What are some examples of irony in The Scarlet Letter?

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The scarlet letter is an important symbol, so imagery in The Scarlet Letter is a common topic on the AP Literature exam. Chapter 1: Hester and Arthur become intimate at the end of their journey, and she reveals her punishment for committing adultery with him. At first, he is horrified, then he argues that it doesn't matter because they love each other. Chapter 2: In the forest near the seashore where they are married, Hester tells of her sinfulness to Reverend Dimmesdale and her husband; she also reveals that Pearl was a product of that sin. Chapter 3: The villagers gossip about Hester'

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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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What are examples of imagery in The Scarlet Letter?

All of the physical descriptions of the scarlet letter involving Hester, and sometimes Pearl, that pepper the novel are good examples of imagery.

In chapter II, the first description of the letter Hester embroiders appears as Hester leaves the prison and climbs the scaffold of the pillory for her hours of public humiliation.  It is described as "fine red cloth" with "elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread" in the shape of the letter A. Readers understand right away that its maker, Hester Prynne, is an artist, and for her, the scarlet letter is not necessarily an emblem of only shame.

In chapter VI, Pearl, who has by this point exhibited a fascination with her mother's letter, picks a handful of wildflowers and throws them at Hester's bosom "dancing up and down, like a little elf, whenever she hit the scarlet letter."  

In chapter XV, entitled "Hester and Pearl," Pearl replicates the letter in green.  The child takes eel grass and imitates the shape of Hester's A on her own bodice, "but freshly green, instead of scarlet."

In chapter XVIII, Hester's act of removing the scarlet letter offers stirring imagery.  Hester flings it aside in the forest.  It lies near the brook "glittering like a lost jewel" and symbolically frees Hester in a way that is impossible in the village that oppresses her.

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What are examples of imagery in The Scarlet Letter?

First of all, it is important to understand that imagery is description which appeals to one of the five senses.  This means the author paints a picture through sight, smell, taste, sound, or touch.  Imagery is not the same thing as figurative language.

One clear picture of sight and sound imagery is used in chapter 4, when Chillingworth pays a personal visit to Hester and the baby in jail.  Notice the stark contrast in the description of Chillingworth's quiet demeanor as contrasted with the crying baby who is visibly and outwardly mirroring the inner turmoil of her mother.

Descriptions of Chillingworth:

The stranger had entered the room with the characteristic quietude of the profession to which he announced himself as belonging.  Nor did his demeanor change when...left...face to face with the woman (66).

The "characteristic quietude of the profession" is a description of the calm confidence a physician must possess when entering the room of a patient.  He conducts himself in a controlled manner, which is starkly contrasted with the out of control state of Hester (inwardly) and her baby (outwardly):

His first care was given to the child; whose cries, indeed, as she lay writhing...made it of peremptory necessity...the task of soothing her (66).

In this chapter, the reader can see and hear a screaming and upset newborn baby, and a mother who is useless to sooth her.  Then, we witness a calm and collected doctor enter the room, take control of the situation, and quiet everything down to his level.  The imagery here foreshadows Chillingworth's future control over other characters in the story, which he continues to do from a place of quiet and resolute calm, secrecy, and silent control.

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What are examples of imagery in The Scarlet Letter?

One of the most famous images in the story is the actual scarlet letter "A" that Hester Prynne must wear due to the fact that she has been convicted of adultery. It stands for the type of stigma and ostracization that ocurred in the New England colonies of people like Anne Hathaway and those who were different or thought differently than the majority.

Another image might be that of Hester's embroidery, semi-forbidden by the Puritans but still used by the leaders of the colony in another hypocritical move or habit. These images act as symbols to point out to the reader the various things that the author is trying to get across.

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What are some examples of allusions in The Scarlet Letter?

One of the earliest allusions in the novel is to Anne Hutchinson. Now, others have mentioned this, but, as is the case with most allusions, the important part is knowing who Anne Hutchinson was and what mentioning in relation to Hester is saying about our protagonist.

Anne Hutchinson was a real person, and, like our fictional Hester, defied Puritan law. Her crime was defying Puritan teachings both by subscribing to a different take on salvation and by teaching it to others. Puritans believed in predestination. They also placed a good deal of emphasis on works. In other words, in a sense, performing good acts is a means of ensuring salvation. Anne Hutchinson believed in "a covenant of grace." This was based on the preaching of a man by the name of John Cotton. The covenant of grace maintained that no amount of good works could "earn" a person a spot in heaven, but rather salvation was received via the grace of God. It was a gift given by Him and solely at his discretion.

In believing in the covenant of grace, Anne Hutchinson was rebelling against traditional, Puritan teachings. Hester Prynne also rebelled against Puritan teachings by committing adultery. Now, you may be thinking that disagreeing with church teachings is not the same as committing adultery, and to our more modern way of approaching spirituality, perhaps it isn't. But to the Puritans, a sin was a sin. No distinction was made based on what the sin was, how it was committed, etc. Anne Hutchinson (who again was a real person) had grown into a sympathetic character in the eyes of Hawthorne's audience whose views of spirituality were also quite different than those of the Puritans. In a sense, by alluding to Anne Hutchinson in regard to Hester, Hawthorne is seeking an extension of that sympathy toward his fictional character. It is as though he is saying, "Hey, you know this lady (Hutchinson) was treated badly, and now I am presenting you with a character who, in many ways, is also being treated badly."

You have likely done something similar in your real life. Think about approaching your parents about wanting a particular gift for Christmas. Have you ever, in asking for it, alluded to a past Christmas when your desired gift wasn't received? "Mom and Dad, I would sure like a new cell phone for Christmas. Remember a few years ago when I asked for that ten-speed bike and you weren't able to get it? Well, I understand now that money was tight and that wasn't possible, but with you (Dad) getting that new job, well, I was hoping I could get a new cell phone. I can pitch in..."

Hawthorne is employing a similar technique in alluding to Hutchinson. Whether or not it gains any sympathy for Hester is dependent on your knowledge of Anne Hutchinson. I suppose what I am trying to say is this. The allusions contained in The Scarlet Letter are plentiful, but the more important thing is what they mean or what they are saying. When you come across one, take a moment to look up the reference. If you do, you will not only enhance your reading experience, but you will find better and deeper material from which to write about, talk about and interact with the story.

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What are some examples of allusions in The Scarlet Letter?

There are many allusions presented in Hawthorne's great novel. One that runs throughout the novel is the meaning of Pearl. A pearl is a precious gem, but also the product of irritation. (A foreign object lodged in an oyster causes it to produce a pearl.) Thus far, Pearl would be "merely" symbolic—but there is also the pearl of great price in the Bible, the object so great that humanity should sell everything to get it.

The rosebush in the first chapter is also both a symbol and an allusion (to Anne Hutchinson).

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What allusions does Hawthorne make in The Scarlet Letter?

Because Hawthorne used so many allusions in the novel, the only way not to miss any is to read a well-footnoted edition such as the Norton Critical Edition. I will give you two examples from chapter one to get you started.

The second paragraph in the novel alludes to Sir Thomas Moore's 1515 Utopia, a fictional work with which both the colonists Hawthorne writes about and his readers in the nineteenth century would have been very familiar. Moore mean to contrast English or European society with what an ideal society would be like. Hawthorne's narrator points out the irony that a theocratic colony, a Utopia (ideal society), has decided one of its first buildings should be a prison. 

Another allusion—this one in the chapter's final paragraph—is a reference to Anne Hutchinson. Hawthorne's narrator speculates that the rose bush that grows beside the prison door "sprung up under [her] footsteps" as she entered the prison. Anne Hutchinson, like the fictional Hester Prynne, dared to defy the belief system of the paternalistic Puritan elders.

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