If you’re anything like me, you probably read through The Scarlet Letter the first time and wondered how on earth colonial Puritans could possibly be relevant to your life today.
Well … that’s the beauty of literature. Even though a story may be set in a time period you cannot relate to, the idea behind it can be timeless.
Analyses of themes are important because they can make a story like The Scarlet Letter relatable even though you don’t live in a Puritan village.
So how do you identify the themes in The Scarlet Letter, and which one do you choose to write about? A theme is defined as the main idea of a story. There can, of course, be more than one theme. This is definitely the case in The Scarlet Letter.
Some themes will be more obvious to you than others, so choose a theme that you can support with plenty of evidence from the text.
Let’s get into it, shall we? I’ll give you a few themes you can use as examples for your own essay. I’ll also show you an example thesis statement, so you can create an A-worthy opening for your essay.
4 Themes in The Scarlet Letter
Themes in The Scarlet Letter #1: Identity
Different themes in The Scarlet Letter apply to different characters, and the theme of identity is most applicable to Hester. From the beginning of the book, the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony determine Hester’s identity for her.
She’s publicly shamed and forced to wear an A on her clothing, so everyone knows her as the adulteress. But she’s a much more complex character than that. As the story continues, she begins to form her own identity.
Hester is a mother and an independent, strong woman. Perhaps because she is isolated from the rest of society, she takes her identity as a mother very seriously. After some time, she starts interacting with the community again.
She helps the poor and tries to be a good person, despite what society may think of her. As she develops her own identity, the symbolism of the A changes from a mark of sin to one of self-empowerment.
So what do you do with this information? First, study the text and get evidence from the book to back up these claims. Then figure out what your thesis statement is going to be.
Mine might look something like this:
The theme of identity is pervasive throughout The Scarlet Letter as Hester Prynne sheds the identity society has given her and, through good deeds and motherhood, creates a new one for herself.
Themes in The Scarlet Letter #2: Sin
The Puritans were a pretty intense group of Christians. They didn’t believe in music or dancing, and they were especially cruel to sinners—even though everyone sins. Sin as a theme asks the question, “What does sinning really mean?”
The story opens with Hester being publicly shamed for committing adultery. And while the Puritans view all sins as being equally bad, The Scarlet Letter puts forth a different notion.
Instead of acknowledging Hester’s very public sin (adultery, which the whole town knows about), the story delves into the private sins of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale.
Suspecting the Reverend Dimmesdale of being Pearl’s father, Chillingworth plots against him. Instead of revealing what he knows, Chillingworth lives with Dimmesdale and torments him.
But don’t feel too badly for Dimmesdale—he suffers a huge sin of his own. He’s a hypocrite (and we’ll get more into this in a second). He publicly shames Hester even though he’s the “other man.” Dimmesdale earns the respect of the public by denying his own sin while condemning Hester’s.
In the end (spoiler alert), both Chillingworth and Dimmesdale die— showing the reader that their sins were the ones deserving death sentences, not Hester’s act of adultery.
For a thesis statement, I might write the following:
In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne explores the theme of sin in Hester Prynne, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth. Although it seems at first that Hester has committed a serious sin—adultery—it is Dimmesdale and Chillingworth who are the true sinners as they are consumed by the sins they commit.
Themes in The Scarlet Letter #3: Hypocrisy
Hypocrisy in The Scarlet Letter is shown through Dimmesdale. You kind of root for him because he’s a much nicer guy than Chillingworth, but he’s living a lie. As the leader of a church, he should know better. The Scarlet Letter shows just how dangerous living a lie can be.
The entire community respects Dimmesdale—he’s a great orator, and he helps people when they’re in trouble. He condemns Hester for her adultery because it is what is expected of him, but he also shows her some compassion. After all, she is his lover.
But while Hester is treated as an outcast, Dimmesdale is praised as an honorable guy—even though they participated in the same sin. Doesn’t sound very fair, does it?
Eventually, Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy eats him up inside. He feels guilty about it, and an A appears on his chest as a physical representation of his sin.
I don’t want to be a hypocrite and tell you how easy it is to write a thesis statement for this theme while not actually offering an example myself. So here it is:
Through Dimmesdale, The Scarlet Letter shows readers how dangerous hypocrisy can be and how it can take over a person’s life. Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy over Hester Prynne’s adultery and public shame consumes him and, eventually, is the cause of his death.
Themes in The Scarlet Letter #4: Revenge
Chillingworth is the type of guy who is worthy of sending chills down anyone’s spine (maybe the reason for his name?). He is the epitome of evil in The Scarlet Letter, and his primary act of evil is seeking revenge on Dimmesdale.
Chillingworth never really loved Hester, but he is certainly angry when he finds out she had another man’s baby. He decides that her public humiliation is torture enough and decides to find her lover and take revenge on him—which he does.
Chillingworth poses as a doctor and manages to get very close to Dimmesdale, who he begins to torture. I’m sure he could have easily killed Dimmesdale (and not thought twice about it), but he decides to make it a much more agonizing process.
He slowly tortures Dimmesdale until the reverend really cannot stand it anymore. Chillingworth represents revenge to such an extreme that once Dimmesdale confesses his sin in front of the town, Chillingworth dies because he doesn’t get to seek revenge anymore—his life’s mission is over.
All right … last thesis statement, and then you’re on your own:
The theme of revenge in The Scarlet Letter is embodied by Chillingworth, who represents pure evil. Chillingworth is so consumed by his plans for vengeance that he makes it his ultimate life goal and quickly perishes once his goal is fulfilled.
See, not so bad right? The themes of identity, sin, hypocrisy, and revenge in The Scarlet Letter are still significant in today’s society—even if we’re not all Puritans. Now that you have some examples and ideas, you can confidently write your analysis.
But before you go, take these bonus tips and extra guidance with you. If you want to ensure your analysis is top-notch, check out these 8 Components of a Smart Literary Analysis and provide commentary, not summary.
You can also check out these Literary Analysis Essay Tips from a Kibin Editor.
Still a little unsure on how to flesh out your essay? Try reading some example essays that dissect various themes in The Scarlet Letter. Here’s a few to get you started:
Now, you should be good to go off on your own, yes?
Once you’ve cranked out your essay draft, if you’re still unsure if your essay is A-worthy, send it to our Kibin editors for review. With our help, you can earn that A to wear proudly.
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Is Hester truly penitent for her crime?
Answer: Though Hester regrets the effect her crime has had on her child and on her position in society, she sees Chillingworth's betrayal of Dimmesdale as an even greater crime. Ultimately, Hester learns to forgive herself for her sins while Dimmesdale does not.
Why does Dimmesdale intervene on Pearl's behalf when Governor Bellingham orders her removed from Hester's care?
Answer: There are two possibilities: either he fears Hester revealing his name or he truly believes that Hester deserves to care for her daughter, since he is emotionally connected to Pearl as her father and wants Hester to raise her. Ultimately, we believe that it is guilt which motivates him most, since he comes to Hester's defense only after she looks at him with imploring eyes.
What is the difference between how adultery is viewed now and how it was viewed by Puritan society? In other words, where does the blame lie?
Answer: In modern society, adultery is seen as a breach of contract between two people and therefore a private matter. In Puritan society, adultery was seen as a breach of contract between two people and the community in which they lived.
How is the Scarlet Letter embodied by Pearl?
Answer: Pearl, in her wild, unrepressed passion, represents the adulterous passion of her parents, as does the scarlet letter. In her society, she is completely out of place, a child of illicit passion and a constant reminder, like the scarlet letter, of that passion.
Why does Dimmesdale keep putting his hand over his heart?
Answer: Pearl asks this question repeatedly of her mother, but Hester will not answer her. Over time, we understand that Dimmesdale has literally and figuratively inscribed his own scarlet letter into the flesh above his heart so that he can commune with Hester's guilt, shame, and public excommunication.
Do people in the community believe Hester's punishment for adultery is too light or too strict?
Answer: For the most part, they believe it is too lenient, and some advocate branding her with a hot iron or death, the sentence associated with the crime of adultery both in the New England statutes of the time and in the Bible. As time progresses, however, they loosen slightly in their attitudes, though not as much as Hester would expect. Those who acknowledge their own sinfulness are somewhat less quick to judge Hester and can see the case for a less strict punishment by the community.
What are the purposes of the opening Custom-House essay?
Answer: The Custom-House introduction does more than increase the length of the novel, which Hawthorne thought was too short. It also adds a frame story and a romantic sense of truth or non-fiction to the tale. It introduces themes and imagery that will appear later in the novel. And it adds weight to the story by suggesting that the actual fabric of the scarlet letter continues to hold power.
Who is more racked by guilt, Hester or Dimmesdale?
Answer: Dimmesdale has sinned according to his own system of beliefs, since as the town minister he has violated the values he has preached against for decades. He takes his guilt to heart and suffers mightily. Hester, meanwhile, has come to terms with her sin over time.
What do Dimmesdale and Chillingworth share, other than Hester herself?
Answer: Both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth conceal their relationships to the adulterous act, leaving Hester as the only person to take public responsibility for the affair. They continue to maintain prominent roles in society. Both men are ultimately destroyed by this secrecy as they become entangled in a parasitic relationship.
Does Chillingworth ever forgive Hester?
Answer: Chillingworth seems forgiving of Hester at the outset, and he seems to transfer his rage onto Dimmesdale, whom he pursues relentlessly. Indeed, he seems to understand that he shouldn't have married a woman who would never love him, but Dimmesdale must be punished for allowing Hester to indulge her passion. His sinister acts toward the end of the novel are ameliorated somewhat by his choice to leave his estate to Pearl.