The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Contributed by Tereasa Jacob
Themes
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
Sin, Knowledge, and the Human Condition

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a strong link between the concepts of sin and knowledge. Remember that it is Adam and Eve’s action of eating an apple from the tree of knowledge that causes them to be thrown out of the Garden of Eden. The knowledge that Adam and Eve gain is that of their humanity. They realize that they are distinct from both the divine and other creatures that inhabit the earth. After they are forced out of the Garden of Eden, they are fated to work and procreate. These two “labors’ are considered integral parts of being human. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester and Dimmesdale’s experiences are parallel in many ways to those of Adam and Eve. They find that the consequences of their sin are suffering and expulsion. One benefit of their sin, however, is knowledge. They now more fully understand the meaning of being human. The scarlet letter on Hester’s chest acts like a “passport into regions where other women dared not tread”. It makes her think much more deeply and boldly about the society in which she lives than other women. Dimmesdale experience of sin makes him much more empathetic with fellow sinners. In contrast to Hester and Dimmesdale, the Puritan elders do not ascribe any real importance to our experiences on earth. They see what happens during our time on earth as only obstacles on the road to heaven. In this world view, sin is something that can destabilize the community and therefore must be punished. We learn from Hester and Dimmesdale that sin can lead to empathy and personal growth. It is strange that Puritan society seems to feel that these attributes are somehow not compatible with purity.

The Nature of Evil

The “Black Man”, or the Devil, is the epitome of evil. This personage is associated with different characters during the course of the novel, including Chillingworth, Dimmesdale, and Mistress Hibbins. Even Pearl is thought by some to be a child of the Devil. There is a great deal of reflection on the question of the causes of evil. It is Puritan ideas about sin that lead to confusion regarding the causes and nature of evil. The novel puts forward an argument that true evil is the result of love and hate being closely related. In the last chapter of the book, the narrator says that both love and hate are dependent on “a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent…upon another.” We find that true evil is what we see in Chillingworth. His premeditated and ruthless campaign of revenge on Dimmesdale, in which he tries to utterly destroy the minister, is an example of evil. There is no evil, however, in Dimmesdale and Hester’s sin or in the ignorance of Puritan society.

Identity and Society

It confuses the reader when Hester refuses to leave Boston even when she is forced to undergo public shame and it made to wear the scarlet letter. We are surprised when Hester feels a strange sense of dismay when Chillingworth says that the leaders of the town are thinking about allowing her to take off the badge. All of this can be explained, however, by Hester’s determination to decide on her identity herself and not permit other people to do that for her. She sees taking off the badge and running away as signs that she is allowing the community’s power over her to control her actions. Hester chooses to remain where she is, and her efforts allow her to gradually change the significance of the symbol. Hester is able to make the sin a positive and integral part of her life.

Dimmesdale is another character who stands in conflict with the identity bestowed on him by society. He is less like a human being and more like a symbol by the community, because he is a highly respected minister. His anguish is seen only as signs of his goodness by the people of the town. Chillingworth, however, knows his pain and seeks to exploit it. It is unfortunate that Dimmesdale does not live to learn what Hester knows: that choosing to take control of one’s own identity and quietly asserting oneself are the keys to strength and individuality.

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