The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a classic American tale of a Puritan woman caught in a triangle with her husband and the reverend, Dimmesdale. The novel takes place in 17th-century Boston during the strict morality enforced by The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, who is widely respected for his devout preaching. The reoccurring theme of sin and punishment is shown throughout The Scarlet letter, and Hawthorne uses this theme to share his own views of the human condition.
Dimmesdale’s good looks make him a womanizer that have earned him the nickname The “Young Adonis” from The Governor. He has been known to be temperamental as well as being coy about where he goes at night after acting as The Minister to secretly commune with The Devil in The Forest. Although Dimmesdale does not care for Hester, she is told by The Reverend Mr. Wilson, The only man who understands her pain, that she must marry another so her child can have a father figure in its life because of illegitimate children were seen as a sin to Puritan society.
The only man Hester is attracted to and can see herself married to is The Reverend. Hester angers The Governor by refusing the marriage proposal he and The Reverend put forth and The Governor tells her that if she ever denies him anything else, The scarlet “A” will be hers to wear to shame for the rest of her life. Soon after this The Reverend contracts a fever and dies with no one but The Minister at his side.
As The Puritans expected, Dimmesdale was unable to control his lustful desires for young girls and gave into temptation almost every night in The Forest resulting in an illegitimate child which his wife died bringing into the world because The Townsfolk would not help her during birth due to her sinful past. The Governor, The Townspeople and The Reverend all see The Scarlet Letter as Dimmesdale’s punishment. The Scarlet Letter is explored through the lens of sin and punishment throughout the novel.
The first example of this theme can be observed during Hester Prynne’s public humiliation as she has to bear “A” on her chest despite not deserving to do so solely because The Governor demanded it of her. The Governor uses his power over The Townsfolk to force Hester to expose herself in order for them to feel ashamed once they realize that part of their sinful past was due to their blatant ignorance and fear of anything different than what they were used too.
It is also observed through the use of imagery such as roads, paths, rivers, The Forest, The Village, The Scarlet Letter on Hester’s chest and The Town Jail. The use of imagery in The Scarlet letter makes the reader feel as though they are looking through a window while observing the novel’s characters. The theme of sin and punishment can also be observed throughout The Scarlet Letter with Dimmesdale being punished for his sinful choice to commit adultery by not only being forced to carry around The Scarlet Letter but always being seen alone because he is unable to find redemption.
Due to The Reverend’s refusal to marry Hester because of his own fears of tarnishing his reputation, Dimmesdale has lost any chance at feeling redeemed due to her pregnancy with Pearl resulting in him living out the rest of life alone. Hawthorne demonstrates The Puritan’s views of sin and punishment through The Scarlet letter by exploring what it means to be human through the idea that one can not escape their sinful past. The characters are punished for their choices without having the choice to change them which makes The Scarlet Letter a tragedy.
Most interesting about The Scarlet Letter is its exploration of humanity in light of The Puritan society’s views on sin and punishment. The theme is explored throughout the novel through imagery, symbolism, context clues, diction, tone and an understanding of the 18th-century American setting. These all work together to create a well-written novel that suggests Hawthorne believed that life was meant to be observed rather than lived while simultaneously sharing his own views on humanity with his readers.
The book also focuses on the relationship between Hester and her minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. The central theme of The Scarlet Letter is one that has been explored in many other literary works: sin and its impact on character. The novel’s characters are all affected by their own individual sins (some more than others) and this leads to complications in their relationships with each other as the community itself struggles with understanding both sin and how it can be atoned for.
The title was not Hawthorne’s first choice; earlier titles include “The Custom-House” and “Innocence”, but he chose The Scarlet Letter because he believed it embodied the book’s theme of sin and its persistence. The “A” with which Hester is branded stands for “Adulteress. ” The letter itself represents both the physical mark on Hester’s body and the scarlet letter in Arthur Dimmesdale’s heart. The novel is set in 17th century Puritan Boston, Massachusetts, during the years 1642 to 1649.
The time period is significant because this was a time of religious upheaval within British colonies. The conflict between those who wanted to continue their strict rule based on the Bible and others who wanted to adopt more moderate beliefs caused great friction within communities such as Boston; therefore, The Scarlet Letter can be seen as a social commentary as well as an exploration of its central theme.
The main conflict of the novel is between Hester Prynne’s good and bad impulses towards others, while the thematic conflict is between the Puritan ideals of strict punishment for immoral behavior versus humanity’s need to forgive and accept practically all men for what they are: sinners striving to redeem themselves through some sort of atonement. The protagonist, Hester Prynne, lives in 17th century colonial Boston with her husband, Roger Chillingworth.
The two have long been alienated due to differences in temperament; however, Roger has remained nearby in order to continue caring for his wife until she gives birth. The baby girl, Pearl, is born during this difficult time when it appears that both mother and child will die. The father is unknown to Hester, but she publicly acknowledges the child as her own in order to avoid any rumors that would follow if she were seen trying to hide the illegitimate baby.
The local Puritan leader, Reverend John Wilson takes Pearl into his home after Hester recovers from childbirth, believing that this will give the girl a proper upbringing under God’s guidance. The town eventually assigns Hester an abandoned cottage on the outskirts of Boston where she can live with Pearl while earning money for their living expenses by working at a local prison embroidering fine fabrics for wealthy clients. The story begins when Arthur Dimmesdale returns to Boston after serving overseas for several years so he can complete his studies and become ordained as a New England minister.
The young man is ill and Hawthorne informs the reader that Dimmesdale’s poor health stems from a “taint of moral disease” within him. The two men meet several years later when Hester enters Reverend Wilson’s church one Sunday morning while Arthur is giving a sermon. The minister has been watching her intently from his pulpit for some time, but this is the first time they have seen each other in many years. The pair exchange a look before Arthur turns back to his congregation and Hester leaves without going to take communion.