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SparkNotes: The Scarlet Letter: Themes, Motifs & Symbols


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Home SparkNotes Literature Study Guides The Scarlet Le er Themes, Motifs & Symbols




Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Plot Overview
Character List
Analysis of Major
Themes, Motifs &

Summary &
The Custom-House:
Chapters 12

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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes are the fundamental and oen universal ideas

explored in a literary work.

Sin, Knowledge, and the Human Condition

Chapters 34

Sin and knowledge are linked in the Judeo-Christian

Chapters 56

tradition. The Bible begins with the story of Adam

Chapters 78

and Eve, who were expelled from the Garden of Eden

Chapters 910

for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and

Chapters 1112

evil. As a result of their knowledge, Adam and Eve are

Chapters 1314

made aware of their humanness, that which

Chapters 1516

separates them from the divine and from other

Chapters 1718

creatures. Once expelled from the Garden of Eden,

Chapters 1920

they are forced to toil and to procreatetwo labors

Chapters 2122
Chapters 2324
Important Quotations
Key Facts

that seem to dene the human condition. The

experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the
results in expulsion and suering. But it also results

Study Questions &

Essay Topics

functions as her passport into regions where other

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story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin

in knowledgespecically, in knowledge of what it

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means to be human. For Hester, the scarlet le er

women dared not tread, leading her to speculate
about her society and herself more boldly than

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anyone else in New England. As for Dimmesdale, the

burden of his sin gives him sympathies so intimate
with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his
heart vibrate[s] in unison with theirs. His eloquent
and powerful sermons derive from this sense of

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empathy. Hester and Dimmesdale contemplate their

own sinfulness on a daily basis and try to reconcile it
with their lived experiences. The Puritan elders, on
the other hand, insist on seeing earthly experience

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SparkNotes: The Scarlet Letter: Themes, Motifs & Symbols

as merely an obstacle on the path to heaven. Thus,

they view sin as a threat to the community that
should be punished and suppressed. Their answer to
Hesters sin is to ostracize her. Yet, Puritan society is
stagnant, while Hester and Dimmesdales experience
shows that a state of sinfulness can lead to personal
growth, sympathy, and understanding of others.
Paradoxically, these qualities are shown to be
incompatible with a state of purity.
The Nature of Evil
in the
debate the
identity of
the Black
Man, the
embodiment of evil. Over the course of the novel, the
Black Man is associated with Dimmesdale,
Chillingworth, and Mistress Hibbins, and li le Pearl is
thought by some to be the Devils child. The
characters also try to root out the causes of evil: did
Chillingworths selshness in marrying Hester force
her to the evil she commi ed in Dimmesdales
arms? Is Hester and Dimmesdales deed responsible
for Chillingworths transformation into a malevolent
being? This confusion over the nature and causes of
evil reveals the problems with the Puritan conception
of sin. The book argues that true evil arises from the
close relationship between hate and love. As the
narrator points out in the novels concluding chapter,
both emotions depend upon a high degree of
intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one
individual dependent . . . upon another. Evil is not

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found in Hester and Dimmesdales lovemaking, nor

even in the cruel ignorance of the Puritan fathers.
Evil, in its most poisonous form, is found in the
carefully plo ed and precisely aimed revenge of
Chillingworth, whose love has been perverted.
Perhaps Pearl is not entirely wrong when she thinks
Dimmesdale is the Black Man, because her father,
too, has perverted his love. Dimmesdale, who should
love Pearl, will not even publicly acknowledge her.

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His cruel denial of love to his own child may be seen

as further perpetrating evil.
Identity and Society


Aer Hester is publicly shamed and forced by the

people of Boston to wear a badge of humiliation, her



SparkNotes: The Scarlet Letter: Themes, Motifs & Symbols

unwillingness to leave the town may seem puzzling.

She is not physically imprisoned, and leaving the
Massachuse s Bay Colony would allow her to
remove the scarlet le er and resume a normal life.
Surprisingly, Hester reacts with dismay when

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Chillingworth tells her that the town fathers are

considering le ing her remove the le er. Hesters
behavior is premised on her desire to determine her
own identity rather than to allow others to determine
it for her. To her, running away or removing the le er
would be an acknowledgment of societys power
over her: she would be admi ing that the le er is a
mark of shame and something from which she

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desires to escape. Instead, Hester stays, reguring

the scarlet le er as a symbol of her own experiences
and character. Her past sin is a part of who she is; to
pretend that it never happened would mean denying
a part of herself. Thus, Hester very determinedly
integrates her sin into her life.
Dimmesdale also struggles against a socially
determined identity. As the communitys minister, he
is more symbol than human being. Except for
Chillingworth, those around the minister willfully
ignore his obvious anguish, misinterpreting it as
holiness. Unfortunately, Dimmesdale never fully
recognizes the truth of what Hester has learned: that
individuality and strength are gained by quiet selfassertion and by a reconguration, not a rejection, of

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ones assigned identity.

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary
devices that can help to develop and inform the texts major

Civilization Versus the Wilderness

In The Scarlet Le er, the town and the surrounding
forest represent opposing behavioral systems. The
town represents civilization, a rule-bound space
where everything one does is on display and where
transgressions are quickly punished. The forest, on
the other hand, is a space of natural rather than
human authority. In the forest, societys rules do not
apply, and alternate identities can be assumed. While
this allows for misbehavior Mistress Hibbinss
midnight rides, for exampleit also permits greater
honesty and an escape from the repression of
Boston. When Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the
woods, for a few moments, they become happy
young lovers once again. Hesters co age, which,
signicantly, is located on the outskirts of town and
at the edge of the forest, embodies both orders. It is



SparkNotes: The Scarlet Letter: Themes, Motifs & Symbols

her place of exile, which ties it to the authoritarian

town, but because it lies apart from the se lement, it
is a place where she can create for herself a life of
relative peace.
Night Versus Day
By emphasizing the alternation between sunlight and
darkness, the novel organizes the plots events into
two categories: those which are socially acceptable,
and those which must take place covertly. Daylight
exposes an individuals activities and makes him or
her vulnerable to punishment. Night, on the other
hand, conceals and enables activities that would not
be possible or tolerated during the dayfor
instance, Dimmesdales encounter with Hester and
Pearl on the scaold. These notions of visibility
versus concealment are linked to two of the books
larger themesthe themes of inner versus socially
assigned identity and of outer appearances versus
internal states. Night is the time when inner natures
can manifest themselves. During the day, interiority is
once again hidden from public view, and secrets
remain secrets.
Evocative Names
names in
this novel
seem to
beg to be

interpreted allegorically. Chillingworth is cold and

inhuman and thus brings a chill to Hesters and
Dimmesdales lives. Prynne rhymes with sin, while
Dimmesdale suggests dimnessweakness,
indeterminacy, lack of insight, and lack of will, all of
which characterize the young minister. The name
Pearl evokes a biblical allegorical devicethe
pearl of great price that is salvation. This system of
naming lends a profundity to the story, linking it to
other allegorical works of literature such as The
Pilgrims Progress and to portions of the Bible. It also
aligns the novel with popular forms of narrative such
as fairy tales.
Symbols are objects, characters, gures, and colors used to
represent abstract ideas or concepts.



SparkNotes: The Scarlet Letter: Themes, Motifs & Symbols

The Scarlet Le er
The scarlet le er is meant to be a symbol of shame,
but instead it becomes a powerful symbol of identity
to Hester. The le ers meaning shis as time passes.
Originally intended to mark Hester as an adulterer,
the A eventually comes to stand for Able. Finally, it
becomes indeterminate: the Native Americans who
come to watch the Election Day pageant think it
marks her as a person of importance and status. Like
Pearl, the le er functions as a physical reminder of
Hesters aair with Dimmesdale. But, compared with
a human child, the le er seems insignicant, and
thus helps to point out the ultimate meaninglessness
of the communitys system of judgment and
punishment. The child has been sent from God, or at
least from nature, but the le er is merely a human
contrivance. Additionally, the instability of the le ers
apparent meaning calls into question societys ability
to use symbols for ideological reinforcement. More
oen than not, a symbol becomes a focal point for
critical analysis and debate.
The Meteor
As Dimmesdale stands on the scaold with Hester
and Pearl in Chapter 12, a meteor traces out an A in
the night sky. To Dimmesdale, the meteor implies
that he should wear a mark of shame just as Hester
does. The meteor is interpreted dierently by the rest
of the community, which thinks that it stands for
Angel and marks Governor Winthrops entry into
heaven. But Angel is an awkward reading of the
symbol. The Puritans commonly looked to symbols
to conrm divine sentiments. In this narrative,
however, symbols are taken to mean what the
beholder wants them to mean. The incident with the
meteor obviously highlights and exemplies two
dierent uses of symbols: Puritan and literary.
Although Pearl is a complex character, her primary
function within the novel is as a symbol. Pearl is a
sort of living version of her mothers scarlet le er. She
is the physical consequence of sexual sin and the
indicator of a transgression. Yet, even as a reminder
of Hesters sin, Pearl is more than a mere
punishment to her mother: she is also a blessing. She
represents not only sin but also the vital spirit and
passion that engendered that sin. Thus, Pearls
existence gives her mother reason to live, bolstering
her spirits when she is tempted to give up. It is only
aer Dimmesdale is revealed to be Pearls father that



SparkNotes: The Scarlet Letter: Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Pearl can become fully human. Until then, she

functions in a symbolic capacity as the reminder of
an unsolved mystery.

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Most Helpful Readers' Notes

(43 total)

seperation of church and state

by DAWM, August 19, 2012
I think that is should also be mentioned how the
rule of law was based on thier religion. They did
not seperate the church and state as they do
82 out of 126 people found this helpful

about the book.....

by C3MONEA, August 30, 2012
this is a great book i just wished that they talked
in a langue that i could understand :p
85 out of 123 people found this helpful

You've Got To Love SparkNotes!!

by PIANOPRINCESS2014, September 02, 2012
SparkNotes is the best! "The Scarlet Le er" has



SparkNotes: The Scarlet Letter: Themes, Motifs & Symbols

the most confusing Olde English I think I've ever

had to muddle through. Thankfully, SparkNotes
broke it down for me and explained what's going
on when, 'cause you just can't understand with
all the beating around the bush!
This SparkNote was amazingly easy to
understand, I just wish that someone would
rewrite the book with modern English. But
anyway, the quizzes are SUPER (Let me stress
that super) helpful. Since the chapter summaries
are so well wri en, I was actually able to come
to... Read more
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