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A Comprehensive Guide To The Scarlet Letter

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is an outstanding tale of romance, sin, human conflict and guilt. Hawthorne began writing the novel in September 1849. He completed his work in February 1850. Within just five months, he was able to create a “psychological romance” that leaves a lasting impression on readers of every generation. In this The Scarlet Letter study guide, you will explore the major themes of the novel. This critical analysis will help you understand the work better. So, let’s read on.

What is the Scarlet Letter?

Before diving into a critical analysis of the novel, let’s clear up some basic information. First, let’s answer, “Who wrote the scarlet letter?” The novel was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was an American novelist. You’ll also find many short stories written by him. Hawthorne is renowned for his complex exploration of romance stories mixed with allegories and symbols.

Next, let’s figure out the following – “When was The Scarlet Letter  written?” The answer to this will help you identify the story in the right setting. This will provide more context to the story. As stated before, the novel was completed in 1850. But the story takes place in the 1600s. This is right before American Independence. Let’s dive more into it.

Background Information on The Scarlet Letter Setting

The setting for The Scarlet Letter  book is Boston. During the early years of the 17th century, Boston was inseparable from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Approximately 25,000 English settlers left England and settled in Boston by the 1940s. They believed the Church of England was corrupt. They left in the hopes of being “purified”, which led to the rise of the term ‘Puritans.’

This Puritan society plays a huge role in the novel. The Puritans considered sin the most dangerous threat to society. They were extremely strict and judgmental. It is in such a society where the protagonist, Hester Prynne, finds herself with a child borne out of wedlock.

Brief Overview of the Main Characters in The Scarlet Letter And Their Roles

In The Scarlet Letter, the main characters are the following –

1. Hester Prynne

Hester Prynne is the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter. She married Roger Chillingworth (not his real name) and was sent to relocate to Boston. Chillingworth was supposed to follow her, but he never arrived. Thinking that she was widowed, Prynne engaged in an affair with Dimmesdale and gave birth to Pearl. She endures immense ridicule, discrimination and shame for her adultery.

2. Roger Chillingworth

Roger Chillingworth is a pseudonym. He is a scholar and Hester Prynne’s husband. He was captured by Native Americans on his way to Boston. Upon his arrival, he learns of his wife’s adultery and her illegitimate daughter. Burning with a passion to get revenge, he took on the name of Roger Chillingworth and disguised himself as a doctor to find Hester’s lover.

3. Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

Dimmesdale was a young theologian in England who later relocated to Boston. He is well-respected in the community. He has an affair with Hester Prynne but cannot admit that Pearl is his child because of the shame. His guilt torments him. He develops a heart condition because of this.

4. Pearl

Pearl is the illegitimate child of Hester Prynne. She is wise beyond her age and quickly understands the relationship between her mother and Dimmesdale. The people in the community view spread rumors about her because of her strange nature.

The central theme of this novel revolves around sin, guilt, and redemption. These themes are expressed in the author’s use of symbols and the psychology of the characters. You’ll get into more details about them in a while.

What Is The Act of Adultery and Its Consequences?

Remember that the story in the novel takes place in a Puritan society. Therefore, it’s not surprising that in The Scarlet Letter, laws consider adultery a grave sin. Any person found deviating from the sexual purity expected in society will be publicly shamed. So is the case for Hester Prynne. After waiting for her husband to follow her to Boston for years, she believes him to be lost at sea. Afterwards, she gets into an affair with Dimmesdale and is publicly shamed for her adultery.

The Puritan officials force her to stand on a podium and be ridiculed by her fellow townspeople. She is also forced to wear a piece of cloth that says “A” in scarlet. This marks her as an adulterer. It also invites more public shaming and shunning by the community. It seems as if Dimmesdale gets off easy since Hester refuses to name her lover. But that’s far from the truth. He is wracked with guilt about his relationship with Hester. He is an upright moral figure in society. People look up to him. Therefore, he is constantly tormented thinking about the shame his soul would feel if his affair became public knowledge.

Dimmesdale wishes to confess, yet he can’t. He develops a heart condition because of the worry and stress his guilt causes him. In an attempt to absolve himself of his sins, he also whips himself, but to no avail. Only in his dying moments does he get to confess on the podium in front of the townspeople and beg for salvation.

The Scarlet Letter  author Nathaniel Hawthorne critiques the harsh judgment and condemnation of acts that go against the Puritan society’s expectations. Hester believed her husband was dead. So, she cannot be completely blamed for engaging in an affair. She was not intentionally doing it behind her husband’s back. But the townspeople think otherwise. Some wanted her dead for her sin. Others believed that she should have the branding of a hot iron on her forehead. The excessive cruelty seems uncalled for. Fear of public judgment also torments Dimmesdale. He cannot find repentance. So, he mentally and physically tortures himself. Read on. You’ll get a closer look into the complex characters of Hester and Dimmesdale.

Hester’s Inner Conflict And Resilience

Hester is notable for her strength of characters among all The Scarlet Letter  characters. She has a haughty smile and stands alone with dignity at the podium where she is being publicly shamed for her adultery. Despite being given the offer to have a reduced sentence if she names her lover, Hester refuses. She is determined to face the consequences herself. Throughout the story, she does not depend on Dimmesdale or Chillingworth for her survival. She uses her needlework to sustain her child and herself. Though she lacks adult companionship, she sustains through it all.

Hester & Pearl’s Relationship

Hester and Pearl’s relationship starts off rocky. Pearl, in The Scarlet Letter, is the symbol of sin. She is the consequence of Hester’s adulterous relationship and the reason she suffers so much torment and humiliation every day. Her bitterness unconsciously comes out in her interactions with Pearl. However, there’s no doubt that Hester cares about her child. When there is a threat that Pearl will be taken away from her, Hester begs Governor Bellingham earnestly not to take her away.

Even though Pearl is a constant reminder of her sin, she also brings joy to Hester. She keeps Hester grounded and gives her motivation to keep going. Without her, Hester would have been crushed under the weight of her sin. She understands this. That’s why her relationship with Pearl gradually improves as the novel progresses.

Hester & Roger Chillingworth’s Relationship

Hester and Chillingworth’s mismatched marriage is the cause of Hester’s unhappiness. Neither of them loved the other. Chillingworth was almost a generation older than Hester. In chapters three and four, Hester makes it clear that she never felt any love for the man nor feigned to love him. In comparison, her love for Dimmesdale is greater. She is willing to face public humiliation and ridicule for adultery all alone because she knows naming Dimmesdale would ruin his reputation.

When Chillingworth dons a new identity, he begs Hester not to reveal the truth. Hester, out of pity for Chillingworth’s situation, keeps her word. It is only when she learns of his evil intentions towards Dimmesdale that she reveals the truth to the minister.

Go through The Scarlet Letter summary. It becomes clear as day that Hester is a strong, compassionate and intelligent character. Despite the ridicule she faces, she comes off as strong. The rest of the characters are equally interesting. Let’s check the next one.

Reverend Dimmesdale’s Secret Burden

Reverend Dimmesdale is the secret lover that Hester does not name. Thus, he is spared public humiliation. But that does not offer him solace. Instead, it becomes the opposite. Dimmesdale does not get the opportunity to repent for his sins. He is burdened by his guilt. The Bible offers no support either. Even before he knows of Chillingworth’s true identity and his evil intentions, he seems resistant to his treatment. He doesn’t want to get better. Instead, he punishes himself for his sin.

His punishments start getting worse when he begins to physically torture himself. Dimmesdale is sleep deprived. He starves himself and even whips himself to atone for engaging in adultery. In The Scarlet Letter  ending, it is also revealed that Dimmesdale has the letter A on his chest. The spectators speculate he got it from branding or cutting himself.

Dimmesdale’s self-torture seems excessive. But you must understand the context. He is a well-respected Puritan minister. He believes in the Puritan ideals. Therefore, he is burdened by the consequences of his actions. He feels guilty about being the face of the religious order yet engaging in sin. The hypocrisy is not lost.

He struggles with the clash between his desire to confess his sins and the fear of social repercussions. It is impossible to find a solution. Thus, he is left to torment himself and only finds respite in the last moments of his life when he confesses publicly.

Roger Chillingworth’s Obsession And Transformation

You’ll get many The Scarlet Letter  discussion questions throughout your semester. One of them is Roger Chillingworth’s transformation from a harmless scholar into the main villain of the novel. He starts off as a relatively harmless scholar. Though he and Hester share a loveless marriage, he believed he could improve their relationship. But his hopes shatter when he finds his wife being accused of adultery. He believes Hester’s lover also deserves the humiliation. Thus begins his search for the person who had taken his wife away from him.

In Chapter 14, Hester highlights Chillingworth’s transformation. She recalls how he was once a thoughtful scholar who was kind, just and true to his words, even if he lacked affection. However, upon meeting him in the forest, Hester notes how he has changed. He doesn’t want justice. Chillingworth’s single-minded pursuit of vengeance encourages him to stop Dimmesdale from confessing his sins. It’s not because he cares for him. But if Dimmesdale confesses, then Chillingworth won’t be able to torment him.

If you’ve not gone through the entire novel, read The Scarlet Letter  chapter 9 summary. This chapter brings up the ethical considerations of Chillingworth’s heinous actions. In the novel, he uses leeches for his medical practice. But he is just like those creatures, sucking out the vitality from Dimmesdale. He feels rejuvenated seeing Dimmesdale suffer. This brings up questions about basic ethics and morality. Chillingworth is quick to separate himself from human empathy and compassion. He is an instrument of the Devil.

Pearl: The Living Consequence of Sin

If someone were to ask, “What is The Scarlet Letter  about?” the answer is simple. It is about sin, guilt, and redemption. Pearl, the illegitimate child of Hester and Dimmesdale, is a symbol of them all. She is a constant reminder of Hester and Dimmesdale’s sin. This affects her relationship with her mother initially. Hester is unable to separate Pearl from the sin that created her.

Pearl’s mysterious and otherworldly nature comes out in her rebelliousness. She is too lively for Hester to control. In society, the townspeople shun her. No child plays with her. Adults make up rumors about her. This leads Pearl to have a deeper relationship with nature. She is disobedient and does not bow down to authority.

Pearl has often been deemed as the redeemer. She opens up the path of redemption for her mother just by existing. Pearl is a constant reminder of her sin. But Hester strives to repent her sins and redeem herself. She also presents multiple opportunities for Dimmesdale to own up. In the end, he confesses and finds salvation. Chillingworth is not exempt. Out of the entire The Scarlet Letter  cast, he is perhaps the most irredeemable character. Yet, in the end, he leaves his fortune to Pearl. This gives him some redeeming points.

The Revelation And Public Confession

When making The Scarlet Letter  lesson plan, professors usually assign a considerable chunk to the confession scene. It is the culmination of all the suffering Dimmesdale has gone through. Naturally, it requires more focus. Ever since Hester’s public shaming for her adultery, Dimmesdale suffers his guilt in silence. He has always been scared of public sentiment souring against him. He is a Puritan minister and a respected and notable individual. His engaging in sinful activities is shameful.

Therefore, he torments himself instead. In the absence of public scorn, Dimmesdale tortures himself physically and mentally. It comes to a point where he can no longer bear it. He is almost at Death’s door. Before his time is up, he goes up on the scaffold, beckons Hester and Pearl close to him, and confesses his sin. Finally, he finds freedom from the torment. He begs God for forgiveness and takes his final breath.

Dimmesdale’s confession leaves a lasting mark on the community. To some in the crowd, it serves as a reminder that even the most holy men are not without sin. Different versions of the confession come out. Some people claim that they saw a red-lettered A on Dimmesdale’s chest. The minister’s loyal friends claim they saw nothing. Even till the end, the Puritan society remains the same, as does Hester’s love for Dimmesdale.

Hester has always been a steady supporter of Dimmesdale. She knew of his fear of public retaliation and never confessed her lover’s name. Even though she could have reduced her sentence, she refused to name Dimmesdale. She truly loves him. Even during the confession scene, she knows when to step back. Hester might have helped Dimmesdale up on the scaffold, but she let him make his confession without interrupting.

The Conclusion: Redemption And Closure

Dimmesdale is so wrought with stress, fear and guilt over his sin that he develops a heart condition. Chillingworth intentionally deteriorates his condition while posing as his physician. But ultimately, by the end of the novel, Dimmesdale manages to confess his sin publicly before taking his final breath.

Pearl, who has always wanted acceptance from her father, finally finds it in Dimmesdale’s last moments. He acknowledges her as his daughter. This frees her from the shackles that had been binding her for so long. Chillingworth leaves his entire fortune for Pearl as well. He doesn’t get to live a long life, either. Without Dimmesdale around, Chillingworth has no worth and dies overcome with his own rage and hatred. Using the newly acquired wealth, Pearl and Hester leave Boston and live their life peacefully.

Hester’s character development is also quite notable. She acknowledges her sin, accepts her punishment, and spends years living an honorable life after being accused of adultery. Hester outlives both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth and becomes a legendary figure in Boston.

The Moral of the Story

Ultimately, the moral of The Scarlet Letter  is that secretly harboring guilt can cause more pain than confession. Hester might have been ridiculed and shunned. But she did not have to suffer under the burden of secret guilt. Dimmesdale did and paid the price. It also highlights that society has no right to impose its morality on people. Chillingworth’s revenge also emphasizes the uselessness of such actions. Eventually, revenge causes you more pain.

Themes And Symbolism

Go through a few of The Scarlet Letter  study guides. You’ll notice something pretty quickly. The themes and symbolism section is extensive. That’s because Hawthorne introduces various themes and uses multiple symbols to drive home his points. Let’s go over a few of them.

The Scarlet Letter Themes

Guilt, forgiveness and the human condition

Hester is publicly shamed and ridiculed, and branded as an adulterer. However, she doesn’t let the townspeople have power over her. Pushing aside the challenge, she continues to live in Boston for seven years, atoning for her sin.

Dimmesdale is a respected Puritan minister. However, instead of upholding the Puritan laws, he engages in sinful acts of passion with Hester. He fears judgment from society. So, he stalls confessing to his sin for years. But his guilt affects his mental and physical health.

Sin, shame and redemption

Hester is forced to wear a symbol of shame on her because of engaging in sinful behavior such as adultery. She goes through years of shame, ridicule and shunning by the townspeople. However, she also finds her redemption. She doesn’t shy away from her sin. Instead, she accepts it and repents. Though she is initially an outcast, she eventually redeems herself and becomes a part of society again.

However, Dimmesdale does not get this respite because his shame is private. He is a respectable member of society. So, he finds it difficult to open up about his sin. But in the end, he, too, finds redemption.

Puritan society vs the natural world

The conflict between the Puritan society and the natural world is expressed through the relationship between Dimmesdale and Hester. Their love is natural. Pearl, is born naturally out of their passion. But the Puritan society views something as natural as love and human companionship as unnatural. Nature in The Scarlet Letter is on Dimmesdale and Hester’s side because what they have is a natural attraction towards the other. But societal constructs such as shame, sin and reputation keep them apart.

The Scarlet Letter Symbols

The letter of shame

Of all the symbols in The Scarlet Letter, the letter A is the most significant. It recurs throughout the novel. But what does the scarlet letter mean? Initially, it is a symbol of shame. Hester is forced to wear the letter after she is publicly shamed for adultery. But the meaning changes over the years. It becomes “Abel”, and then eventually, it loses its meaning.

Light and darkness

Socially acceptable actions in The Scarlet Letter happen during the daytime. The characters are more exposed. There is nowhere to hide. Any action that goes against society’s norms will be punished. But night welcomes covert activities that would not be accepted during daytime. People’s natural instincts flourish during this time. In the daytime, they are again restricted by the shackles of society.

The meteor

A meteor appears in the sky when Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearls stand on the scaffold. It traces the letter A. Dimmesdale believes it means he must bear the brand of a sinner on him, just like Hester. But the townspeople interpret it differently. They believe it means “Angel” since the meteor appeared after Governor Winthrop’s passing. This proves that the symbols hold no special meaning. They are what the interpreter wants them to be.

Conclusion

The Scarlet Letter  tells the trials of the main characters in a Puritan society that is adamant about repressing natural human instincts. The novel may have been published in 1850. But The Scarlet Letter  survived the tests of time and has become a classical piece of work. The timelessness lies in Hawthorne’s exploration of human characters, their basic instincts, sins, desires, guilt and redemption. Readers can relate to the characters. The complexities of Hester and Dimmesdale’s relationship and their characters intrigue readers. Thus, this novel is considered one of Hawthorne’s greatest romance masterpieces.

Most Popular Questions Searched By Students:

What is the Scarlet Letter about?

The Scarlet Letter  is an invigorating take about sin, guilt, shame and redemption. When Hester is accused of adultery, she is publicly shamed. She does not name reveal that Dimmesdale is her lover. But that doesn’t let Dimmesdale live in peace. He becomes so overcome with his guilt that he ruins his health, which eventually leads to his death.

What is the significance of the scarlet letter?

The first question that’s bound to come to your mind is – “What is a scarlet letter? Why is the novel named so?” Well, the scarlet letter ‘A’ on Hester’s chest is a symbol of shame. She is forced to wear it after her adultery is revealed to the public. However, the letter takes on a new meaning as the story progresses. Eventually, it loses its significance.

Who is the father of Hester’s child in the novel?

Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is the father of Hester’s child in The Scarlet Letter. However, he is a well-respected minister. In Puritan society, any kind of sin is looked down upon. When Hester and Dimmesdale had an affair, Hester believed that her husband had perished at the sea. But he had been alive. Thus, their affair is more scandalous. As a result, Dimmesdale never reveals himself to be Pearl’s father until the end of the novel.

What themes are explored in The Scarlet Letter?

The main themes of The Scarlet Letter are –

  • Sin, shame and redemption
  • The evil in human nature
  • Guilt and forgiveness
  • Puritan society vs the natural world

Hawthorne’s novel explores these themes through complex characters. He slips these themes into the characters’ relationships with each other as well as with nature and society.

What is the role of Pearl in the novel?

Pearl is the symbol of sin in the novel. She is the outcome of the sinful, yet natural, passion of Hester and Dimmesdale. But she has a bigger role to play than that. Pearl is also the redeemer. She helps her parents Hester and Dimmesdale redeem themselves.  

How does the novel explore the theme of hypocrisy?

Many of The Scarlet Letter  quotes highlight the hypocrisy of the characters in the novel. Let’s look at one of them.

In chapter 3, you’ll find a quote – “What can thy silence do…presented to thy lips!” Here, Dimmesdale condemns Hester for not revealing her lover’s name and dooming his reputation. Dimmesdale is the father. But he is too scared to confess his sin. So, he pushes the responsibility on Hester.

What happens to Roger Chillingworth in the end?

Roger Chillingworth becomes obsessed with taking revenge on Dimmesdale. He knows Dimmesdale had an affair with his wife. He undergoes moral degradation. In the end, Dimmesdale’s confession hurts him more. He cannot torment him anymore. Chillingworth finally perishes, consumed by his rage. But he leaves his property to Pearl.

Is The Scarlet Letter based on a true story?

Nathaniel Hawthorne begins his novel with an introduction. He claims that he found an embroidered letter A and a document in the Customs House while working. The novel is supposedly an extension of this document. But this is not based on a true story. Hawthorne used the introduction to make his story look like a real historical account.

What is the overall message of The Scarlet Letter?

The overall message of The Scarlet Letter is that people should not believe whatever they are told by people in a higher position than them. Critical thinking is necessary. No one has the right to judge another person for their actions. They have never been in their shoes.  

Why is The Scarlet Letter considered a classic of American literature?

If you go through any The Scarlet Letter  review, you’ll understand why it is considered an American classic. Hawthorne portrayed multiple themes that resonated with the readers. Characters like Hester and Dimmesdale are multi-faceted. Furthermore, the struggles and dilemmas they went through because of sin and guilt are universal.

Hi, I am Mark, a Literature writer by profession. Fueled by a lifelong passion for Literature, story, and creative expression, I went on to get a PhD in creative writing. Over all these years, my passion has helped me manage a publication of my write ups in prominent websites and e-magazines. I have also been working part-time as a writing expert for myassignmenthelp.com for 5+ years now. It’s fun to guide students on academic write ups and bag those top grades like a pro. Apart from my professional life, I am a big-time foodie and travel enthusiast in my personal life. So, when I am not working, I am probably travelling places to try regional delicacies and sharing my experiences with people through my blog. 

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