Themes in The Scarlet Letter
Hawthorne explores numerous themes throughout the text, many of which stem from the rigid nature of Boston’s Puritan society. With Hester and Dimmesdale’s struggles to be accepted and forgiven by their community, Hawthorne highlights the theme of the individual versus society. Similarly, by contrasting the identities imposed on characters by others and the identities they create for themselves Hawthorne explores the theme of identity. The oppression of women is another recurring theme, which is seen in the way Hester is singularly blamed and made to carry the shame of her affair. Hester’s affair subsequently demonstrates the juxtapositional themes of legality and ethics: although she betrayed her marital vows, the marriage itself was loveless and miserable.
Themes Examples in The Scarlet Letter:
"red cloth..." See in text (The Custom-House)
Red is a religious symbol of evil in Puritan society. With this knowledge and all the religious jargon previously mentioned we can hypothesize that the red cloth the narrator just found is probably an important piece of the story.
"except it were human nature..." See in text (The Custom-House)
In literature, it is important to pay attention to anything that makes generalizations about human nature. Often, when an author says something about human nature, it can be inferred to foreshadow how the thematic events of a story will involve something inherently good or bad in humans.
"a tale of human frailty and sorrow..." See in text (Chapter I)
Hawthorne directly addresses the readers to give them guidance as to how the story is meant to be read. He tells the readers the story is about humanity’s sinful nature. Hawthorne states that despite the content of the story, readers will be able to understand the good that can come from the bad, which is his intended purpose with sharing this story.
"Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era..." See in text (Chapter I)
This simile is important to the major theme of deception in the novel. This means that the sinful nature of humans is sometimes hard to predict because we don’t understand exactly where it comes from--sometimes simply happening over time.
"steeple-crowned hats..." See in text (Chapter I)
A steeple-crowned hat was popular in new England during the time of the story. A steeple-crowned hat has a high, pointed top that resembles a steeple. Hawthorne implements a religious image in the first sentence of the story to draw readers’ attention to religious themes and symbolism throughout the course of the text. Hawthorne consistently uses religious imagery and symbolism to communicate the importance of rigid Puritan beliefs in 17th century Boston.
"congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilised society, a prison..." See in text (Chapter I)
This is another use of dark color as symbolism for bad human nature in the first chapter. Hawthorne claims that prisons are the “black flower of a civilised society.” This is an interesting symbol because there are no truly black flowers in the natural world. Perhaps what Hawthorne is suggesting is that it isn’t human nature that has bad tendencies, but instead the effect of society on humans that breeds evil actions.
"rose-bush..." See in text (Chapter I)
The wild rose-bush contrasts with the ugly vegetation of the overgrown plot of grass. The rose-bush is symbolic of the possibility of goodness in human beings-even within the “rot” of a bad community. Notice how Hawthorne contrasts the dichotomy of good and evil in humans and how it emerges as a central theme of the story.
"sad-coloured..." See in text (Chapter I)
The novel starts out with this modified emotional image that claims garments to be “sad-coloured.” In this instance, the garments are a symbol of gloomy and hopeless circumstances, going forward notice how different clothing corresponds to particular character traits . Notice, also, how color is used throughout the novel to portray shifting mood and emotions.
"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.
"appeared the letter A..." See in text (Chapter II)
The Scarlet Letter A Hester must wear is the the most prominent symbol of this book. In the context of her punishment, it is meant to represent her moral shortcomings. However, because it is described as a thing of beauty, it also represents the bravery with which she takes her punishment.
"Antinomian..." See in text (Chapter II)
Antinomian refers to the viewpoint that claims Christians have no obligation to follow socially structured morality because faith alone is all that is necessary for salvation. Notice how this belief will be an underlying theme of conflict among the townspeople throughout the story.
"It was whispered, by those who peered after her, that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way of the interior..." See in text (Chapter III)
We have noticed Hester’s strength many times in this chapter, and here the chapter ends with a metaphor for her goodness. Lightness and darkness are classic symbols for good and evil in literature, and by ending this chapter with Hester’s Scarlet Letter shining light in the dark, Hawthorne is suggesting that not only is Hester strong, but she is also, perhaps, holy.
"“You must needs be a stranger in this region, friend,”..." See in text (Chapter III)
This statement reveals the notoriety of Hester’s crime in the minds of the townspeople. By making this claim, the “townsman” emphasizes how popular this scandal has been to the gossip of Boston. This gives the reader the idea that this shame is not only a day-long punishment, but that it’ll also continue to follow Hester even after she leaves the platform.
"But thy words interpret thee as a terror!..." See in text (Chapter IV)
This is another instance where the theme of everything not being what it seems comes into play. Although everything Chillingworth has done up to this moment seems to show him being merciful to Hester, his words about revenge make her fearful that she cannot trust him at all.
"the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom...." See in text (Chapter V)
Hester's refusal to leave Boston may also relate to the fact that Pearl will always be her "scarlet letter." Though Hester may easily escape Boston (and her harsh punishment), she can't really return to a life of honor; Pearl's existence will always provide evidence of her sins.
"she came forth into the sunshine..." See in text (Chapter V)
This line contrasts with the end of the scaffold scene when she walked into the darkness of the prison tunnel, and the scarlet letter gleamed with light. The light symbolizes good, so by pointing out that she walked out of the prison into the “sunshine,” Hawthorne suggests that the end of her prison sentence is the beginning of a new start and a holy life for Hester. It also suggests that Hester will be in the town’s spotlight, even though she has served her prison time.
"glowing all alight..." See in text (Chapter V)
Notice again how Hawthorne uses the symbols of lightness and darkness. By saying that it glows “in the night-time,” Hawthorne creates the metaphor of how light (goodness) can shine even in the dark (in the face of evil).
"Like all other joys, she rejected it as sin..." See in text (Chapter V)
This is evidence of the metaphorical burn mark the scarlet letter has left on her mind. She has been made to feel so bad about her sin that she feels like she should not feel joy from life. This is a new theme emerging in the novel: the internal pain and regret caused by wrongdoing outweighs any of the repulsion felt from the townspeople.
"began the daily custom..." See in text (Chapter V)
The “daily custom” is the public ridicule she will receive from the townspeople. Hester knows that although she has repented to God and served time in prison, the townspeople have not yet forgiven her. This lack of forgiveness could be their way of handing off the guilt they feel for their own, private sins.
"I have no Heavenly Father!..." See in text (Chapter VI)
For Hester, this is an awfully frightening thing to hear. Recall the scaffold scene, when Hester says, “And my child must seek a heavenly Father; she shall never know an earthly one!” This could be Pearl’s way of saying that her earthly father matters more than God, or it could be another instance of Pearl as a symbol of counterculture to religious society.
"but another face in the small black mirror of Pearl's eye..." See in text (Chapter VI)
This line symbolizes two major contrasting, symbolic consequences. First, the author makes a point of using the word “black” to suggest the possibility of Pearl’s mischievous ways. Second, Hawthorne uses “mirror of Pearl’s eye” to infer that Pearl is a symbol that makes the strict Puritan society to look at themselves to see if they are really as holy as they believe themselves to be.
"She never created a friend..." See in text (Chapter VI)
In this chapter, Pearl’s description reiterates multiple times how misunderstood she is by Hester and the townspeople. They interpret her unconventional ways of being as a result of Hester’s sin; however, it may also be a result of the fact that she represents the freedom of choice in a society that scolds such an idea.
"the ugliest weeds of the garden were their children..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Hawthorne repeatedly uses plants to symbolize the good and bad aspects of human nature. Recall how in the beginning of the story, one rose bush stood in a plot of overgrown weeds and dying grasses by the prison door. This line is another example of this symbolism, and it serves as a metaphor for how even sinners, the weeds, are also children of God.
"to be swayed by her own impulses..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Hawthorne alludes to the story in the Book of Genesis, where God tells Adam and Eve what they are not allowed to do, but does not prevent them from doing it. In this way, Hester is a symbol of God by allowing Pearl, a symbol of freedom of humanity and freedom of choice, to listen to her natural “impulses.”
"God, as a direct consequence of the sin which man thus punished..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Hawthorne uses this important theme to make social commentary on strictly religious societies. Here, Hawthorne makes it clear that God gave Hester her Pearl, a natural representation of beauty, as a reminder of her sin; however, the townspeople give her nothing but cruelty and judgement. In this way, Hawthorne makes the argument that perhaps compassion is more holy than judgment, and help is more godly than hate.
"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.
"Pearl, seeing the rose-bushes, began to cry for a red rose, and would not be pacified..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Since Pearl is a symbol of the natural world, she cannot be contained by any laws or standards. In this instance, Hawthorne suggests the desire for beauty and good are innate, and because Pearl embodies freedom of choice, she will not stop until her thirst for those desires are satisfied.
"hou must gather thine own sunshine. I have none to give thee!..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Pearl is attracted to the sunshine because she is a symbol of naturally born goodness. In this instance, Hester tells her she has no “sunshine,” a symbol of goodness, to give because of her own lack of self worth. This is a major difference between the two characters and represents a major theme in the story of the evils of a strictly religious society: Pearl has innate freedom and happiness in her; Hester bears the metaphorical scarlet letter not given to her by her actions, but by the judgemental evils of a religious society.
"spake gravely one to another..." See in text (Chapter VII)
This scene is a reminder of the scaffold scene. When Hester stood upon the scaffold, the townspeople mercilessly gossip about her sin. Here, the children reflect their parents’ hateful act of judgement and gossip. This is Hawthorne’s way of suggesting that a religious society that encourages judgement, breeds children of ill moral repute.
"while the shadow of his figure, which the sunlight cast upon the floor..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
We have noticed several times the theme of light coming from darkness, but here that theme is turned around and we notice the sunlight creating a shadow. This metaphor shows how evil can come from good--in this case, the light..
"father's guilt and its mother's shame..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
This is a recurring point of conflict in the novel, what is worse: guilt or shame? We have seen the downside to Hester’s shame, but we have not seen the effects of guilt on Pearl’s father. Perhaps Hawthorne is suggesting that in a society that believes so firmly in God, the only difference between the two is that the one who feels shame has afforded themselves the benefit of expressing honesty.
"had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses, that grew by the prison-door..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
The use of flowers is one of the most common symbols in the story. This metaphor represents the most enduring theme: the idea of beauty and goodness coming from evil and darkness. Hawthorne uses this theme to argue against the strict and unforgiving beliefs of religious societies.
"his life was wasting itself away, amid lamp-light, or obstructed day-beams..." See in text (Chapter IX)
The theme of contrast between the natural and the unnatural has been represented by the conflict between the strictly governed religious society and the innate human desires embodied in Hester’s sin and Pearl’s character. Here, by explaining that Dimmesdale’s life is being wasted “amid lamp-light” and “obstructed day-beams, Hawthorne presents a metaphor for how perhaps unnatural “goodness” (like that represented in the religious society) is not equivalent to the light, the good, of the natural world.
"rheumatism, and clog his throat with catarrh and cough..." See in text (Chapter XII)
“Rheumatism” is an umbrella word for diseases that are defined by inflammation and pain in joints, bones, and muscles. “Catarrh” is essentially build up of mucus in nasal and throat passageways due to inflammation. We have noticed the conflict between the laws of nature and the laws of a religious society in the story, perhaps this is Dimmesdale’s natural punishment for not being reprimanded by the laws of the Boston Puritan society.
"It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
The conflict between human nature and the laws of religious society has recurred throughout the story. This embodies the emerging message that Hawthorne tries to convey in this novel: human nature is inherently good, and the laws constructed by religious societies obstruct that goodness.
"All the light and graceful foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and had long ago fallen away..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
This represents the cycle of sin that Hester has gone through, but Dimmesdale has not. She made a mistake, took her punishment, and with time has grown and been forgiven. Hester represents how forgiveness is given to those who take the steps to seek it while Dimmesdale represents how guilt can eat away at the dishonest and destroy someone.
"not of that one sin, for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
In the beginning, the townspeople came off as unforgiving, ruthless individuals who wanted a more intense punishment for Hester. Now, they have grown to the point that they have not only pardoned Hester’s sin, but they also look to her as a symbol of good. This contributes to the theme that the innate goodness of humans can outweigh injustices in a corrupt society.
"He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
Dimmesdale and Hester actually did the opposite of Chillingworth. They didn’t “[violate], in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart,” but rather created a human heart with their love. Even though Pearl was born of sin and represents transgression against the laws of society, she also represents the love and power of the natural world.
"O Thou to whom I dare not lift mine eyes, wilt Thou yet pardon me!..." See in text (Chapter XVIII)
Although Dimmesdale is pleading to God for forgiveness, Hester is the one who responds, drawing a parallel between herself and God. This enhances the theme that goodness is a part of human nature. Interestingly, Hester forgave (or pardoned) Dimmesdale long ago, and perhaps this further supports how goodness and forgiveness are prevailing aspects of human nature.
"Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth..." See in text (Chapter XVIII)
Hawthorne essentially summarizes one the novel’s most prevalent themes. Human nature is tender and forgiving; however, the construction of rigid social laws appear to go against our nature, making us less sympathetic and blind to the light of “higher truth.”
"Shame, Despair, Solitude..." See in text (Chapter XVIII)
Hester’s metaphorical teachers (“Shame, Despair, Solitude”) all represent the rigid religious society she lives in. Hawthorne is likely showing that even though strict laws have the ability to mold people to a government’s liking, they are not always best for the people.
"Seen in the brook, once more, was the shadowy wrath of Pearl's image..." See in text (Chapter XIX)
This metaphor illustrates how looking into a mirror (in this case the water) forces a person to see one’s true self. A theme in the story has been people presenting themselves in a false light, but here Pearl is unable to escape who she truly is—-a child of freedom constrained by the rules of the society in which she was born.
"No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true...." See in text (Chapter XX)
Hawthorne chooses to step away from storytelling writing and moves to fiction, and write a sort of short essay to introduce this chapter. This line represents one of the most enduring themes of the novel. Notice the characters that have been transformed by the lies they tell: Chillingworth sought revenge, and he has evolved into a kind of devil. Dimmesdale hopes to maintain his good reputation and hide his lie, and so he dwindles at a young age into a tortured and sick man who hates himself.
"We have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gayety..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
Notice how Hawthorne uses “we” when making this claim even though he is 200 years removed from the story and doesn’t live in the same type of society. Perhaps this suggests that Hawthorne believes all societies have problematic effects on individuals.
" The reader may choose among these theories..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter as an allegory to draw attention to how religious law can oppress natural, human morality. He wanted people to learn a lesson from the book, so in the end the reader is given a choice: to ignore what we’ve been told or to take the lesson to heart.
"ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
Hawthorne uses this epitaph to summarize, largely, the major themes of the novel. In this context, field means background; sable is black; gules is scarlet. So this translates to, “On a black background, a red letter A.” The contrast between the red letter and darkness behind it symbolizes the conflict between human nature and societal conventions.
"Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
Hawthorne tells readers the major lesson and theme that this allegory attempts to convey. Pearl and Hester show their true selves and are able to grow and change, but Dimmesdale and Chillingworth hide their true identities and rot and die as a consequence.
"in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
This is one of the most important themes of the novel. While other people’s sins go unnoticed, Hester is the only person in town with a scarlet letter. In a way, Hester wears the scarlet letter to bear the weight of the punishment for the sins of all the townspeople. So even though they don’t wear their own, everyone is a sinner.