'The Scarlet Letter' Themes and Symbols

The Scarlet Letter, Nathanial Hawthorne’s 1850 novel of a 17th century adulterous affair in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, centers on several themes that would have been very meaningful to the highly religious, pre-industrial community in which it is set: the nature of shame and judgment; the differences between our public and private lives; and the conflict between scientific and religious beliefs.

Additionally, several important symbols pop up throughout the novel to highlight these themes, including the scarlet letter, the scaffold, and Pearl. Through the use of these themes and symbols, Hawthorne constructs a world of Puritanical guilt and redemption in the earliest days of America’s history.

Shame and Judgment

The novel’s most central theme is that of shame and judgment—it is the focal point of the story’s first scene, when Hester Prynne is publicly ridiculed on the scaffold in the town square, and it permeates nearly every part of the book from there on.

Prynne is forced to wear the eponymous token over her clothes for the rest of her days in the colony, which is itself a judgment she must endure, as well as an ever-present symbol of her shame and lowly position in the community. As such, wherever she goes she is quickly identified as the person who committed adultery, an act for which the townspeople pass judgment on her, causing her, in turn, to feel some degree of shame. This comes to a head when the townspeople try to take Pearl away from Prynne, an act that mostly stems from their misguided assumptions and views of the mother and daughter. Over time, both the town’s estimation of Prynne and her own feelings of guilt begin to dissipate, but for many years these feelings are quite strong for each party and serve as a central, motivating force within the story.

Public vs. Private

The flip side of this form of judgment and shame is experienced by Dimmesdale who, though he has committed the same crime as Prynne, deals with this fact very differently. Dimmesdale must keep his guilt to himself, a state of affairs that drives him mad and eventually to death.

Dimmesdale's position provides an interesting insight into the nature of judgement and shame when felt privately, not publicly. For one thing, he receives no negative judgment from the others in the colony, as they don’t even know of his involvement in the affair, so he only continues to receive their adulation. Additionally, he has no outlet for his shame, as he must keep it hidden, so it eats away at him over the course of several years. This is not to say that this is worse than Prynne's fate, but the differing situation creates an alternative result; whereas Prynne eventually works her way back, somewhat, into the town’s good graces, Dimmesdale must hide his own shame and literally cannot live with it, as he reveals it and then promptly dies. Through the different ways in which these two are made to endure judgment as well as feel shame, Hawthorne presents a compelling look into the nature of human guilt, as both a public and private phenomenon.

Scientific vs. Religious Beliefs

Through the relationship between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, Hawthorne explores the differences between scientific and religious modes of thought and understanding. Given that this novel is set in a 17th century Puritan colony, the characters are deeply religious, and have little understanding of scientific processes. Most of their understanding of the world, in fact, comes from a place of religious belief. For example, when Dimmesdale—who, admittedly, is a priest—looks to the night sky, he takes what he sees as a sign from God. Dimmesdale filtering his perceptions through the lens of his profession is largely the point, though, as he and Chillingworth are used to represent these opposing views.

Chillingworth is a new addition to the town, and, as he is a physician, represents the encroaching of science into the religious New World colonies. Additionally, he is often described as representing darkness or evil, or just the devil outright, indicating that his mode of thought is at odds with the others’ in the community, as well as antithetical to God’s order.

Interestingly, the two men get along at first, but ultimately grow apart when Chillingworth begins to probe Dimmesdale’s psychological state, suggesting that science and religion are incompatible in analyzing one’s mental anguish. One area in which they do align, however, is over Prynne, as each man attempts at one point to win her love. In the end, though, she rejects both of them, showing that an independently minded woman has no need for either.

Symbols

The Scarlet Letter

Given the book’s title, this object is unsurprisingly a very important symbol throughout the story. Even before the main narrative begins, the reader catches a glimpse of the letter, as the anonymous narrator of “The Custom House” describes it briefly in the book’s opening section. From there, it appears pretty much right away, and comes to be the story’s most prominent symbol.

Interestingly, though the letter represents Prynne’s guilt to the other characters in the book, it has a somewhat different meaning to the reader. It symbolizes not just Prynne’s actions, which, of course, it does symbolize, but it also embodies the town’s viewing of her actions as wrong, and as a punishment forced upon her by her community. As such, it says more about the wearer’s environment, than it does about the wearer herself. It shows that this group is willing to make a very public example of people whom it believes to have transgressed.

Notably also, Dimmesdale burns a symbol of some sort—which some claim is an “A”—onto his chest as a sort of atonement for his role in the affair. This highlights the public vs. private theme in the novel, as the two bear the burden of guilt very differently.

The Scaffold

The scaffold, which appears in the first scene, serves to divide the story into beginning, middle, and end. It first appears in the opening scene, when Prynne is forced to stand on it for several hours and endure harassment from the community. In this moment, it symbolizes a very public form of punishment, and, as this is the beginning of the book, establishes that tone going forward.

Later, the scaffold shows up again when Dimmesdale goes out walking one night and ends up there, whereupon he runs into Prynne and Pearl. This is a moment of reflection for Dimmesdale, as he ruminates on his misdeeds, changing the book’s focus from public to private shame.

The scaffold’s final appearance comes in the book’s climactic scene, when Dimmesdale reveals his role in the affair, and then promptly dies in Prynne’s arms atop the apparatus. At this moment, Prynne literally embraces Dimmesdale, and the town collectively embraces the two of them, acknowledging the minister’s confession, and forgiving them both of their crimes. The scaffold, therefore, comes to represent atonement and acceptance, completing its journey, much like the characters themselves, from punishment through reflection, and, ultimately, to forgiveness.

Pearl

Though Pearl is very much a distinct character in her own right, she also acts symbolically as the living embodiment of her parents’ infidelity. As a result, whenever Prynne looks at her, she must confront what she has done, almost more so even than when she looks at the scarlet letter. Importantly, though, she represents not just her parents’ infidelity, but also her mother’s independence. This is epitomized by some of the townspeople trying to take Pearl away from Prynne, which forces the mother to argue before the governor for the right to keep her child. Essentially, she must fight to prove the validity of her desires and affections in the face of this highly rigid and patriarchal society. Pearl, therefore, represents the sinfulness and the gracefulness balanced in tandem inside of her mother—that is, she is wild but still worth loving nonetheless.