What is the point of view in The Scarlet Letter (1st person, 3rd person (limited or omniscient)?

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Deciding on Point of View is one of the most important decisions an author can make. Something written in First Person is going to look very, very different than something written in Second or Third—the perspectives change, which can have very powerful effects on the work in question.

First Person Point of View is written directly from the perspective of one of the characters in the story. You'll recognize it because you'll always see use of the pronoun, "I," instead of "he" or "she." However, even more importantly: imagine if The Scarlet Letter was told from the perspective of Hester, or Chillingworth, or Dimmesdale. Imagine if one of these three characters was telling you the story, and now imagine just how dramatically that story would change (thematically, tonally, etc.), solely based upon which of those three was chosen as the viewpoint character.

In Third Person, on the other hand, the story is relayed by an external narrator, detached from the events of the story itself. Third Person can be either limited or omniscient. In Third Person Limited, the narrator's point of view is closely tied into the perspective of a single character (a classic example of this would be the Harry Potter books. For the most part, our experience and knowledge of events and characters is closely tied with Harry's own knowledge and experiences). An omniscient narrator has far broader knowledge (hence the word omniscient: in third person omniscient, the narrator is not bounded to the perspectives of any particular questions, but has full awareness of every detail in the story). With this in mind, one can conclude that The Scarlet Letter is written in Third Person Omniscient.

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The first section of the text, called "The Custom House," is written in a first person point of view. The narrator refers to himself, using the first person pronoun "I," in the present initially (in the exposition, or the revelation of information that is helpful to our understanding of the plot that follows). However, as he moves into the actual telling of his own story of working at the Custom House and how he came to pen the novel which follows, he uses a first person objective perspective: this means that he is a participant in the events that he relates to us and that he narrates them after they occurred (rather than during); you can see this in his use of past tense verbs. However, when the narrator begins to tell the tale of Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter, he adopts (for the most part) a third person omniscient perspective; this means that the narrator can report on the thoughts and feelings of any and all characters in the text.

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Point of view refers to the perspective that the narrator will use to tell the story. In the case of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the unnamed and ambiguous narrator uses a third person omniscient and subjective perspective. 

A third-person omniscient narrative is one in which the narrator tells the story of each character, demonstrating that it is the narrator who possesses all the information about everything...even more so information than the characters have of themselves or of the story, as a whole. 

However, in The Scarlet Letter the reader can detect partiality from the narrator. It is easy to sense, in the tone and atmosphere in which the characters of Dimmesdale and Hester are shown, that the narrator tells their particularly unfortunate stories differently and with pity. Similarly, the reader can sense the terror and disdain that is felt each time the character of Chillingworth is present. For these reasons, the point of view in The Scarlet Letter is not only third person omniscient, but also subjective. This means that the narrator also analyzes and brings in some of his own sentiment into the narrative.

Poor, miserable man! what right had infirmity like his to burden itself with crime? Crime is for the iron-nerved, who have their choice either to endure it, or, if it press too hard, to exert their fierce and savage strength for a good purpose, and fling it off at once!

This quote is a good example of how the narrator becomes involved in Dimmesdale's sadness and voices his (the narrator's) own opinion about how he feels about him. This is what makes the narrative so heart-felt. After all, the narrator is not merely a story-teller but seemingly a clear witness of the terrible situation that befalls the relationship between Dimmesdale and Hester. 

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