Perhaps the foremost purpose of The Scarlet Letter is to illustrate the difference between shaming someone in public and allowing him or her to suffer the consequences of an unjust act privately. According to the legal statutes at the time and the prevailing sentiment of keeping in accordance with a strict interpretation of the Bible, adultery was a capital sin that required the execution of both adulterer and adulteress--or at the very least, severe public corporal punishment. Indeed, even if the husband wanted to keep his wife alive after she committed adultery, the law insisted that she would have to die for it. It is in this environment that Hester commits adultery with Dimmesdale, but we come to see that the public shaming cannot begin to account for all the complexities of the illicit relationship--or the context of it. What Hawthorne sets out to portray, then, is how the private thoughts, the private torture and guilt and emotional destruction of the people involved in the affair, are more than enough punishment for the crime. We wonder whether the state or society has any right to impose law in private matters between citizens. Does adultery really have no impact upon the lives of others? If not, it should not be seen as a crime against the village. A more charitable reading of the Bible would come later in reflections on the New Testament interpretation of adultery law, namely, that the public need not step in to punish a crime when we ourselves have our own sins to be judged. Each person suffers enough already for his or her own sins.
Punishment vs. Forgiveness
One of the more compelling themes of the novel is embodied by Chillingworth, who seems the arbiter of moral judgment in the story, since Dimmesdale--the minister and the supposed purveyor of righteousness--is himself tainted as a party to the crime. Chillingworth is surprisingly forgiving of Hester's crime. We sense that he understands why she would forsake him. After all, he is deformed, he is older, he has not been nearby, while she is beautiful and passionate. Indeed, we get the feeling that Chillingworth's self-loathing allows him to forgive Hester, but this attribute also increases the relentlessness and rage with which he goes after Dimmesdale. In Dimmesdale, he sees the vigor and passion which Hester desires and which he himself does not possess. Like a leech, he's out to suck Dimmesdale of his life force, not just to punish the minister for the crime of fornicating with his wife, but also to symbolically appropriate Dimmesdale's virility. And as the novel continues, Chillingworth seems to grow stronger while Dimmesdale seems to weaken. That pattern continues until Dimmesdale dies in an act of defiance, his public demonstration of guilt, which essentially leaves Chillingworth stripped bare of his power to punish or forgive.
The Scarlet Letter
The scarlet letter is symbolic in a number of different ways, but perhaps most in the ways that the sinners choose to wear it. Hawthorne's generative image for the novel was that of a woman charged with adultery and forced to wear the letter A upon her clothes, but upon wearing it, decided to add fancy embroidery as if to appropriate the letter as a point of pride. Hawthorne read about this choice in an actual case in 1844, recorded it in his journal, and thus The Scarlet Letter was born as Hester Prynne's story. Hester, a knitter by trade, sees the letter as a burden laid on by society, an act of community-enforced guilt that she is forced to bear, even though it seems to make little difference for her private thoughts. Dimmesdale, however, as the town minister, wears his own scarlet A burned upon his flesh, since it is the community's rage he fears the most. Thus we see the difference between a woman who has made peace with the crime, publicly confesses, and endures the suffering the community imposes, and a man who imposes his own punishment because he cannot bear to reveal the crime to the community.
Sin and Judgment
Hawthorne's novel consistently calls into question the notion of sin and what is necessary for redemption. Is Hester's initial crime a sin? She married Chillingworth without quite understanding the commitment she made, and then she had to live without him while he was abroad, then fell in love with Dimmesdale--perhaps discovering the feeling for the first time. Is the sin, then, committing adultery with Dimmesdale and breaking her vow and commitment, or is the sin first marrying Chillingworth without thinking it through? And what is Chillingworth's sin? Essentially abandoning his wife for so long upon their marriage, or failing to forgive her once he knew of the crime? Is Dimmesdale's sin his adultery or his hypocritical failure to change his sermon themes after the fact? Or are all of these things sins of different degrees? For each kind of sin, we wonder if the punishment fits the crime and what must be done, if anything, to redeem the sinner in the eyes of society as well as in the eyes of the sinner himself or herself. We also should remember that what the Puritans thought of as sin was different from what went for sin in Hawthorne's time, both being different from what many Christians think of as sin today. This should not teach us moral relativism, but it should encourage us to be wary of judging others.
Civilization vs. Wilderness
Pearl embodies the theme of wilderness over against civilization. After all, she is a kind of embodiment of the scarlet letter: wild, passionate, and completely oblivious to the rules, mores, and legal statutes of the time. Pearl is innocence, in a way, an individualistic passionate innocence. So long as Dimmesdale is alive, Pearl seems to be a magnet that attracts Hester and Dimmesdale, almost demanding their reconciliation or some sort of energetic reconciliation. But as soon as Dimmesdale dies, Pearl seems to lose her vigor and becomes a normal girl, able to marry and assimilate into society. The implication is thus that Pearl truly was a child of lust or love, a product of activity outside the boundaries imposed by strict Puritan society. Once the flame of love is extinguished, she can properly assimilate.
The Town vs. the Woods
In the town, Hester usually is confronted with the legal and moral consequences of her crime. Governor Bellingham comes to take her child away, Chillingworth reminds her of her deed, and she faces Dimmesdale in the context of sinner (his reputation remains untarnished despite his role in the affair). But whenever Hester leaves the town and enters the woods, a traditional symbol of unbridled passion without boundaries, she is free to rediscover herself. The woods also traditionally emblematize darkness. In the darkness of night, Hester is free to meet Dimmesdale, to confess her misgivings, and to live apart from the torment and burdens of the guilt enforced by the community. Dimmesdale too is free at night to expose his guilt on the scaffold and reconcile with Hester.
Memories vs. the Present
Hester Prynne's offense against society occurred seven years earlier, but she remains punished for it. Hester learned to forgive herself for her adultery, but society continues to scorn her for it. (One might remember Jean Valjean's permanent identity as criminal after a single minor crime in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.) Indeed, Hester reaches peace with her affair and in that peace comes to see the town as insufficiently forgiving in its thoughts and attitudes. Pearl is enough of a reminder of the wild choices in her past, and as Pearl grows up, Hester continues to live in the present rather than in the past. Reverend Dimmesdale, meanwhile, is haunted in the present by sins past and seems to reflect (along with Chillingworth) the town's tendency to punish long after the offense. In suppressing his own confession, Dimmesdale remains focused on coming to terms with a sinful past instead of looking squarely at the problems of the present.
The Scarlet Letter Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Scarlet Letter is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.