Since its publication in 1850, The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print, nor indeed out of favor with literary critics. It is inevitably included in listings of the five or ten greatest American novels, and it is considered the best of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings. It may also be the most typical of his work, the strongest statement of his recurrent themes, and an excellent example of his craftsmanship.
The main theme in The Scarlet Letter, as in most of Hawthorne’s work, is that of sin and its effects both on the individual and on society. It is frequently noted that Hawthorne’s preoccupation with sin springs from the Puritan-rooted culture in which he lived and from his knowledge of two of his own ancestors who presided over bloody persecutions during the Salem witchcraft trials. It is difficult for readers from later times to comprehend the grave importance that seventeenth century New Englanders placed on transgression of the moral code. As Yvor Winters has pointed out, the Puritans, believing in predestination, viewed the commission of any sin as evidence of the sinner’s corruption and preordained damnation. The harsh determinism and moralism of those early years softened somewhat by Hawthorne’s day, and during the twelve years he spent in contemplation and semi-isolation, he worked out his own notions about human will and human nature. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne proves to be closer to Paul Tillich than to Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards. Like Tillich, Hawthorne saw sin not as an act but as a state—what existentialists refer to as alienation and what Tillich describes as a threefold separation from God, other humans, and self. Such alienation needs no fire and brimstone as consequence; it is in itself a hell.
There is a certain irony in the way in which this concept is worked out in The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne’s pregnancy forces her sin into public view, and she is compelled to wear the scarlet A as a symbol of her adultery. Yet, although she is apparently isolated from normal association with “decent” folk, Hester, having come to terms with her sin, is inwardly reconciled to God and self; she ministers to the needy among her townspeople, reconciling herself with others until some observe that her A now stands for “Able.” Arthur Dimmesdale, her secret lover, and Roger Chillingworth, her secret husband, move much more freely in society than she can and even enjoy prestige: Dimmesdale as a beloved pastor, Chillingworth as a respected physician. However, Dimmesdale’s secret guilt gnaws so deeply inside him that he is unable to make his peace with God or to feel at ease with his fellow citizens. For his part, Chillingworth permits vengeance to permeate his spirit so much that his alienation is absolute; he refers to himself as a “fiend,” unable to impart forgiveness or to change his profoundly evil path. His is the unpardonable sin—unpardonable not because God will not pardon, but because his own nature has become so depraved that he cannot repent or accept forgiveness.
Hawthorne clearly distinguishes between sins of passion and those of principle. Even Dimmesdale, traditional Puritan though he is, finally becomes aware of the difference. 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.
Always more concerned with the consequences than with the cause of sin, Hawthorne to a remarkable extent anticipated Sigmund Freud’s theories of the effects of guilt. Hester, whose guilt is openly known, grows through her suffering into an extraordinarily compassionate and understanding woman, a complete person who is able to come to terms with all of life, including sin. Dimmesdale, who yearns for the relief of confession but hides his guilt to safeguard his role as pastor, is devoured internally. Again like Freud, Hawthorne recognized that spiritual turmoil may produce physical distress. Dimmesdale’s health fails and eventually he dies from no apparent cause other than guilt.
The characters in The Scarlet Letter are reminiscent of a number of Hawthorne’s shorter works. Dimmesdale bears similarities to Young Goodman Brown who, having once glimpsed the darker nature of humankind, must forevermore view humanity as corrupt and hypocritical. There are also resemblances between Dimmesdale and Parson Hooper in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” who continues to perform the duties of his calling with eloquence and compassion but is permanently separated from the company of men by the veil that he wears as a symbol of secret sin. Chillingworth shows resemblances to Ethan Brand, the limeburner who finds the unpardonable sin in his own heart: “The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its mighty claims!”
Hawthorne’s craftsmanship is splendidly demonstrated in The Scarlet Letter. The structure is carefully unified, with three crucial scenes—at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the action—taking place on the scaffold. The scarlet A itself is repeatedly entwined into the narrative as a symbol of sin and shame, as a reminder of Hester’s ability with the needle and her capability with people, and in Dimmesdale’s case, as evidence of the searing effects of secret guilt. Hawthorne often anticipates later developments with hints or forewarnings: There is, for example, the suggestion that Pearl lacks complete humanity, perhaps because she has never known great sorrow, but at the end of the story when Dimmesdale dies, Hawthorne writes, “as [Pearl’s] tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.”
Hawthorne’s skill as a symbolist is fully in evidence. As one critic has noted, there is hardly a concrete object in the book that does not do double duty as a symbol, among them the scarlet letter, the sunlight that eludes Hester, the scaffold of public notice, the armor in which Hester’s shame and Pearl’s selfishness are distorted and magnified. The four main characters themselves serve as central symbols in this, the greatest allegory of a master allegorist.