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Themes

Learn about themes in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter with Course Hero's video study guide.

The Scarlet Letter | Themes

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Sin and Guilt

Hester

The most obvious example of this theme involves the affair between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. Hester commits the sin of adultery—consensual sexual relations between a married person and someone other than his or her spouse. Because adultery was forbidden by the seventh commandment, the Puritans considered it punishable by the death of both parties. In sparing Hester's life, her judges believe they are acting with justice and mercy. They likely considered that she thought her husband was dead and that her partner, who chose not to reveal his identity, should share part of the responsibility.

Dimmesdale

Hawthorne also explores this theme through Dimmesdale's actions and character. On one level, Dimmesdale's sin of failing to admit that he is Pearl's father causes him immense guilt. On another level, his shame is reinforced by the irony of his situation: as he grows more tortured over his weakness and inability to admit the truth of his affair with Hester, he becomes more respected and revered by the townspeople for his apparent holiness. His hypocrisy in accepting the townspeople's respect is sinful and adds to his guilt.

Chillingworth

Chillingworth's sin may be the greatest of all, as Dimmesdale tells Hester after she reveals the truth about Chillingworth's identity. Dimmesdale says, "We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man's revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!" Hawthorne suggests that Chillingworth's sin is the worst of all because his actions were born of malice, and he felt no guilt for seeking revenge. Although Hester and Dimmesdale sinned as well, they felt tremendous guilt. Therefore, the theme of sin and guilt is closely related to the theme of the nature of evil.

Personal and Public Truth

Hester freely acknowledges her sin, melding personal and public truth. She even flaunts her sin, elaborately embroidering the scarlet A, the symbol of her adultery. In Chapter 2, Hawthorne writes: "On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A." The needlework was "so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy," that it looked more like a decoration than a badge of shame. The letter stands in sharp contrast to the dull, plain clothing of the townspeople or the shame she is supposed to feel for having to wear the letter. In another example of Hester openly accepting her punishment, she once dresses her daughter Pearl as a miniature A. She also wears the A long after she could have discarded it.

Dimmesdale, in contrast, conceals his sin for seven years, hiding the truth from the public. As a result he suffers tremendous remorse, which causes his health to fail. He finally admits the truth freely immediately after his Election Day sermon. Similarly, Chillingworth fails to live by public truth. He pretends to be Dimmesdale's friend and doctor, but he is really Dimmesdale's enemy and destroyer. Chillingworth becomes increasingly demonic by not being truthful to himself and to others.

The importance of this theme is underscored at the end of the book. In the final chapter, commenting on the terrible effect of concealing the truth, Hawthorne notes: "Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!"

Wisdom through Suffering

Hester achieves wisdom through her suffering, as she becomes increasingly loved and respected for her good deeds and dignity. As a result the townspeople seek her out for comfort and advice. Dimmesdale also achieves wisdom through suffering: he learns that he cannot live with a lie and finally publicly confesses his sin. Chillingworth, however, does not achieve wisdom through suffering; he never realizes that his torture of Dimmesdale is immoral and evil.

Nature of Evil

As suggested in the discussion of sin and guilt, Chillingworth is the most evil character in the book for he persecutes Dimmesdale. When confronted by Hester, he declares himself a "fiend," admits that he is torturing Dimmesdale, and refuses to let him be. Hester, though proud and defiant, becomes humble and charitable toward others—Christian virtues. Though she has sinned according to the community and its laws, her affair was not the result of evil intent but loneliness and the need for love. The community comes to forgive her; no one forgives Chillingworth.

Revenge and Retribution

This theme is introduced in "The Custom-House" essay through Hawthorne's enacting his revenge against the politicians who fired him and the colleagues who did not stand up for him. The theme is repeated in the first four chapters by the public humiliation and punishment the Puritans make Hester and Pearl endure. Readers may also see this theme in Chillingworth's determination to identify Hester's lover and his malicious pursuit of Dimmesdale. Hawthorne develops the theme in Chillingworth's transformation into a "sort of devil" and by Dimmesdale's realization that Chillingworth's revenge is a sin worse than his own. At the end of the novel, Chillingworth's death soon after Dimmesdale's shows the ultimate effect of revenge and retribution: an evil, wasted life and a premature death.

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