The Scarlett Letter is concerned with the idea of guilt. Hawthorne looks at the irony of how the Puritan society interprets and handles “guilt” regarding the main character Hester Prynne, who has committed adultery and given birth to a daughter. The Puritans of the town shun her for years.
Hester’s guilt is simple and straightforward—she slept with someone she wasn’t married to. This was a serious breach of Puritan morality. But there is greater guilt behind the scenes. The Reverend Dimmesdale is the father of Hester’s child. He does not reveal this fact for years. Therefore, the leader of the town’s Puritan community is also guilty. Roger Chillingsworth, Hester’s long-lost husband, spends years exacting secret revenge—he too is guilty. In fact, Chillingsworth, the character who was originally wronged, is the guiltiest of them all, because he becomes consumed with the idea of revenge.
The theme of the story is about levels of guilt, but also about the devastating effect of the refusal to forgive those who wrong us.