'The Scarlet Letter' Quotes Explained

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter tells a story of love, collective punishment, and salvation in Puritan, colonial Massachusetts. Through the character of Hester Prynne, who has been forced, as punishment for committing adultery, to wear a scarlet “A” on her chest for the remainder of her days in the colony, Hawthorne shows the deeply religious and morally strict world of the 17th century Boston.

The Scarlet Letter Itself

“But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer—so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time—was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.” (Chapter II, “The Market-Place”)

This is the first moment the town sees Prynne adorned in the eponymous item, which she must wear as punishment for having birthed a child out of wedlock. In the town, which is only then a tiny colony at the edge of the Western World in what was known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, this scandal causes quite a to-do. As such, this token’s effect on the townspeople is quite strong—magical even: the Scarlet Letter had “the effect of a spell.” This is notable because it reveals both the group’s reverence of and deference toward higher, more spiritual and invisible powers. In addition, it indicates how much power this punishment has over them as a form of deterrence toward future transgressions.

The item’s effect on its wearer is supernatural, as Prynne is said to be “transfigured,” and taken “out of the ordinary relations with humanity” and enclosed “in a sphere by herself.” This transfiguration then plays out over the course of the novel, as the town turns a cold shoulder to her and Pearl, and she is forced to earn her way back, to the degree that it is even possible, into their good graces through beneficial deeds. The letter itself, too, is of some note, as it is described as “fantastically embroidered” and “illuminated," a description that highlights the letter’s potent powers, making it clear that this is no ordinary object. Additionally, this focus on embroidery foreshadows Prynne’s eventual development of highly-regarded sewing skills. As such, this passage establishes from an early moment several of the book’s most prominent themes and motifs. 

"The Little Puritans"

“The truth was, that the little Puritans, being of the most intolerant brood that ever lived, had got a vague idea of something outlandish, unearthly, or at variance with ordinary fashions, in the mother and child; and therefore scorned them in their hearts, and not unfrequently reviled them with their tongues.” (Chapter VI, “Pearl”)

This passage provides a look into the highly moral world of Puritan Massachusetts. This is not to say that the Puritans actually had the most proper understanding of right and wrong, but just that they lived with a very strong sense of that distinction. For example, in the very first sentence, even, the narrator describes Puritans as “being of the most intolerant brood that ever lived.” This so-described general intolerance then leads the group down a rather nasty path when applied to the specific situation of Prynne and Pearl. As they disapprove of what Prynne has done, they find her and her daughter “unearthly,” “outlandish,” or otherwise “at variance” with the town’s norms. This is interesting in itself, as a window into the colony’s collective psyche, but also in terms of the specific word choice, as Prynne is, once again, placed outside the realm of normal human relations.

From there, the townspeople then turned their disapproval into outright dislike, and “scorned” and “reviled” the mother and daughter. These few sentences, then, provide a good deal of insight into the community’s highly self-righteous attitude in general, as well as their judgmental position on this issue, which really has nothing to do with any of them, in specific.

"A Well-Spring of Human Tenderness..."

“Hester’s nature showed itself warm and rich; a well-spring of human tenderness, unfailing to every real demand, and inexhaustible by the largest. Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one. She was selfordained a Sister of Mercy, or, we may rather say, the world’s heavy hand had so ordained her, when neither the world nor she looked forward to this result. The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her—so much power to do, and power to sympathize—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.” (Chapter XIII, “Another View of Hester”)

As the chapter title suggests, this moment shows how Prynne’s standing in the community has changed in the time she has worn the scarlet letter. Whereas she was at first reviled and exiled, she has now somewhat earned her way back into the town’s good graces. Though her breast has a “badge of shame” (the letter), she shows through her actions that this denomination doesn’t really apply to her anymore.

Interestingly, the narrator states that the letter was the “symbol of her calling,” a statement that is just as true now as it was originally, but for very different reasons. Whereas before it had identified her as the perpetrator of a crime—with the “A” presumably standing for “Adultery”—now it is said to mean something quite different indeed: “Able,” a change that resulted from her having “so much power to do, and power to sympathize.”

Somewhat ironically, this change in attitude towards Prynne stems from the same set of Puritan values that condemned her to this fate in the first place, although in this case it’s not the Puritanical sense of moral righteousness, but, rather, the respect for hard work and good deeds. Whereas other passages showed the destructive nature of this society’s values, here those same values’ restorative powers are demonstrated.

All About Pearl

“If little Pearl were entertained with faith and trust, as a spirit-messenger no less than an earthly child, might it not be her errand to soothe away the sorrow that lay cold in her mother’s heart, and converted it into a tomb?—and to help her to overcome the passion, once so wild, and even yet neither dead nor asleep, but only imprisoned within the same tomb-like heart?” (Chapter XV, “Hester and Pearl”)

This passage touches upon several interesting elements of Pearl’s character. Firstly, it highlights her not entirely normal existence, by referring to her as a “spirit-messenger” in addition to an “earthly child”—an odd liminal state. This, that Pearl is somehow demonic, wild, or mystical, is a common refrain throughout the book, and stems from the facts that she was born out of wedlock—which in this world means out of God’s order, and therefore Evil, or otherwise wrong or abnormal—and that her father’s identity is largely a mystery.

Additionally, her behavior cuts against the community’s standards, further highlighting her (and her mother’s) outsider status, as well as her distance and isolation. Also of note is the way the passage acknowledges Pearl’s double-edged relationship with her mother. The narrator states that Pearl’s duty is, or might be, to “soothe away the sorrow that lay cold in her mother’s heart,” which is a very kind role for a daughter to play for her mother, but is somewhat ironic since Pearl is the living embodiment of Prynne’s slings and arrows. She is both the source and the salve for her mother’s pain. This passage is yet another example of the two-sided nature of many of this book’s elements, which shows that even for as antithetical and split as certain opposites—good and bad, religion and science, nature and man, earthly and heavenly—can be, they are also be inextricably intertwined.

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Cohan, Quentin. "'The Scarlet Letter' Quotes Explained." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/unforgettable-quotes-from-the-scarlet-letter-741328. Cohan, Quentin. (2021, February 9). 'The Scarlet Letter' Quotes Explained. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/unforgettable-quotes-from-the-scarlet-letter-741328 Cohan, Quentin. "'The Scarlet Letter' Quotes Explained." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/unforgettable-quotes-from-the-scarlet-letter-741328 (accessed March 24, 2023).