The Scarlet Letter Themes
The main themes in The Scarlet Letter are free will, retribution, hypocrisy, gender, and illusion versus reality.
- Free will: Hester and Dimmesdale are punished for exercising their free will and not adhering to the standards of Puritan society.
- Retribution: Through Chillingworth, Hawthorne portrays vengeance as deeply immoral.
- Hypocrisy: Puritan society is portrayed as hypocritical in its treatment of Hester, and Dimmesdale is depicted as hypocritical for remaining silent.
- Gender: Through the fates of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl, the novel depicts the unjust double standard imposed on men and women.
- Illusion versus reality: The involvement of the supernatural in the story remains deliberately unclear, with many possible explanations given for Dimmesdale's mysterious mark.
Though the concept of transgression is seemingly the basis of The Scarlet Letter, the underlying theme is the human capacity to shape one's own destiny freely. This is what Hester and Dimmesdale are punished for. In defying society and its laws, they create their own world, a kind of new beginning of man, woman, and child. The deepest irony is that this rebirth is depicted in terms traditionally associated with the inherent sinfulness of mankind. But freedom of action implies the freedom to judge oneself, and this is what the “guilty” couple do—until the meeting in the forest where, if only temporarily, they plan to break free of the Puritan world's constraints. The theme of free will is, like other aspects of Hawthorne's “message,” an ambiguous one. Human beings have the right to act freely and to defy the laws imposed upon them but also to recognize their own guilt for what it is, or what they believe it to be. Dimmesdale realizes that even apart from his act of adultery, his real sin has been his silence, the concealment by which he has allowed Hester to take the blame for their actions. By any standard, it would have been an injustice to see Dimmesdale escape to Europe with Hester and suffer no consequences, beyond his inner suffering, for his crime.
The wrongness of seeking revenge is central to the story. Chillingworth's crime, in covertly avenging himself against Dimmesdale, is worse than what the “guilty” couple have done. Of all the characters, Chillingworth is the least human and the most symbolic, representing either evil personified or simply an abstraction of the hostile forces mankind must contend with. But he is more immediately a microcosm of the Puritan community as a whole. Their punishment of Hester, in forcing her to wear the scarlet letter, is arguably an emblem of the ultimate sin of intolerance and lack of forgiveness. That all of this is done in the name of religion isn't surprising to anyone familiar with history, perhaps so much so that Hawthorne does not even need to stress the irony of the most avowedly Christian of all societies carrying out such a condemnation. But the overall message is that vengeance, for any purpose, is at least as immoral as the wrong that is supposedly being avenged.
Hawthorne allows the facts of his narrative to speak for themselves. That the cruelty enacted against Hester is un-Christian in the extreme is clear. Yet Hawthorne only implicitly judges his Puritan ancestors. It is not merely the community as a whole who are guilty. Dimmesdale, in not revealing himself for what he is, becomes the ultimate hypocrite. Even in the context of his time, Dimmesdale is an emblem of destructive human weakness and cowardice. His climactic confession redeems him, but this is perhaps the author's way of saying that even the worst hypocrite can find some form of mercy in the next life, though Hester is the one who predicts this, while Dimmesdale dies still (perhaps realistically) crushed by his own guilt.
The gender double standard of Puritan society (and, in many ways, our own) is shown on a massive scale in The Scarlet Letter.
(The entire section is 1,030 words.)