THEMES: The Scarlet Letter

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THE SCARLET LETTER
Themes, Symbols, and Imagery
IMAGERY: LIGHT AND DARK
The interplay of light and
darkness is fundamental in
the novel.
Hawthorne “shadows”
every scene: The mingling
of light and shadow gives
the book visual imagery
that alludes to the larger,
grander conflict between
good and evil.
IMAGERY: LIGHT AND DARK
Consider Pearl’s wise observation in
Chapter 21, regarding Dimmesdale:
“What a strange, sad man is he! In the
dark nighttime he calls us to him, and
holds thy hand and mine, as when we stood
with him on the scaffold yonder! And in the
deep forest, where only the old trees can
hear and the strip of sky sees it, he talks
with thee…and he kisses my forehead,
too…But here, in the sunny day, and
among all the people, he knows us not; nor
must we know him!”
IMAGERY: LIGHT AND DARK
Sunlight and daylight can be seen
as the equivalent of openness,
honesty, and goodness.
Nighttime and shadow represent
concealment, secrets, and evil.
But wildness and evil are not
necessarily identical.
The forest, where Indians and the
Black man dwell, is also the abode
of nature.
IMAGERY: LIGHT AND DARK
As Pearl notes, in town, Dimmesdale
can mount the scaffold and enact a
mock penance only in darkest night.
He can freely be himself with Hester
only in the forest.
And in the heart of the forest’s
darkness, sunshine bursts through as if
to support the lovers’ liberty.
The forest, for all of its shadows, is the
symbol of the human heart and inner
self.
If the settlement stands for society, it
appears to be a society that neglects or
even outlaws the human heart.
IMAGERGY: LIGHT AND DARK
What emerges is a
novel built on a
world of symbolic
contrasts.
Every scene can
become a symbol or
metaphor.
THEMES: THE SCARLET LETTER
Literary themes are the insight
an author presents to the reader
about life or human nature.
Broader themes
Good v. Evil
Psychological effects of sin
Individuals in relationship to
Puritan community
Hypocrisy
Revenge
SYMBOLS: THE SCARLET LETTER
The scarlet letter “A”
Symbolizes the function of the
human will as the critical
element in the contest between
the dark of the devil’s domain
and the sunshine of God’s
virtue.
Its human incarnation is Pearl,
Hester’s daughter.
SYMBOLISM: THE SCARLET
LETTER
A = adultery: But is the issue really adultery? Hester did not
knowingly cheat on her husband, whom she thought was
dead.
The bigger issue addressed is the effects of sin.
The sin, committed before the story begins, involves four
central characters and leads to further sins.
The novel raises questions:
What secrets are hidden in the human heart?
Who, really, is righteous, and who is a sinner?
THE PURITANS: KEY CONTEXT
FOR THE SCARLET LETTER
The scarlet letter that Hester wears over her bosom is as important
for the community as it is for the other central characters.
The community is measured by the letter as much as the principle
characters.
First, when humankind tries to evade its sinful legacy by
constructing social institutions that “outlaw” sin, the results are
usually disastrous.
Our fascination with the sins of others predisposes us to a
moralistic outlook on society, as opposed to a moral outlook
regarding our individual attitudes and actions: the result is
arrogance and hypocrisy.
THE PURITANS; KEY CONTEXT
FOR THE SCARLET LETTER
Hawthorne infers that in their religious zeal, this
community tries to legislate morality and
eliminate the need for human will.
Hester, first by her sin, and then by the depth of
her character, demonstrates the importance of
the individual’s will as a key element in virtue.
Hester proves that free will and choice is the one
– and perhaps, the critical element – in living the
virtuous life.
SYMBOLS: THE SCARLET LETTER
When these fundamentals
are put together, the tale is
clear:
Hester, through an effort
of the will, manages to
love (as defined by the
Christian ideal) even
though that love is not
returned by society.
THEMES: THE SCARLET LETTER
In The Scarlet Letter,
Hawthorne tries to make
us see that:
Guilt can destroy a person,
body, and soul.
The punishment imposed
on us by others may not
be as destructive as the
guilt we experience.
THEMES: THE SCARLET LETTER
True repentance must come from
within.
Revenge destroys both the victim
and the seeker.
Even well-intended secrets and
deceptions can lead to destruction.
We must have the courage to be true
to who we are.
It is by recognizing and dealing with
our weaknesses that make us
stronger.
THEMES: THE SCARLET LETTER
The choices we make
determine who we become.
Within each person exists
the capacity for both good
and evil.
People must accept
responsibility for their
actions or suffer the
consequences.

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