At a Glance
- Sin is the central theme of The Scarlet Letter. Given that Hester's sin was committed at a time when her husband was presumed dead, her punishment seems disproportional to the crime: she wears the scarlet letter, literally and figuratively, for the rest of her life. Her sin is visible and shameful but, ultimately, forgivable.
- Hawthorne depicts the Puritans of Boston in an unfavorable light, characterizing them as judgmental, intolerant people. In fact, the Puritans are so strict that their own Reverend Dimmesdale lives in fear of people learning his dark secret. For Hawthorne, Puritanism is a form of repression, and the novel suggests that the people of Boston should have greater sympathy for Hester.
- Hawthorne explores the theme of identity by highlighting the differences between his characters' inner and outer lives. Reverend Dimmesdale's pious persona contrasts with his self-image, which is marred by guilt and self-loathing. Hester's embrace of the scarlet letter at the end of the novel suggests a transformation as she accepts her identity as a sinner.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne deals with two principal themes: the conflict between head and heart, and the nature of sin itself. Through the story of Hester and Dimmesdale, the novelist is able to highlight the contrast between the natural passions of young adults and the harsh rules of conduct established by societies such as the one in Puritan New England. The men and women of Boston are quick to brand Hester a sinner because she violates her marriage vows. They are not privy to the circumstances of her marriage, which is loveless and demoralizing; even if they were, however, they would not have altered Hester's punishment. There is no room for forgiveness in the rigid theocracy in which Hester lives. Compounding the problem are the efforts of her husband, Chillingworth, who comes in disguise from Europe to Boston and spends his time trying to discover the identity of his wife's lover. Under the law, he is justified in his actions, but it is clear to readers that he is evil and his actions destructive — both to others and to himself. Through the story of this unfortunate love triangle, Hawthorne suggests that what is right under the law of the land may be wrong under a higher law.
The second theme is tied closely to the first. While Hester and Dimmesdale are sinners under the law, they are presented as sympathetic figures who turned to each other because they found themselves in emotionally barren situations. The two feel guilty for their actions, but they come to understand that their society shares the blame. Hawthorne seems to be saying that actions even as grievous as adultery cannot be judged without regard to the circumstances in which they are performed. He is promoting what some would consider a more Christian attitude of understanding and forgiveness rather than rigid and perpetual condemnation of moral transgressions.
The Scarlet Letter raised complex and often uncomfortable questions about the relationship between sin and sympathy for Hawthorne’s nineteenth century audience. At the time of its publication in 1850, several Christian editorial writers, in fact, criticized Hawthorne’s novel for not adequately emphasizing Hester’s renunciation of her sin and the process of her atonement. Some argued that because Hawthorne’s story was not clearly enough an example designed for moral instruction, it should not be told at all. Earlier American seduction novels such as Charlotte Temple (1791) and The Coquette: Or, The History of Eliza Wharton; A Novel Founded on Fact (1797) invited the reader not only to witness the female protagonist’s moral struggle and downfall, but also to forgive her transgressions as they were repented, typically in death. The Scarlet Letter, in contrast, invites the reader to sympathize with the sinner as she struggles, often rebelliously, to work out her relationship to her sin and the punishment for that sin.
The point of Hawthorne’s...
(The entire section is 2,542 words.)