The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a novel about sin and guilt in the Puritan society. The author manages to create an atmosphere of guilt and depression by creating characters that are easily relatable and well developed. He does this using themes such as sin, isolation, conformity and community throughout the book.
This theme focuses on how this strict Puritan society has no patience for sinners, which often results in isolation. The protagonist Hester Prynne is publicly shamed and made to wear a letter “A” on her clothes to show her sin before she is forced to leave the town with an infant, Pearl. This theme also focuses on how everyone hides their own sins by judging the actual sinner even further which results in everyone being alone together.
This theme can be seen when Hawthorne chooses to describe Hester’s feelings of guilt through uncertainty about God’s grace, “a heavy cloud settling down forever upon a place that had been filled with light … She longed to know whether, should this child prove to be alive now … it would ever dare–and when no eye but God’s was looking, dare to lift itself up to the window of that scarlet letter” (Pg. 12).
This theme is seen when Dimmesdale becomes more and more involved in his church and community by becoming a pastor, but he fails miserably at keeping this up. When Roger Chillingworth questions him about why he has such an influence on people, Dimmesdale confesses that it is because he hates himself so much and wants to punish others for not being perfect like him: “I hate them!–I loathe them!” broke forth the minister with unusual vehemence. “Their stiff bosoms, their iron-bound spirits, their pitiless conscience! More than all do I abhor this man [Chillingworth]! Him I know too well,–him I know and hate!” (Pg. 86).
This theme is seen when Chillingworth starts to show his true colors when he realizes that Dimmesdale’s love for Hester has not died after their affair. When Hester claims the minister as her husband, Chillingworth vows “to discover the secret … in order that he might act towards it consistently with his character” (Pg. 97). He then uses Pearl in an attempt to make Dimmesdale reveal his guilt but later finds out about Dimmesdale’s illness and decides to use this information instead. The theme of conformity focuses on how everyone is expected to be like everyone else or face consequences such as isolation or death.
This theme is seen when Dimmesdale has an audience with the townspeople and fails at being able to tell them his sins: “A voice [came] from between the pillars,–a sad, deep, gentle voice of warning and dissuasion … I thank you, therefore–and farewell!” (Pg. 24). The townsfolk did not want anything to do with his confession of sin so he had no choice but to keep it a secret from them forever.
In this story Pearl represents that evil must be dealt with by good in order for both sides to survive. She becomes a threat to Hester because she knows about her birthmark and how this makes everyone question who her father really is. Hester warns Chillingworth about Pearl and her strange knowledge which he does not believe at the time. Hester tells Chillingworth that if anything happens to her daughter, she will hold him accountable: “Look to it! I will avenge this deed,–and swiftly!” (Pg. 132).
This theme is seen when Pearl attracts attention from people with her beauty and intelligence as well as her ability to speak multiple languages despite being very young. This includes John Hathorne who questions Pearl during Hester’s trial but cannot get an answer from the child because she cannot be scared into giving up information on another human being: “Hath not thy father told thee of this Glendower … ? And didst thou not say, even now, that there is no other Pearl but thou?” (Pg. 57).
The theme of sin versus guilt is seen when Dimmesdale claims that sins are not carried by individuals but are instead carried by the entire community. This means that everyone carries the burden of Hester’s adultery and Pearl, which causes them to judge these sinners even more: “Her [Hester’s] punishment was destined to lie heavier on herself than on her fellow-creatures” (pg 133).
This theme focuses on how there is no return once someone has committed a sin because it changes their life forever. The minister realizes this after his confession when he wishes for nothing more than to be able to go meet with God in peace one day: “He desired me earnestly … to lay up his words in my heart and memory” (Pg. 136).
This theme is seen when Dimmesdale realizes that he can never love Hester again because she has betrayed him by committing adultery, which makes her very different from the person he fell in love with: “He loved this wretched woman–loved her, as the reader has already seen, too well for the peace of either! On her part, notwithstanding all that had befallen her–despite even the propriety of behaviour which she owed to others–she was so incorrigible as to cherish some hope still!” (Pg. 86).
Sin versus guilt is shown through Chillingworth’s role as Dimmesdale’s foil because he represents everything Dimmesdale hates about himself. Chillingworth is the cause of all of Dimmesdale’s guilt and sin because he made him realize that he was a hypocrite who will never actually be able to help people as a minister: “He is a cold, bright, angelic nature!–a man without affections-a materialist-a systematizer … his heart as an anatomical specimen” (Pg. 30).
This theme is seen when Hester’s friends from England do not have feelings for her now that they know she committed adultery so now she has no one else from her old life besides Pearl: “The wearer of the scarlet letter was no longer the town-pariah, everyone rebuffed with averted eyes” (Pg. 105).
This theme is seen when Pearl is often called a demon child by the community because of how different she seems to be compared to others her age: “The black spot, in the midst of this otherwise pure and snow-white sheet, seemed to enlarge … It was too plainly printed in dreadful lines of fiery guilt!” (Pg. 69).
Sin versus innocence is shown when Hester believes that it is better for her daughter to die rather than grow up in an awful place like this town where everyone hates them because they are sinners: “Dimmesdale! Young minister! She must speak with you!” said he [Hathorne], laying his hand on Mr. Dimmesdale’s arm; “Only to you will she speak! … I must minister to this spiritual need–this consolation, or we shall both go mad!” (Pg. 100-101).
This theme is also seen when Hester believes that it is better for her daughter if she doesn’t get involved with the people in town because of how cruel they are: “With all my soul, I curse the hour … I bade her [Pearl] leave me! To crush what you feel you must become what you hate” (Pg. 83).