The Scarlet Letter

Mid-paper on the North-American Novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne



The Scarlet Letter was first published in 1850 and it is considered Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece. The story takes place in the puritanical Boston, Massachusetts, of the seventeenth century and it tells the story of Hester Prynne, who gives birth to a girl after committing adultery. She refuses to name the father and struggles to reconstruct her life and dignity.


According to Schwarz, “by making concrete the sensitive experience emerging around core categories of the puritan society, Hawthorne reaches a very rich representation of perception. As the categories are contradictory (to the bitter utopia there is a corresponding image of nature giving life to both repression and possible freedom), they appear at the core of the same perception, ambiguous in its plea. This refraction of the most general problem in its minimum personal acts is the greatest merit of The Scarlet Letter; I do not know a romance so well succeeded in this particular point”. (P.140)



The omniscient narrator is an unknown customhouse surveyor who writes the story two hundred years after the described events. He is clearly sympathetic to Hester and Dimmesdale, also having much in common with Hawthorne. However, his opinions should not be taken as the author’s ones.


The tone varies from a bitter introduction to irony, in the body of the novel. The narrator uses the past tense to tell about events that happened two hundred years before his time, mixed with the present tense whenever he reports to the reader directly.


The themes involved are sin, experience and the human condition, as well as the nature of evil, identity and society. Opposite motifs are also present in the plot as civilization versus wilderness and night versus day. The letter is expected to be a symbol of shame but, instead, it becomes a powerful mark of identity to Hester. The story is full of symbols, as objects, character names, figures or colors are used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.


The narrator begins the story with the image of a rosebush near the prison door. It is also a symbol of the ability that nature has to survive, despite of human activities. Its beauty contrasts to all that surrounds it and, in the same sense, an embroidered scarlet letter “A” may also be converted to “some sweet moral blossom”. Hester and her child are “roses among the weeds” and, throughout the book, images of nature will contrast with the darkness of Puritans.


If we consider the existing opposition between sunlight and darkness, we will realize that the plot’s events are organized into two clear categories: what is socially acceptable and what must happen on a hidden way, not to be condemned. As the light of the day will expose individual’s activities – making them vulnerable to punishment –, Hester and Pearl meeting with Dimmesdale on the scaffold occurs during the night. Such notions of visibility are linked to the larger theme of inner individual identity versus socially assigned identity, or outer appearances versus internal states.


         The most remarkable symbol of the story comes to the narrative exactly at this point, while Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearl are on the scaffold: a meteor suddenly traces out an “A” in the night sky, allowing people to have different interpretations about the phenomenon. To the young minister, the meteor implies that he should also wear a mark of shame, just like Hester. For the rest of the community, the symbol drawn in the sky was understood as “Angel”, since it represented Governor Winthrop’s entry into heaven, after his death.


In The Scarlet Letter, town represents civilization – with its guilt and punishments – while the forest is where natural life survives, irrespectively of human authority. So, all society’s rules will not apply to the forest and, consequently, alternative identities can be assumed out of the town.


Examples of it are Hester's exile in the boundaries of the repressive Boston, and the place where her brief meeting with Dimmesdale took place: in the woods, where they could become the happy young lovers that they used to be in the past.


Despite being described as a capable, intelligent person, Hester is not necessarily portrayed as an extraordinary woman. She is the most important character but, surprisingly, the book does not consider her innate personality, focusing her behavior and the way she was seen by others, instead.


         Just like Hester, the young minister is someone whose identity is more subject to the external moral environment, than properly to his innate nature or repressed impulses. The eloquence of his sermons will not apply, therefore, to his own life, as his omission also contributes to ostracize Hester. The composition of his name suggests dimness as well as all concepts related to it, from weakness to his most obvious lack of will.

       However, in both cases – but in opposite ways –, the sinfulness will lead to some personal growth: Dimmesdale will decay from the purity of his sermons to complete damnation, while Hester will begin to speculate about the moral laws of the community that condemned her, as she becomes more contemplative.


Chillingworth, on the other hand, symbolizes the evil. As suggested by his name, he is totally deficient of human warmth. He is much more interested in revenge and destruction. By combining ‘knowledge’ and ‘conservatism’, he represents the worst combination that the puritan system could produce, since his knowledge is often used as a powerful weapon against the others.


Pearl is much more a symbol than properly a character, as she embodies the sin. Also, her name evokes the biblical device of salvation, according to the parable of the pearl of great price. Neo-freudians could say, later, that Pearl’s shriek not recognizing her mother (when Hester removed her scarlet letter and let down her hair, in the scene of her meeting with Dimmesdale) is a premature sight of the Electra Complex. Anyway, once her father’s identity is revealed to the town, the little girl kisses him and, then, Dimmedale falls dead. It is not a coincidence that, from this point on, Pearl looses all her symbolic condition, becoming fully human.


The theme of past and present is related not only to the temporal gap of two hundred years between the time of narration and when the facts took place. It is also a manner that Hawthorne found to establish a necessary distance to the issues raised in the book, certainly to prevent him from being ostracized by readers as well. This is not a matter of having the courage of denouncing things or not: we are talking about a time in which the reading public was still being formed in America, through an own literary form totally different from the British way of writing novels.


Other resources used by Hawthorn to distance himself from such issues are the final words condemning Hester (despite all his admiration explicitly demonstrated throughout the novel) and the use of a narrator investigating documents at the Boston Custom-House (which, on the other hand, contributed to the verisimilitude of the story).


But, in the name of the supremacy of his good intentions, the innovative form used and the boldness of the issue of adultery (and the timid denounce of women conditions, as well), Hawthorne must be acquitted from all accusations of omission, specially if we take into consideration that the mid-nineteen century – when he wrote The Scarlet Letter – was still a difficult time to the most progressive ideas.


Guilt has always been a very frequent theme in the Western Literature: John Steinbeck's “East of Eden”, Fyodor Dostoevsky's “Crime and Punishment”, Tennessee Williams' “A Streetcar Named Desire”, William Shakespeare's play “Macbeth”, Edgar Allan Poe's “The Tell-Tale Heart” and many other works of literature brought this theme throughout times. Sigmund Freud also described guilt as the result of a struggle between the ego and the superego. Just like in Literature, guilt and its causes, merits, and demerits has also become a very common theme in both psychology and psychiatry.


The relations between internalized and exposed guilty has a particular allegory in Dimmedale and Prynne attitudes, as the young minister carries his mark under his clothes, imprinted on his own skin, while Hester’s mark is embroidered at everyone’s sight, right over her dresses. It is explicit, thus, two possibilities that individuals have to deal with the social consensus that will recognize or deny them.


Arthur Dimmesdale represents, with extreme intensity and eloquence, the common lie, provoking sacred chills in the repressors while mobilizing what preferably should remain quite. Hester, on the other hand, has a radical perspective: as she was expelled from the community and became contemplative, she was awarded with the consciousness that her sin had no significance of substance at all.


In a certain way, Nathaniel Hawthorne drafted facts and conducts which would illustrate Freudian theory, many years later. So, Arthur, Hester and Pearl could also be seen as manifestations of the ego, id and superego, respectively. And, whenever the ego is submitted to the id, the individual becomes destructive or immoral, according to certain pre-existing laws. However, when the ego is submitted to the superego, the result of it will be insanity, as the individual will experiment the unbearable dissatisfaction of being destroyed, if he insists to overrule the conventions that surrounds him.






·     Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter, 3rd Edit. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1989.


·     Schwarz, Roberto. A Letra Escarlata e o Puritanismo. in A Sereia e o Desconfiado. 2ª. ed., Rio de Janeiro: Paz e rra, 1981.


·     Amico, Eleanor B. Reader's Guide to Women's Studies. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998.


·    Barbuto, Domenico. The American Settlement Movement: A Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999