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.

Themes

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Last Updated on April 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030

Free Will

Though the concept of transgression is seemingly the basis of The Scarlet Letterthe 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.

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Retribution

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 charactersChillingworth 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.

Hypocrisy

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.

Gender

The gender double standard of Puritan society (and, in many ways, our own) is shown on a massive scale in The Scarlet Letter. Hester is unforgivingly and sadistically punished by the society, while Dimmesdale, despite his inner suffering, becomes the most respected member of the community. The same dynamic occurs in other nineteenth-century novels: in Anna Karenina, for instance, the woman becomes a pariah, while her lover, though shown suffering from guilt at the end, survives with his honor intact.

That the child of Hester and Dimmesdale is a girl is significant. Pearl is “wild,” with an independence of spirit observed by all as a kind of lawlessness and inherent defiance. The depiction seems to fit in with traditional notions of women as “temptresses” lacking moral sensibilities, seen in myth, religion, and Freudian theory. Yet Hawthorne does not “judge” Pearl, and the ambivalent tone of the story is reinforced by the fact that this “bad” child is innocent and in adult life becomes a good person “mindful of,” though distant from, her mother. And although in general, as with other male authors of his period, Hawthorne merely shows the gender double standard without commenting directly on it, he does predict, through Hester, that

in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.

This is a proto-feminist viewpoint. It is also apparent that Hester is the Christ-figure of the story, the one who has the power to redeem mankind as a whole. Her “three hours” on the scaffold are a reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus. Like Goethe in Faust, Hawthorne depicts the salvation of man made possible through woman.

Illusion versus Reality

It would be impossible not to mention this theme in a major work by Hawthorne. On one level, the theme relates to the story as a whole and to whether it is actually based on fact, as implied. But within the action itself, Hawthorne emphasizes the question of how “real” the climactic appearance of the “A” is upon Dimmesdale's breast:

As regarded its origin, there were various explanations, all of which must necessarily have been conjectural. Some contended that Dimmesdale had inflicted the letter upon himself, as a form of self-torture. Others asserted that Chillingworth had caused it. And others attributed it to the “ever-active tooth of remorse” and the manifesting of “Heaven's dreadful judgment by the visible presence of the letter.” And some claimed that there was no mark at all on Dimmesdale's chest.

It is curious, in a way, that even this zealously devout community of Puritans does not unanimously believe that a sign from God has been shown to them. If anything, the multiple explanations are the author's message that this is above all a human story and that perhaps the central question is unresolved as to what role, if any, God or the supernatural plays in the somber drama.

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