I am studying the Scarlet Letter.  What is the difference between identifying the motifs in the novel and identifying its conflict(s)?

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pirateteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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Motifs are a recurring theme, subject or idea in a literary work that help to develop or convey the work's overall theme or message.

  • Weeds are seen throughout The Scarlet Letter. In "The Prison Door" we see reference to ugly weeds taking root in the "congenial soil" surrounding the prison.  These weeds are seen throughout the novel, even Pearl is compared to a weed.

When we study a work's conflict, we are looking at the overall struggle in the work.  There are two types of conflict: internal and external.  An internal conflict is that struggle that takes place in a characters head.

  • Should Dimmesdale come forward as Pearl's father?
  • Should Hester tell Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband.

External conflicts are just that, conflicts that take place outside of the character; in other words, external conflicts are conflicts characters face with opposing forces.  These conflicts can be character against character or character against nature.


Often times a work's motif can also be a part of the conflict.  When we look at civilization versus wilderness we can see this. In the book there is a motif of the weeds and the external conflict with the "cultivated" Puritan society.  As we see Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale working growing against the norms of society, we see that conflict and motif can work together to support theme.

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