The Scarlet Letter Themes and Analysis 📖

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is stuffed with themes that border around aspects of religion and human morality such as sinning, confessing, and being penalized for such sin – much to the author’s intention of sending some strong moral lessons to his readership.

The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne’s move to go by such name as ‘The Scarlet Letter’ for the book’s title is symbolic in itself and already hints at the themes of penitence and punishment for the crime of adultery committed by two of the book’s major characters in Hester Prynne and the priest – Arthur Dimmesdale. There are some foundational themes as there are other subsets that still carry a vital message in them. The most important ones will be analyzed in this article.

Sin and Punishment

These are probably the two most obvious themes of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and they are very clearly executed throughout the pages of the book – beginning from the first chapter. 

Hester Prynne, who is the heroine of the book, is one of the characters who bear such guilts of sin and punishment. The sin for which she is being punished is that of adultery – which she commits with a Christian preacher, Arthur Dimmesdale.

Being she lives in the era of a Christian-inspired puritan society, her punishment becomes one of massive social shaming and disgrace – whereby she has to wear a dress with a large inscription of the letter ‘A’ appearing on her chest in blood red color. 

Contrition and Penitence

Hester and Dimmesdale – two prominent characters harboring the most damnable sin of their era – appear to have had a contrite heart after the act, particularly with Hester, who is publicly announced and disgraced. 

Readers could feel the genuineness of Hester’s contrite heart, having been legally married to Roger Chillingworth, her long lost husband – even though she would never regret the love she feels for Dimmesdale and the product of such love being her child, Pearl. 

Gender and Status Inequality Before the Law

Nathaniel Hawthorne, through ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ may have tried to point out the sheer inequality of the purity society before the rule of law. Hawthorne’s time is critical of several aspects of Puritanism, and here questions why preacher Arthur Dimmesdale doesn’t get served the same amount of humiliation as Hester gets. 

Though an argument can be raised that the executors of the puritan laws don’t punish Dimmesdale because they do not know for sure if he committed the crime – especially with Hester refusing to give that information out. Still, one can easily sense that they don’t do enough to get the man who’s responsible. 

Two hypotheses here are one; their interest in not punishing men but the women in such crimes. Two, Dimmesdale’s religious status makes him a very important person, so the executors would be tricky with handling a case of such a class. 

Necromancy and witchcraft

There is a massive dose of talks and meetings about and with witches, and even the devil – who is referred to in the book as ‘The Black Man.’ These subjects are part of what gives the book its dark, spooky ambiance characteristic of gothic fiction. 

Mistress Hibbins is a high-profile suspect whose behavior is, by a puritan society’s standards, termed diabolic and hellish. Hibbins goes about negatively influencing people – like Hester and Pearl – instilling strange, anti puritan mentality in them, conducting and attending meetings and conventions where they invoke and commune with ‘The Black Man’ or devil himself. 

Key Moments in The Scarlet Letter

  1. After losing his job with the Salem Custom House, a man puts together a piece of the manuscript that he had discovered littering in the attic of his former job. On the cover is an inscription, ‘Scarlet Letter A.’ 
  2. The story which he has assembled from it narratives the story of a young woman called Hester Prynne who lives in a 1600s puritan society. 
  3. She appears to have been imprisoned for a heinous crime and is processioned out and made to stand over a public platform wearing a dress with the scarlet letter ‘A’ written boldly on her breast, on which she also carries her baby. 
  4. The crime for which she is paraded is adultery, and under a typical puritan leadership, social shaming and scorning are the repercussions for such acts. 
  5. While she faces the worse moment of her life, a man stands a stone’s throw away in the crowd observing the whole event. His name is Roger Chillingworth, the long-lost husband of the woman being punished at the platform. 
  6. On the platform with Hester is a popular preacher of the town, rev. Arthur Dimmesdale publicly pressures her to say who’s responsible for her baby, but Hester wouldn’t tell and is thrust back into her cell.
  7. With a keen interest in the matter, Chillingworth lies that he is a doctor to get access to his wife, and when he gets past security into the cell, he threatens her not to let anyone know she is married to him and that if she does, he would search out the man responsible and hurt him very badly.
  8. Following her release, Hester moves away from town and tries to survive as a dressmaker with young Pearl. Chillingworth is still in town posing as a doctor as he tries to unearth the father of his wife’s baby. And by now, Dimmesdale, the popular town people’s preacher, has failing health and is being tended to by Chillingworth. 
  9. Pearl grows fond of the scarlet ‘A’ on her mother’s breast, but Hester wouldn’t tell her the truth about it. 
  10. With Chillingworth now spending so much time with Dimmesdale, he starts to notice an unusually strange correlation between Hester’s case and the preacher’s health history. 
  11. One faithful day during Dimmesdale’s medical examination, Chillingworth finds that his patient has a similar scarlet letter ‘A’ etched inside his chest. He is convinced Dimmesdale is Hester’s lover and father of the illegitimate child, Pearl. 
  12. With this knowledge, Chillingworth decides to exert revenge on Dimmesdale by giving him the wrong meds and treating him so much so that his health deteriorates further by the day. 
  13. For Dimmesdale, it seems that his inability to confess publicly is eating him up and causing him constant emotional trauma and heartache. And on several occasions, he doesn’t eat and chastises and whips himself for his mistake. 
  14. On a faithful day, just after twilight, troubled by his guilt, Dimmesdale climbs up the platform and is joined by Hester and her daughter shortly, while Chillingworth skulks by the shadows observing them before a shooting star shimmers through the night sky to reveal his presence. 
  15. What follows next is an exchange of emotions. Hester begs Chillingworth to stop torturing Dimmesdale, but he argues he’s lenient to him. 
  16. Hester then plans a rendezvous with Dimmesdale in the wilderness, where she exposes Chillingworth’s real identity and begs Dimmesdale to elope with her across the Atlantic to start afresh in a new, distant town. He agrees to go with her after he has delivered a scheduled sermon. 
  17. On the day of the sermon, Dimmesdale is moved by his preaching that he decides to confess publicly that he is Hester’s lover and the father to Pearl (both of who had joined him on the platform). Opening his chest, he exposes a scarlet cut he had been carrying in his chest and dies as soon as Pearl kisses him.
  18. Chillingworth’s revenge is taken from him, and he dies a few months later. Hester leaves town with her daughter – explores Europe and marries a wealthy home, and seldom writes her mother. 
  19. When Hester dies, she is laid to rest beside Dimmesdale, and the later ‘A’ is erected in their resting place.

Style and Tone 

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing style is typically one that deploys a lot of metaphors and symbolism to execute his works – with the end goal often having a ton of morals to impact on the reader.

Hawthorne’s works are mostly mysterious, somber, and morose in terms of their themes and storylines. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is no different from his typical style and follows his trademark standard for novel writing. 

The tone in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is mostly sad and contrite, but also critical and disenchantment about puritan cultures, their leaders, and their tendency for being highly hypocritical.

Figurative Languages

Hawthorne brings the pages of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ to life with his heavy use of figurative expressions. Among the figurative language used include metaphor – which seems to appear pervasively throughout the book.

The author also uses tools like irony and personification to highlight his critiques of the purity legacy and traditions. 

Analysis of Symbols in The Scarlet Letter 

The Scarlet Letter

This is perhaps the foremost symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book and represents a variety of things. One such thing is that it serves as an identity for the transgressor or sinner of adultery – as is the case with the protagonist, Hester Prynne. 


Hester’s daughter’s character also has an allegorical attachment to its overall essence. Pearl is a direct repercussion of Hester’s son of adultery, but also a symbol of hope for a better life, in the latter part of the book.


In the book’s reality, he is the husband of Hester, but in terms of the motif to which he represents, Chillingworth proves to be as his name appears; cold. He’s a cold and means man towards the people around him, and this is perhaps one of the reasons Hester could never find love with him. 


What is the main theme in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne?

Sin and punishment are probably the two most discussed themes in ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ and these subjects are pervasive and heavily indulged in by the author throughout the book. 

What does the color red represent in ‘The Scarlet Letter’?

The color red represents sin, and in the book’s case, the sin of adultery – which Hester, the protagonist, is indicted of from the onset of the book. 

What narrative style is deployed by Nathaniel Hawthorne in ‘The Scarlet Letter’?

Nathaniel Hawthorne utilizes the third person narrative technique in his book, ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ as this allows the narrator to tell his story subjectively – but from a rounded, three-dimensional standpoint on the characters. 

Victor Onuorah
About Victor Onuorah
Victor is as much a prolific writer as he is an avid reader. With a degree in Journalism, he goes around scouring literary storehouses and archives; picking up, dusting the dirt off, and leaving clean even the most crooked pieces of literature all with the skill of analysis.
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