Irony In The Scarlet Letter

What are some examples of irony in The Scarlet Letter?

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The many examples of irony in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne include that Hester is spurned by the local townspeople and made to wear the scarlet letter as a mark of her shame, yet she might be the one true character in the novel. She protects Dimmesdale, she atones to Chillingworth, and she maintains her her own code of ethics while raising Pearl alone.

With her husband distant, both physically and emotionally, Hester becomes lonely and eventually falls in love with the young Reverend Dimmesdale. When it becomes apparent that Hester is pregnant with no husband, she is marked a disgraced woman. The irony is that the townspeople and clergy look to Dimmesdale to chasten Hester, when he is complicit in her adultery. In fact, Chillingworth spots Hester in the public square and a local tells him Hester’s story, referring to Dimmesdale in reverent terms:

Mistress Hester Prynne, and her evil doings. She hath raised a great scandal, I promise you, in godly Master Dimmesdale's church.

Moreover, while Dimmesdale is too cowardly to admit his own wrongdoing until the end of the novel, Hester stands tall throughout the story. She remains true to her ethics in not revealing Dimmesdale’s name so as not to expose him to public shame. She also is honest with her husband, the cold and vengeful Chillingworth, in telling him, “I have greatly wronged thee,” but:

“Thou knowest,” said Hester,—for, depressed as she was, she could not endure this last quiet stab at the token of her shame,—“thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any.”

It is clear that Chillingworth wronged Hester by marrying her, a much younger woman, even though she acknowledged that she had no feelings for him. Hester was very much imprisoned by the constraints of the society in which she lived.

Hawthorne uses irony with the theme of guilt and confession. Another clergyman tells Dimmesdale to get Hester to confess her sin and name her lover:

“Good Master Dimmesdale,” said he, “the responsibility of this woman's soul lies greatly with you. It behooves you, therefore, to exhort her to repentance, and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof.”

The clergy, the townspeople, and also Chillingworth implore Hester to reveal his name. Chillingworth says:

“But, Hester, the man lives who has wronged us both! Who is he?”

“Ask me not!” replied Hester Prynne, looking firmly into his face. “That thou shalt never know!”

The irony is that Hester remains true to her morals by not confessing her lover’s name, while Dimmesdale betrays his morals by not confessing his sin. This irony is apparent when Dimmesdale, consumed with guilt and remorse, creates his own scarlet letter on his chest. This eventually leads to his death, although not due to the act of adultery, but due to his guilt over leaving Hester and his daughter Pearl to suffer alone.

The penultimate irony is that Chillingworth treats Pearl as if she were truly his daughter by bequeathing her his entire estate. This also leads to the final irony, which is that Pearl, although scorned as illegitimate, becomes “the richest heiress of her day, in the New World,” and therefore is completely accepted and “at a marriageable period of life, might have mingled her wild blood with the lineage of the devoutest Puritan among them all.” This final irony reveals the hypocrisy of the society at the time.

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One example of situational irony is in Hawthorne's depiction of the Puritans, especially the women, as they gaze on Hester upon the scaffold. He calls them "pitiless . . . self-constituted judges." He paints these Christians as horrible, judgmental, merciless monsters. The irony here is that they are, in fact, Christians. As such, they ought to be merciful and forgiving, generous and loving. Instead, these women suggest that Hester instead of only wearing her letter she ought to be branded with it or, worse yet, that she ought to be executed for her crime of adultery. We would expect them to be merciful and kind; they are, rather, merciless and cruel.

Another example of situational irony is that, instead of compelling her to repent, Hester's scarlet letter actually drives her to contemplate other, worse sins. The narrator says that,

At times a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl at once to Heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide.

In other words, Hester actually considers killing Pearl (sending her to "Heaven") and then herself (her future of "Eternal Justice"). This is certainly not the letter's intended effect, and her fellow citizens would likely be horrified to know what their punishment had driven her to contemplate.

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Verbal  and dramatic irony:  From Chapter III, Governor Bellingham tells Dimmesdale, ". . . the responsibility of this woman's soul lies greatly with you."

Verbal irony: From Chapter IV, Chillingworth tells Hester, "Think not that I shall interfere with Heaven's own method of retribution." Chillingworth implies he will let God and Heaven handle all retribution, yet he sets out to destroy Dimmesdale himself.

Situational Irony:  From Chapter II, the townspeople have created a situation in which they believe Hester will feel ashamed by wearing the A and having to stand on the scaffold, yet she has a "marked dignity and force of character" and holds her baby "with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townsepeople and neighbors."

Situational Irony: From Chapter XI, the townspeople worship Dimmesdale as a pristine role model "[deeming] the young clergyman a miracle of holiness" when he actually has committed an immoral act.

Dramatic Irony: The audience knows Dimmesdale is Hester's father long before anyone else does, and the audience knows Chillingsworth should not be trusted long before Dimmesdale figures that out.

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The most commonly noted occurrence of irony is when Hester refers to Reverend Dimmesdale as knowing her because he is her pastor, but in deed the reader learns that he knows her much more intimately than that!

I believe the most understated, yet most powerful occurrence of irony is when society begins to reference the "Scarlet Letter" <i>(A)<i> as being a symbol of her dedication and hard work, as in "Able". The very letter used to brand her as an adulteress is that which notes her in lofty, respectable regards!

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The most obvious example of irony is the fact that Reverend Dimmesdale is the man who committed adultery with Hester Prynne. The "goodwives" of the community remark in the second chapter about how "grieved" their "godly pastor" must be about Hester's scandalous behavior.

Some more minor examples of irony: Hester's letter A, which is meant as a punishment, is mesmerizingly beautiful. It also eventually comes to designate Hester as "Able" rather than its original negative meaning. Finally, the narrator informs us that Pearl is an ironic character: we are told that "God, as a direct consequence of the sin which man thus punished, had given [Hester] a lovely child" in return for her actions.

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