The Scarlet Letter Analysis

  • Hester's scarlet letter is a symbol of sin: the "A" literally stands for adultery and visibly marks her a sinner in the eyes of Boston's Puritan population. In Hester's religious community, sinners are outcasts, making the scarlet letter a symbol not just of sin but of isolation. While Hester wears the letter, she has no companionship other than Pearl's. Eventually, she internalizes and embraces the scarlet letter, wearing it even after there's no need to.
  • Color plays an important role in the novel. Both red and scarlet symbolize sin or evil, but also fire and passion and love. Hester's drab clothes hide her passionate nature and sharply contrast with the rich, embroidered finery that Hester sews for Pearl. Pearl's spectacular red dress makes her the visual embodiment of her mother's sins and passions.
  • Given the Puritan setting, there is a surprising amount of deceit in the novel. Hester refuses to reveal the identity of Pearl's father, Dimmesdale doesn't confess, and Hester's husband assumes the name Chillingworth with her promise not to reveal his secret. These acts of deceit become evidence of sins that would not be character flaws were the novel set somewhere other than Puritan Boston.

Analysis

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

 

Setting

*Massachusetts Bay Colony

*Massachusetts Bay Colony. Early American New England colony established by British Puritans who were seeking religious freedom. This is the primary setting of the novel in which all the other places to be mentioned are found. While ostensibly seeking a place of freedom, the Puritans had created a society more repressive than America has ever known through the present day. Beauty and creativity in the surroundings the Puritans themselves created were not valued. A premium was instead placed on utilitarianism and frugality.

While there must surely have been sunshine and beautiful landscapes in the actual area, Hawthorne focuses on the starker, gray quality of New England as those qualities seem to reflect the personalities of its citizens. Hester has been jailed, then ostracized, for her crime of committing adultery and having a child out of wedlock. As a result, there are very few bright spots in her world. The hard, dark landscape with its cleared fields and minimalist human-made structures mirrors the rigid mind-set which represses her.

Prison and courtyard

Prison and courtyard. Colony’s jail, in which readers first encounter Hester and her daughter, Pearl. The jail cell where Hester spends the days of her imprisonment is presented as small and gloomy. It is in the prison’s courtyard, also plain and cheerless, where Hester is dragged in front of the townspeople to parade her shame on the scaffold.

Interestingly, there is a spot of color in the prison yard. In the midst of the weeds and ugliness, a rosebush blooms. This can be seen as the landscape yielding up some hope for relief in all the surrounding bleakness.

Forest

Forest. Wilderness area surrounding the township. The forest is the scene of a meeting between Hester and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. It is a place of nature, beauty, and freedom from inhibitions. The sensual quality of the untamed land is a perfect backdrop for the forbidden lovers and the complete opposite of the repression of the settled areas of the colony. It is also in the covering of the forest that Hester is able to shed her shame, physically (by removal of the “A”) as well as mentally, and be a more free-spirited woman.

King’s Chapel Church

King’s Chapel Church. Church at which Arthur Dimmesdale is the pastor. The church is a typical New England building of worship—square and boxy—suggesting that something is pent in by its shape. It is within the cloak of the church that Dimmesdale hides from his part of the guilt of the adultery and where Hester’s sin is condemned in the name of God; it does not project an image of love or forgiveness.

Scaffold

Scaffold. Platform in the center of town, near the prison, where prisoners are brought for public viewing. The scaffold is the scene of Hester’s initial shame as well as the novel’s climax. Although it is under darkness of night that Dimmesdale stands on the platform with Hester to finally accept his shame, it is its openness that is important. It is elevated and open, a place for the revelation of secrets.