11 Unforgettable Quotes from 'The Scarlet Letter'

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Famous Novel

The Scarlet Letter Movie Poster from 1926
The Scarlet Letter Movie Poster from 1926. Getty Images

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, his famous tale of adultery and alienation, in 1850. The novel has become a popular (and sometimes controversial) focus of literary 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

Set in the Puritanical era of colonial New England, The Scarlet Letter is about 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.


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. 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.


Here are a 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."