The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a novel about Hester Prynne and her daughter Pearl living their lives exiled from the town of Boston for an unnamed sin which we later find out was committed by Hester’s husband Arthur Dimmesdale. The characters all try to make their way in this world, both surrounded and hampered by the strong Puritan values that drove them away from society. The town itself is ruled under religious law that creates an extremely strict class system, one based on sins and the lack thereof.
The protagonist of The Scarlet Letter is not any of the main characters, but rather the setting in which these characters exist. The novel begins with ” The Custom House,” introducing readers to how much power religion held over people during this time period. The novel ends with ” The Prophetic Pictures,” illustrating how all of the characters eventually succumb to their fates, no matter how hard they try to fight them. The conflicts of The Scarlet Letter are centered around binaries of dark versus light and sin versus innocence. The heart of The Scarlet Letter, the thing that defines it, is darkness.
Darkness is everywhere throughout this book, used as a symbol for both oppression and secrecy. The first sentence reads ” And the dark forest…” (Hawthorne 1). The narrator sets an ominous tone right away by describing the outside world as dark; trees overshadowing people make it seem like there is something out there hiding in the shadows. This feeling only gets more intense over time. The guilt that drives the characters in The Scarlet Letter is intensely dark. Even when they are happy for a period of time, it is only because they have successfully repressed their guilt. The darkness even bleeds into the more positive qualities of the novel.
The light at the end of the tunnel if often just another symbol of sin or unhappiness. It can be seen as freedom from oppression, but at what price? The best example comes in chapter 11 when Hester sees an escaped slave being chased by soldiers on horseback with dogs barking behind him. The sight of this poor slave evokes feelings of sympathy in her heart and she wishes ” That she might clasp the black man round neck, and think to [her]self—”There is my brother! ” (Hawthorne 77). The author doesn’t pull any punches: the protagonist’s sympathy is presented as not only dark, since it comes from a place of sin in her heart, but also selfish.
The novel even opens with darkness; when Hester sees that she has been put on display in order to be humiliated and punished for the townspeople’s entertainment. The punishment process starts off with humiliation and is followed by genuine physical pain. The overall mood of The Scarlet Letter can best be described as dark because there are no happy endings in this book; all characters end up miserable and things never truly get better throughout the novel. The opposite trope is represented by something almost opposite: brightness and clarity. The sun represents light throughout The Scarlet Letter , representing truth and honesty.
The bright light is repeatedly used as a symbol of guilt; the protagonist feels like the brightness of the sun makes her guilt known to everyone. The darkness, on the other hand, is where people can do things in secret without anyone knowing about it. The novel is full of examples that illustrate this concept. The best example comes when Hester sees that Pearl has drawn all over her face with chalk, but looks at it “with dim eyes” (Hawthorne 76). The protagonist isn’t paying enough attention to what she’s doing because she’s lost deep in thought about how guilty she feels for having an affair with Dimmesdale.
The brightness also ties into how characters feel throughout The Scarlet Letter. The brightness of the sun makes them feel guilt, while the darkness is where they can forget about their sins or do things in secret they don’t want anyone else to know about. The protagonist has a child out of wedlock and that’s an incredibly dark sin in this novel; no matter how much happiness Hester gains from Pearl, she will always be reminded of her weakness when it comes to sexual pleasure. The opposite happens when Dimmesdale seems to regret his relationship with Chillingworth and manages to feel joy again after he becomes sick and close to death.
The bright side in The Scarlet Letter is never without some sort of darkness lurking in the background, so all bright moments in this novel are tainted by less-than-positive that’s just waiting to be discovered. The bright moments come around when characters do something in secret, but they don’t think about the consequences until it’s too late and everything blows up in their face. The best example comes when Chillingworth confronts Dimmesdale with his crime and demands that he marry Hester, even though Dimmesdale already feels guilty for sleeping with a married woman.
The protagonist is forced into a dark place from which there is no escape from all because of one action that occurred behind closed doors, so this trope can nearly be summed up as “anything you hide will destroy you” because it really does seem like people get punished for trying to keep things hidden away from everyone else. The final trope presented by The Scarlet Letter is one that’s a bit harder to define because the novel itself doesn’t seem particularly interested in this topic. The two tropes explored more thoroughly are light and darkness, while this one is only touched upon briefly near the end of The Scarlet Letter.
The protagonist eventually becomes obsessed with how dark everything around her seems while she’s forced to live in a puritanical society that feels like it never lets up on its condemnation of sin. The best example comes when Hester starts her own business and opens a shop “with a written placard” (Hawthorne222) outside of it proclaiming what she sells. The townspeople feel so disgusted by Hester’s decision to open up a successful business that they begin throwing rocks through her windows every night, completely ignoring everything Hester has accomplished since she arrived in The Scarlet Letter.
The protagonist doesn’t have the courage to confront her accusers directly because she feels that they are all-powerful and can destroy anyone who speaks out against them. The bright side of this trope is never truly explored because it’s not until near the end of The Scarlet Letter that Hester starts feeling hopeful again about what the future might bring for her. Up until this moment, she feels defeated by how much strength society has over individuals, but during the climax of The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale dies before he can expose his sin publicly.