Irony in The Scarlet Letter
In the novel, the main example of irony occurs when Hester is on the Puritan scaffold and is compared to the Virgin Mary, despite the fact that she is being punished for her sin in that very moment. Dramatic irony (when the reader, or audience, knows something the characters don’t know) occurs throughout the story, whenever a member of the community speaks positively of Reverend Dimmesdale’s piety, or shames Hester for her adultery.
Irony Examples in The Scarlet Letter:
Chapter II 2
"The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch..." See in text (Chapter II)
This Boston society is supposed to consist of people who are strictly religious and adhere to the word of God. However, these women choose to gossip about Hester in a very unchristian way. Such ironic and hypocritical actions of the townspeople will continue to be a theme in the novel.
"SCARLET LETTER..." See in text (Chapter II)
The “Scarlet Letter” is a red “A” that stands for “adultery,” and it must be worn as a punishment for having a child out of wedlock. Hester designs it herself by order of the church and chooses to embroider it and make it a piece of beauty. The irony that something to be worn as punishment turned out to be so beautiful and elaborate represents a satirical view of Puritan Society.
Chapter IV 1
"that I should take in hand to drive Satan out of her with stripes..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Master Brackett is saying that if Chillingworth can’t make her “more amenable to just authority,” he would take it upon himself to whip the devil out her. The idea of beating someone to remove the devil from them is an ironic practice. Hawthorne uses this theme of irony (what is good in the eyes of the church versus what seems to be truly good) to make social commentary on religious society.
Chapter VI 3
"Puritanic nurture would permit..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Hawthorne uses ironic humor here to possibly satirize Puritan societies. The list that follows includes playing games that represent sinful acts, and a further irony is that while the “good” Puritan children play games that consist of mocking church and faking murders, Pearl’s humanity is questioned because of her innate lightness of being.
"Eden..." See in text (Chapter VI)
This biblical allusion refers to the Garden of Eden from the Book of Genesis. The Bible says that God created the first humans, Adam and Eve, and placed them in the Garden of Eden. By saying Pearl is worthy of the Garden of Eden, Hawthorne argues that Pearl is a child who looks of great purity and worthiness for the kingdom of God. This is an ironic reference because her birth was the result of great sin in the eyes of Puritan society.
"flower, out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Pearl is a living representation of the theme of good coming from bad. Hawthorne communicates this theme through a variety of metaphors in the story including light versus dark and beauty versus ugliness.
Chapter VII 3
"armour on their breasts..." See in text (Chapter VII)
The armour on the soldier’s breast represent bravery and protection, a direct contrast to the scarlet letter on Hester’s breast which signifies shame and vulnerability. It is ironic that Hawthorne includes this description, perhaps to satirize the idea that men who fight wars and kill are honored while “sinners” like Hester are forever punished in this society.
"a free-born Englishman, but now a seven years' slave..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Even though it was common at this time for priests to have servants, it is still an irony that is hard to understand today. Governor Bellingham’s servants are also symbolic parallels to Hester, who was also born free but made into a sort of slave by the hand of the church.
"a Christian interest in the mother's soul required them to remove such a stumbling-block from her path..." See in text (Chapter VII)
It is ironic that, in the view of the priests, Pearl is a “stumbling block” in the way of Hester’s salvation even though Pearl is a symbol of the natural world. In this way, Hawthorne suggests that the “Christian interest” mentioned here is not always the most morally correct route.
Chapter IX 2
"his dawning light would be extinguished..." See in text (Chapter IX)
This ironic phrase exhibits unnatural qualities. Dawn brings light, but here, because of the young minister’s failing health, the light is dying at dawn. Because we have been reading with the prevalent symbol of light as a symbol of good, perhaps this metaphor references more than merely the mortality of Reverend Dimmesdale.
"This learned stranger was exemplary..." See in text (Chapter IX)
This chapter is an excellent example of dramatic irony because as readers we know who Roger Chillingworth is, but the townspeople do not. The purpose of dramatic irony is to implement a learned suspense for the reader going forward. We are not afforded the mystery of who Roger Chillingworth is (because that has already been revealed to us), but we are interested in how his real self will, or will not, be revealed as the story progresses.
Chapter X 1
"They grew out of his heart, and typify, it may be, some hideous secret that was buried with him, and which he had done better to confess during his lifetime...." See in text (Chapter X)
Reverend Dimmesdale does not know who Roger Chillingworth truly is, but readers know about Chillingworth. With this knowledge, we believe that Chillingworth says this to Dimmesdale because Chillingworth suspects him of being the person who had the affair with Hester.
Chapter XI 2
"He won it, indeed, in great part, by his sorrows..." See in text (Chapter XI)
Notice the irony in how Dimmesdale’s internal guilt and self-hatred has “won” him even more popularity and respect from the townspeople than he had before he started “suffering under bodily disease.” Perhaps this is Hawthorne’s way of commenting on how people are not always how they appear to the public.
"could never gain a knowledge of its actual nature..." See in text (Chapter XI)
The fact that we know why Chillingworth is slowly and methodically torturing Dimmesdale, but Dimmesdale is unaware of this, is an example of dramatic irony in the story. Because Dimmesdale consumes himself with his own guilt, he remains unaware to Chillingworth’s malicious intentions.
Chapter XII 1
"A pure hand needs no glove to cover it!..." See in text (Chapter XII)
Perhaps this alludes to how Dimmesdale continuously covers his heart with his hand, meaning that a pure heart needs no hand to cover it. The dramatic irony of this statement by the sexton, is that we know Dimmesdale’s hands are metaphorically dirty and his heart impure.
Chapter XIII 1
"were longer in acknowledging the influence of Hester's good qualities than the people..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
Notice the irony in how the “wise and learned men of the community” take longer than others to acknowledge Hester’s goodness and the positive influence she has in the community. Perhaps Hawthorne says this to make social commentary on how title and influence do not correlate to goodness and intelligence.
Chapter XXII 2
"must needs be a personage of high dignity among her people..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
It is ironic that because of all the attention the scarlet letter draws in the crowd, the Native Americans interpret it to be something of value, something representing Hester’s “high dignity.” Over the course of the story, the scarlet letter’s meaning has changed on Hester’s chest, but not so much as the Native Americans interpret it to mean.
"stood up for the welfare of the state like a line of cliffs against a tempestuous tide..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
This simile represents the irony in the rules and regulations of the Puritans. While they profess to care for the “welfare of the state,” many of their rules actually cause sadness, despair, and harm those who live under the laws of their society.
Chapter XXIII 1
"Thou hast escaped me!” he repeated more than once. “Thou hast escaped me!..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
These lines serve as excellent examples of dramatic irony. The townspeople do not know who Chillingworth really is, so they interpret this to mean that Chillingworth is frantic because his patient passed away. However, Chillingworth most likely means Dimmesdale has been relinquished of his plot of revenge.