11 Unforgettable Quotes From 'The Scarlet Letter'

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Famous Novel: Plot, Themes, and More

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Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "The Scarlet Letter," his famous tale of adultery and alienation, in 1850. The novel has become a sometimes controversial focus of study in American literature. The compelling and timeless themes of the story are expressed powerfully in some of the most memorable and still-relevant passages.

The Story of 'The Scarlet Letter'

Set in the puritanical era of colonial New England, "The Scarlet Letter" follows Hester Prynne, the young wife of an elderly doctor, who has come to Boston ahead of her husband. When her husband fails to arrive, it becomes assumed that he has died at sea on the way.

When Hester gives birth to a daughter, Pearl, it becomes obvious that she has committed adultery. The religious-based laws of the time require Hester to reveal the name of Pearl’s father. She refuses and is forced to wear a scarlet “A” to advertise her sin of adultery.

Hester’s missing husband, however, has by this time arrived in Boston and, calling himself Roger Chillingworth, decides to punish his wife for her unfaithfulness.

Arthur Dimmesdale, a sickly young preacher, helps Hester navigate life as a widowed mother and social pariah. Chillingworth, suspecting that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father, takes him in and discovers that his suspicions are correct.

Dimmesdale is tormented by guilt—and by Chillingworth—and Hester implores Chillingworth to relent. When he refuses, she and Dimmesdale plan to flee to Europe. However, before they do, Dimmesdale confesses to the town and, finally, succumbs to his sickness.

Years later, having raised Pearl, Hester is buried next to Dimmesdale under a tombstone bearing the scarlet letter.

Themes

Set in Puritan times, "The Scarlet Letter" explicitly and critically examines puritanical thinking and mores. The nature of sin and secrecy, guilt and knowledge of sin—and of course hypocrisy—all come to the forefront throughout the story. Both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth suffer physically in the book, and their physical sufferings reflect on the state of their spiritual selves.

The main characters examine their identity, and through them we can examine their (and others') place in society. Should people conform or be individuals? Ostracized by Puritan society for a single action—despite all the good she does elsewhere in her life—Hester comes to question society’s admonitions not just against her own behavior but against other behaviors and thought as well.

Through these themes and characters, the book also examines the very nature of evil. Is a baby evil because she was born out of wedlock, or are others evil through wicked actions?

Writing Style

Hawthorne's writing style is filled with complex sentences loaded with clauses that take some work to unpack, and often by their end, they give a different impression than what it seemed they would say at the beginning. The reader has to make it to the end of a sentence and not prejudge, in case there is a twist at its end.

He uses figurative language such as metaphor, simile, allegory, and symbolism throughout "The Scarlet Letter," the most obvious of the latter, of course, being the bright capital "A" that Hester has to wear. Symbols and metaphor were the tools authors had to go after these topics in the 19th century.

Historical Context and Longevity

It was a time of women starting to make their voices heard on a large scale, as the first women's rights convention was at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Women wanted more roles in society than those they had been boxed into—to be more equal with men, to have their voices heard by voting, to be allowed to own property, and so on.

The book still resonates, in that there still is a conflict for women between their sexuality and society's moral expectations. There still is a conflict in society between conformity and individuality, and women still are not equal in all respects to men in the workplace. Women still have identity crises, as they figure out the balance between their roles in society as mothers vs. career women, for example. Times have changed, but human conflicts remain.

Quotes

Here are some quotes from "The Scarlet Letter" that explore its timeless themes:

1. "One token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another."

2. "Ah, but let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart."

3. "In our nature, however, there is a provision, alike marvelous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it."

4. "A bodily disease, which we look upon as whole and entire within itself, may, after all, be but a symptom of some ailment in the spiritual part."

5. "A pure hand needs no glove to cover it."

6. "It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility."

7. "Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along with it the utmost passion of her heart! Else it may be their miserable fortune, when some mightier touch than their own may have awakened all her sensibilities, to be reproached even for the calm content, the marble image of happiness, which they will have imposed upon her as the warm reality."

8. "She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss."

9. "But this had been a sin of passion, not of principle, nor even purpose."

10. "She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom."

11. "No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true."