With irony being a contrast or incongruity between what is expected to be and what actually happens, perhaps the greatest irony in The Scarlet Letter is in the fact that a religious group of people who left England to come to the colonies of America seeking freedom constructed a prison as their first building. This group of Puritans become the most restrictive of all religious sects, allowing no transgressions. Yet, in England they fought against the restrictions put upon them.
In an effort to "purify" their church of the corruption and excessiveness of the Anglican Church from which they broke, Puritans allowed no disgraceful celebrations, no ornateness or pagan-like colors no drinking of liquor. Yet, when Hester and Pearl arrive at Governor Bellingham's mansion in Chapter VIII, there sits upon a table
--in token that the sentiment of old English hospitality has not been left behind--stood a large pewter tankard, at the bottom of which , had Hester of Pearl peeped into it, they might have seen the frothy remnant of a recent draught of ale.
In addition, contrary to the Puritan demand for simplicity, the broken glass of the windows admit much light and the front of the edifice
glittered and sparkled as if diamonds had been flung against it by the double handful. The brillancy might have befitted Aladdin's palace, rather than the masion of a grave old Puritan ruler. It was further decorated with strange and seemingly cabalistic figures and diagrams....
The furniture of the governor is "elaborately carved" and a serving-man wears a blue coat, the "customary garb...in the old hereditary halls of England."
Another great irony exists in the punishment of Hester as contrasted to the condition of the Reverend Dimmesdale. While Hester is publicly humiliated upon the scaffold and made to wear the scarlet A of an adultress, she suffers less that Arthur Dimmesdale whose secret sin is not visible to the townspeople, but tortures his soul to the point that his health is ruined and his body makes manifest his inner A. By having her sin exposed, Hester is able to make reparations for her sin through good deeds, helping the aged and ill. Her redemption is contrary to Puritan doctrine that states that faith, not good works, are what save people. Yet, the town recognizes the goodness in Hester, referring to the A as meaning Angel and Able.
Indeed, throughout Hawthorne's novel, there are many, many examples of dramatic and situational irony. For instance, the townspeople call upon Roger Chillingworth to heal their dear minister when it is this sinister man who has told Hester, "He will be mine," and intends to destroy Dimmesdale. When Hester casts aside her scarlet letter and it falls in the brook, Pearl cries and will not cross the brook until Hester resumes her wearing of it in Chapter XIX. In another example, at the end of Hawthorne's novel, even after achieving freedom and peace in England, Hester returns to the colony and her former home. Once there, Hester bends down, picks up the scarlet letter, and replaces it upon her bosom.