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Essay on The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Example 1

Between Hawthorne’s earlier and his later productions, there is no solution of literary continuity but only increased growth and grasp. Rappaccini’s Daughter, Young Goodman Brown, Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure, and The Artist of the Beautiful, on the one side, are the promise which is fulfilled in The Scarlet Letter and the House of The Seven Gables, on the other; though we should hardly have understood the promise had not the fulfillment explained it. The shorter pieces have a lyrical quality, but the longer romances express more than a mere combination of lyrics; they have a rich, multifarious life of their own. The material is so wrought as to become incidental to something loftier and greater, for which our previous analysis of the contents of the egg had not prepared us.

The Scarlet Letter was the first, and the tendency of criticism is to pronounce it the most impressive, also, of these ampler productions. It has the charm of unconsciousness; the author did not realize while he worked, that this “most prolix among tales” was alive with the miraculous vitality of genius. It combines the strength and substance of an oak with the subtle organization of a rose, and is great, not of malice aforethought, but inevitably. It goes to the root of the matter and reaches some unconventional conclusions, which, however, would scarce be apprehended by one reader in twenty. For the external or literal significance of the story, though in strict correspondence with the spirit, conceals that spirit from the literal eye. The reader may choose his depth according to his inches but only a tall man will touch the bottom.

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The punishment of the scarlet letter is a historical fact; and, apart from the symbol thus ready provided to the author’s hand, such a book as The Scarlet Letter would doubtless never have existed. But the symbol gave the touch whereby Hawthorne’s disconnected thoughts on the subject were united and crystallized in organic form. Evidently, likewise, it was a source of inspiration, suggesting new aspects and features of the truth, — a sort of witch-hazel to detect spiritual gold. Some such figurative emblem, introduced in a matter-of-fact way, but gradually invested with supernatural attributes, was one of Hawthorne’s favourite devices in his stories. We may realize its value, in the present case, by imagining the book with the scarlet letter omitted. It is not practically essential to the plot. But the scarlet letter uplifts the theme from the material to the spiritual level. It is the concentration and type of the whole argument. It transmutes the prose into poetry. It serves as a formula for the conveyance of ideas otherwise too subtle for words, as well as to enhance the gloomy picturesqueness of the moral scenery.

It burns upon its wearer’s breast, it casts a lurid glow along her pathway, it isolates her among mankind and is at the same time the mystic talisman to reveal to her the guilt hidden in other hearts. It is the Black Man’s mark and the first plaything of the infant Pearl. As the story develops, the scarlet letter becomes the dominant figure, — everything is tinged with its sinister glare. By a ghastly miracle, its semblance is reproduced upon the breast of the minister, where “God’s eye beheld it! the angels were for ever pointing at it! the devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger!” — and at last, to Dimmesdale’s crazed imagination, its spectre appears even in the midnight sky as if heaven itself had caught the contagion of his so zealously hidden sin. So strongly is the scarlet letter rooted in every chapter and almost every sentence of the book that bears its name. And yet it would probably have incommoded the average novelist. The wand of Prospero, so far from aiding the uninitiated, trips him up and scorches his fingers. Between genius and every other attribute of the mind is a difference not of degree, but of a kind.

Every story may be viewed under two aspects: as the logical evolution of a conclusion from a premise, and as something coloured and modified by the personal qualities of the author. If the latter has genius, his share in the product is comparable to nature’s in a work of human art, — giving it everything except abstract form. But the majority of fiction-mongers are apt to impair rather than enhance the beauty of the abstract form of their conception, — if, indeed, it possesses any to begin with. At all events, there is no better method of determining the value of a writer’s part in a given work than to consider the work in what may be termed its prenatal state.

How much, for example, of The Scarlet Letter was ready-made before Hawthorne touched it? The date is historically fixed at about the middle of the seventeenth century. The stage properties, so to speak, are well adapted to become the furniture and background of a romantic narrative. A gloomy and energetic religious sect, pioneers in virgin land, with the wolf and the Indian at their doors, but with memories of England in their hearts and English traditions and prejudices in their minds; weak in numbers, but strong in spirit; with no cultivation save that of the Bible and the sword; victims, moreover of dark and bloody superstition, — such a people and scene give admirable relief and colour to a tale of human frailty and sorrow. Amidst such surroundings, then, the figure of a woman stands, with the scarlet letter on her bosom. But here we come to a pause and must look to the author for the next step.

For where shall the story begin? A “twenty-number” novel, of the Dickens or Thackeray type, would start with Hester’s girlhood, and the bulk of the narrative would treat the genesis and accomplishment of the crime. Nor are hints wanting that this phase of the theme had been canvassed in Hawthorne’s mind. We have glimpses of the heroine in the antique gentility of her English home; we see the bald brow and reverend beard of her father, and her mother’s expression of heedful and anxious love; we behold the girl’s own face, glowing with youthful beauty. She meets the pale, elderly scholar, with his dim yet penetrating eyes, and the marriage, loveless on her part and folly on his, takes place; but they saw not the bale-fire of the scarlet letter blazing at the end of their path. The ill-assorted pair make their first home in Amsterdam; but at length, tidings of the Puritan colony in Massachusetts reaching them, they prepare to emigrate thither. But Prynne, himself delaying to adjust certain affairs, sends his young, beautiful, wealthy wife in advance to assume her station in the pioneer settlement. In the wild, free air of that new world, her spirits kindled, and many unsuspected tendencies of her impulsive and passionate nature were revealed to her.

The “rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristics” of her temperament, her ardent love of beauty, her strong intellectual fibre, and her native energy and capacity, — such elements needed a strong and wise hand to curb and guide them, scarcely disguised as they were by the light and graceful foliage of her innocent, womanly charm. Being left, however, for two years “to her own misguidance,” her husband had little cause to wonder, when, on emerging from the forest, the first object to meet his eyes was Hester Prynne, “standing up, a statue of ignominy, before the people.” She “doubtless was strongly tempted to her fall;” and though the author leaves the matter there, so far as any explicit statement is concerned, it is manifest that, had he written out what was already pictured before his imagination, the few pregnant hints scattered through the volume would have been developed into as circumstantial and laborious a narrative as any the most deliberate English or French novelist could desire.

For his forbearance, he has received much praise from well-meaning critics, who seem to think that he was restrained by considerations of morality or propriety. This appears a little strained. As an artist and as a man of a certain temperament, Hawthorne treated that side of the subject which seemed to him the more powerful and interesting. But a writer who works with deep insight and truthful purpose can never be guilty of a lack of decency. Indecency is a creation, not of God or of nature, but of the indecent. And whoever takes it for granted that indecency is necessarily involved in telling the story of an illicit passion has studied human nature and good literature to the poor purpose.

The truth is that the situation selected by Hawthorne has more scope and depth than the one which he passed over. It is with the subjective consequences of a sinner’s act that our understanding of him begins. The murderer’s blow tells us nothing of his character, but in his remorse or exultation over his deed, his secret is revealed to us. So Hawthorne fixes the starting-point of his romance at Hester’s prison-door, rather than at an earlier epoch of her career, because the narrative can thence, as it were, move both ways at once; all essentials of the past can be gathered up as wanted, and the reminiscences and self-knowledge of the characters can supplement the author’s analysis. The story rounds itself out at once, catching the light and casting a shadow; and Hester’s previous life seems familiar to us the moment she takes her stand upon the scaffold, — for, in the case of an experience such as hers, a bare hint tells the whole sad story. So long as women are frail and men selfish, the prologue of The Scarlet Letter will not need to be written; it is known a thousand times already. But what is to follow is not known; no newspapers publish it, no whisper of it passes from mouth to mouth, nor is it cried on the housetops. Yet is their great need that it should be taught, for such teaching serves a practical moral use. All have felt the allurement of temptation, but few realize the sequel of yielding to it. This sequel is exhaustively analyzed in the romance, and hence the profound and permanent interest of the story. No sinner so eccentric but may find here the statement of his personal problem. Such an achievement avouches a lofty reach of art. The form has not the carpenter’s symmetry of a French drama, but the spontaneous, living symmetry of a tree or flower, unfolding from the force within. We are drawn to regard, not the outline, but the substance, which claims affinity with the inmost recesses of our own nature; so that The Scarlet Letter is a self-revelation to whomsoever takes it up.

In a story of this calibre, a complex of incidents would be superfluous. The use of incidents in fiction is twofold, — to develop the characters and to keep awake the reader’s attention. But the personages of this tale are not technically developed; they are gradually made transparent as they stand until we see them through and through. And what we thus behold is less individual peculiarities than traits and devices of our general human nature, under the stress of the given conditions. The individuals are there, and could at need be particularized sharply enough; but that part of them which we are concerned with lies so far beneath the surface as inevitably to exhibit more of general than of personal characteristics. The individual veils the general to the extent of his individuality; and since the effect of “incident” is to emphasize individuality, the best value of The Scarlet Letter had it been based on the incident, would have been impaired. As to postponing the reader’s drowsiness, — victims of the Inquisition have slumbered upon the rack; and people who have been kept too long awake over the sprightly subtleties of Zola, or the Daedalian involutions of Mrs. Henry Wood, have doubtless yawned over the revelation of Dimmesdale’s soul, and grown heavy-eyed at the spectacle of Pearl’s elfish waywardness.

Dimmesdale is, artistically, a corollary of Hester; and yet the average writer would not be apt to hit upon him as a probable seducer. The community in which he abides certainly shows a commendable lack of suspicion towards him: even old Mistress Hibbins whose scent for moral carrion was as keen as that of a modern society journal, can scarcely credit her own conviction. “What mortal imagination could conceive it!” whispers the old lady to Hester, as the minister passes in the procession. “Many a church member saw I, walking behind the music, who has danced in the same measure with me when somebody was the fiddler! That is but a trifle when a woman knows the world. But this minister!” It is, of course, this very refinement that makes him the more available for the ends of the story. A gross, sensual man would render the whole drama gross and obvious. But Dimmesdale’s social position, as well as his personal character, seems to raise him above the possibility of such a lapse. This is essential to the scope of the treatment, which, dealing with the spiritual aspects of the crime, requires characters of spiritual proclivities.


Example 2

The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is an exceptional novel based on sin, forgiveness, and deception. Hester, the main character, has committed the sin of adultery to an unknown man. She lives in Boston and is a puritan, which does not accept sin and lives by the strict, Puritan code. Hester’s sin is unveiled when she bears a child by the name of Pearl and has no husband at that time. Hester’s punishment is not death because her husband is gone, and temptation overran her heart. Throughout the novel, the author uses symbols to entertain the reader and help explain the story. Many symbols come from settings such as the scaffold scenes, the forest, and the light and darkness from the sun.

The scaffold scenes contain many symbols that prove to be essential to the novel. The definition of scaffold is a platform used for the execution of a criminal. Ironically, this is a puritan village, which in turn should not need a scaffold because of faith and love. The scaffold, in this novel, is a platform used for redemption and a symbol of the stern Puritan code. “It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze.” (Hawthorne 51) Hester’s punishment for her sin of adultery is to wear the letter “A” on her bosom and stand on the scaffold in front of the whole town to see her and her child. By using the scaffold as a place where Hester’s forgiven and repented, the author symbolizes how important the scaffold is to the novel. Because Hester had to stand on the scaffold for repentance so must the father of the baby, Dimmesdale, which is unknown to this point.

Though many times Dimmesdale asks for forgiveness, he failed because he has not stood on the scaffold in front of the people, with Hester and Pearl. When Dimmesdale is dying, he feels that he is able to stand on the scaffold and ask for forgiveness, alongside Hester and Pearl. Another symbol, at every scaffold scene Dimmesdale, Hester, Pearl, Chillingworth, are all present showing how important the scaffold scenes are. The scaffold scenes, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, are major settings used as symbols in the novel.

The forest in the novel is a symbol of darkness and gloom where evil is. In Puritan times, the forest was the devil’s playground and no good shall come from it. “How the black man haunts the forest and carries a book with him- a big, heavy book, with iron clasps; and how this ugly Black Man offers his book and an iron pen to everybody that meets him here among the trees.” (Hawthorne 178) The witch of the town, Mistress Hibbins, knows they have been to the forest and have talked of escaping. This symbolizes the powers brought to her by the devil or “Black Man.” Not only does Mistress Hibbins know of the secret, but she also attends to the forest regularly, showing the powers of evil. From knowing that the forest is evil and nothing good shall come from it, Hester and Dimmesdale seem to scheme a plan to escape the town without his redemption. The brook talked about in the novel is also symbolic in that it travels through the forest, like gloom. When Hester removes the “A” it becomes a boundary that separates the world she knows from the world without the “A.” As a symbolic setting used in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter, darkness and gloom interpret the forest.

The setting of the sun is an essential symbol of where good and evil takes place in the novel. The night is a symbol of concealment, and the day, a symbol of exposure. Dimmesdale’s mounting on the scaffold and standing with Pearl and Hester at night will not suffice, he knows that his symbolic acceptance of his guilt must take place in the daylight and in front of the town. As soon as Hester commits her sin, her beauty almost immediately banishes into darkness. Her hair no longer hangs freely about her face and instead, she ties it up in a bonnet. Hester is not interpreted as an evil person, but her sin makes her “light” hideaway. In addition, the sun plays roles when Pearl is playing, unrestricted by the laws of the strict Puritan community. While at the governor’s house, Pearl notices how brightly the sun shines through the windows. She requests that “the sunshine be stripped of its front and given to her to play with.” (Hawthorne 99) The symbolism used in the setting of the sun by light and darkness plays essential roles in the characters, and the setting in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, Scarlet Letter.

The scaffold scenes, the forest, and the sun are all essential settings used as symbols. The scaffold scenes are for repentance and attrition of the sin of adultery committed by Hester and Dimmesdale. The forest is a setting in the novel of mischief, where only a witch such as Mistress Hibbins should go because of the evil that attains it. From the forest came a plan not to repent, and an attempt to escape what burns in the soul of Dimmesdale, sin! The sun’s symbolism in the night and the day are key features when analyzing the novel, because of what good comes from the day and evil from the night. Together with the Scaffold scenes, the forest and the sun play key settings of symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter.

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