Heralded by many as the greatest of distincly American novels, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is not only a portrait of the American Puritan experience, it is also a psychological study of the effects of sin and guilt and redemption as well as a depiction of human nature, in general. Tormented by the "sins of the fathers," especially the memory of his uncle's having been a judge during the Salem Witchcraft Trials, Hawthorne wrote a novel that is, in effect, an examination of the cause of such a debacle of Puritanical sanctimony.
- The hypcrosy of the Puritans is a recurring motif in this novel. Subjugated to imprisoning sin within their hearts, the Puritans become hypocritical and thus, tortured by their existence that becomes a lie. For instance, Roger Chillingworth darkens much like the sinister plant that Pearl identifies with him, and he becomes fiend-like, bent, and decaying. Likewise, the Reverend Dimmesdale is also psychologically tortured. In this mental torment, the minister seeks relief by, ironically, tormenting his physical body with self-flagellation. So tortured is he by his secret sin that his body manifests his guilt with the stigmata of the scarlet A upon his chest. Also, Little Pearl, a symbol of Hester's and Arthur Dimmesdale's sins only becomes human on the scaffold with her kiss of recognition to the now admitted sinner, her father, who holds the hand of her mother, also an admitted sinner, whose wearing of the scarlet letter, ironically, effects Hester's redemption. Thus, it is the admission of sin that redeems people, Hawthorne contends, not the hiding. His statement of theme and final exhoration of the novel is contained in the narrator's address to the reader: "Be true! Be true!"
- The isolation of man from others is an unnatural state that has devastating effects. While Hester is ostracized from others, she is alienated and very discontent and unsatisfied. Her beauty fades, the beauties of Nature eschew her as the sunshine dances only upon Pearl, although Pearl herself is isolated from other children. As people begin to reinterpret the symbolic A as representative of "Able" or "Angel," Hester is, then, re-humanized and strengthened in spirit.
- There is a need for change and transformation In "The Custom House," Hawthorne reflects upon his position as Customs Officer and the changing times. He remarks that the wharves of Salem have been left "to crumble to ruin" and that the port "exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life." In addition, the pavement around the Custom-House "has grass enough growing in its chinks to show that it has not, of late days, been worn by any multitudinous resort of business." With revolutions sweeping Europe, Hawthorne felt, perhaps, that there would be changes in store for New England. In Chapter 13, Hester ponders the role of women; she concludes that it is "a hopeless task" for "the whole race of womanhood" to gain independence if they do not abandon the priorities of the heart. In order to receive any recognition, there must be a reform of society if there are to be "mightier reforms."