been treated in The Scarlet Letter. Among other things, the novel deals “with normal guilt, with genuine passion, with the operation of recognize mind." One obvious reason for The Scarlet Letter working on so many different levels is that it abounds in Symbolism, which gives the author an opportunity to make meaningful utterances.
The Scarlet Letter
"Thus the basic theme of The Scarlet Letter seems to be man's moral struggle directed towards transcending human limitations. It is the recovery of affections, or the assertion of the basic principle of being. It is sad and somber tale, tells about the struggle of morally and emotionally starved individuals, literal personifications of abstractions like knowledge and virtue, seeking for fullness of being.”
Having made certain general observations about the themes of The Scarlet Letter, we shall now study them one by one. They are to be studied under the following heads:-
1. The theme of Damnation
2. The theme of Frustration of Guilt
3. The theme of Sin, Crime and Punishment
4. The theme of Passion or Love
1. The theme of Damnation
The theme of Damnation is one of the dominant themes in The Scarlet Letter. The description of the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in it is quite in keeping with the oldest and most full authorized principles in Christian thought. His 'Fall is, to be sure, a descent from a state of apparent grace to damnation; he seems to begin in purity—he ends in corruption; he may have been a whole man— at his death, he is in a state of spiritual disintegration. The subtlety of Hawthorne's view seems to be that the minister is his own deceiver; he is that truly damned man who convinces himself at every stage of his spiritual pilgrimage that his is really "saved". More terrifying still, he is that rare man who is gifted with unusual powers of penetration into his own mind and soul. He constantly pries into his private world. He moves steadily towards his doom quite unaware of where he is, going. His fall is therefore, dire and irrefutable: by a sin of the flesh which he did not expiate; he corrupted his whole being. He becomes, at the last, his own saviour and god, as well as his own demon and destroyer.
Dimmesdale is more wretched for the simple reason that he puts, up a false appearance—throughout his life. He is really a fallen angel trying to maintain divinity, though he has primarily lost it. His innocence is conscious and manipulated. His first words to Hester are in the form of an admonition to reveal, and yet not to reveal, the name of her fellow sinner. He has no courage to face the condemnation of the people. He is thus morally a coward.
Dimmesdale is, therefore, a ceaseless sufferer. On many occasions, he tries to confess his guilt: he pronounces from his pulpit his vile and degraded state; he confesses that he is the “the worst of sinners and abomination, a thing of unimaginable iniquity” – and the people but “reverence him the more”. The supposed confession is meaningless for the words are mere utterances of breath, of the flesh; they are but body, not ‘soul.’
2. The theme of Frustration of Guilt
The theme of Frustration and Guilt is operative in The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale in the protective gloom of the forest surrounding Boston have had their fateful reunion. While Pearl has been discreetly sent out hearing range, the martyred lovers have unburdened themselves. Hester has revealed identity of Chillingworth and has succeeded winning Dimmesdale's forgiveness for her previous secrecy. Dimmesdale has explained the agony of his seven torment. Self-pity and compassion have led unexpectedly to a revival of desire; they affirm the purity of their deed.
This is what actually, apart from charting out the plan of escape, happens in the forest-scene. The sinful act of adultery, which is a guilt indeed, generates frustration in the lovers. Dimmesdale is tormented inwardly, while Hester is tormented outwardly. Frustration, of course, is not the lot of Hester; it falls also on the head of Mr. Dimmesdale intolerably. But even Hester is not free from it. One may mark her nervous breakdown in the prison after she had stood, along with her child, on the scaffold. She is frustrated for a while in that the citizens of Boston have planned for the removal of Pearl from her guardianship. But the timely and passionate interference of the young minister averts the fate. She is greatly shocked to see the reduced health and agonized heart and mind of the 'minister standing on the scaffold on the night of vigil. The greatest part of her frustration is the failure of her plan of escape because of Mr. Chillingworth. She fails to understand what to do until by way of luck, she finds herself joined by Mr. Dimmesdale, who makes revelations of the scaffold in the presence of the crowd.
As regards the guilt of Mr. Dimmesdale, it is more tortuous to him and sits very close to his heart. Only once is his life, he accepts, he has committed a crime against the law of society. He can find no rest, no mental peace. The sin of adultery sends him to fasts, vigils, scourging, and penance, but his anguish is not abated. In the forest-interview he acknowledges the fact that he has had enough a penance but little of penitence.
The worst kind of guilt on the part of Mr. Dimmesale is that though he knows he is sinful, he leads the life of a hypocrite in complete disguise. He does not speak aloud of it to the public in general. And when by the way, he does so out of remorse he is taken in a different light.
Chillingworth's guilt is diabolical and intellectual. He eggs on his enemy dwelling always beside him. He has wronged his wife, a young girl of f Hester's nature, by enticing her to marry him not out of love but out of greed and possession. He adds to the misery of the minister every day. He goes as Dimmesdale’s friend though he is his worst revengeful enemy. He can’t let him have his way. He keeps a close watch on his movements. He frustrates the plan of the lovers to ‘flee’ to another country. His life is revenge. The moment Dimmesdale, the harassed pry of his revenges dies, Mr. Chillingworth feels miserable. He dies within a year of Dimmesdale’s death; for the Devil has none to work his evil designs on. Whatever Chillingworth does is out of the feeling of guilt and revenge; he is greatly frustrated in his domestic life.
So we see that each of the three main characters suffer, in some degree, from the sense of Frustration and Guilt in the novel, The Scarlet Letter, which may be said to form an important theme of it.
3. The theme of Sin, Crime and Punishment
The most dominant theme in the novel is that of Sin. By committing the crime of adultery, Hester Prynne has broken a great moral law and a long-established social convention. Society, therefore, condemns her with the three hours standing on the scaffold and with the life-long wearing of the scarlet letter on her bosom. Hester is put to public disgrace and social boycott, her isolation leads to a moral deterioration. Her acts of charity are not inspired by any sincere penitence.
Dimmesdale’s sin lies primarily in his concealment of the act of adultery with Hester Prynne. He is very much disgusted of it. He feels that he has broken a great law of morality and social code of conduct. No fewer than three times in the course of the novel does he repeat that idea. The sin saps his moral, spiritual and physical energies. It sits so heavy on his heart that his peace is gone. His fasts, vigils, flagellations and scourging are of no avail. His sin leads him astray form the course of priesthood, and he becomes a victim of his own morbid imagination.
Chilingworth’s sin is of a different nature. His vindictiveness dehumanizes him and turns him into a devil. He is a worse sinner than either Hester Prynne or Arthur Dimmesdale, for his design is retaliatory and he knows no forgiveness. A good-natured man would have easily pardoned a remorseful man like Dimmesdale. Instead, he tempers with the delicate springs of Dimmesdale’s nature and thereby violates, in cold blood, “the sanctity of a human nature”. He is guilty of the Unpardonable Sin for which he pays the terrible price of complete physical and spiritual breakdown. For him there is little hope of regeneration.
As regards Dimmesdale’s crime, it is certainly of the same nature as that of Hester. But his punishment is surely more severe than that of Hester. His is the inner punishment as against the outer punishment of Hester. He suffers deep down in his heart.
Dimmesdale is a greater sinner than Hester. First, he defiles the purity of his profession; secondly, he tries to conceal his crime from the public. He adds hypocrisy to his sin. But though hypocrisy can save him from social dishonor into which he is afraid he might fall after the exposure of his crime, it is helpless in remedying his spiritual hurts.
Dimmesdale’s conscience allows him no rest; it is rather source of his constant trouble. He can’t sleep soundly, he can’t sit or study peacefully in his room; he burns midnight oil over the writings sermons; he keeps fasts and vigils; he scourges himself when he is all alone. But these things do not give him any peace of mind.
4. The theme of Passion or Love
The theme of passion or love is also significant in The Scarlet Letter. The novel may be seen as ‘a love story’ or as a tragedy of grand passion rather than as a tale of sinful passion”. The novel is haunted by “the mystery of erotic passion”.
Quite different is the relation between Hester and Dimmesdale, or between the beloved and the lover. They have deep love for each other to unite them together. Although different agents – Chillingworth, society, law, morality – try to bring their real love to a disaster, they succeed but little in it. On the other hand, it makes the two lovers strong – morally and spiritually. Under the influence of this love, they grow to a tragic height of character which they otherwise would probably not have attained to. Of course, they have to suffer a lot in the pursuance of their heart-felt love for each other. But the course of life, it is said, never runs smooth. The true test of a lover is in the fact that he or she does not waver in his or her love even though the world around murmurs in a hostile tone. Hester and Dimmesdale, no doubt, come out with flying colors through the test through their unflinching devotion to each other.
The intensity of love reaches its height in the forest-interview between the lovers. Here the expression of Dimmesdale is deeply moving: “Art thou in life?” “Dost thou live?” “Hester, hast thou found peace?” And in reply Hester says, “Hast thou?” These are marked by intensity of feeling. After disclosing the identity of her husband to Dimmesdale, Hester assumes the role of a true beloved. She asks a thousand pardons for concealing Chilingworth’s identity from Dimmesdale, and the love pardons her freely. She presses his head against her bosom until he grants pardon to her. Then she talks of The consecration of their love-affair. Suddenly the sun shines on her Womanhood return. She throws away the scarlet letter and lets her lustrous hair fall that had been so far hidden under the cap. The lovers evolve a new strategy to escape the revenge. The strategy fails, and the tragic end is inevitable. Thus, the novel may be said to have love or passion as one of its themes round which its plot and events revolve.