Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Sin, Knowledge, and the Human Condition
Sin and knowledge are linked in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible begins with the story of Adam and Eve, who were expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As a result of their knowledge, Adam and Eve are made aware of their humanness, that which separates them from the divine and from other creatures. Once expelled from the Garden of Eden, they are forced to toil and to procreate—two “labors” that seem to define the human condition.
The experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin results in expulsion and suffering. But it also results in knowledge—specifically, in knowledge of what it means to be human. For Hester, the scarlet letter functions as “her passport into regions where other women dared not tread,” leading her to “speculate” about her society and herself more “boldly” than 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 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 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 Hester’s sin is to ostracize her. Yet, Puritan society is stagnant, while Hester and Dimmesdale’s 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 characters in the novel frequently 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 little Pearl is thought by some to be the Devil’s child. The characters also try to root out the causes of evil: did Chillingworth’s selfishness in marrying Hester force her to the “evil” she committed in Dimmesdale’s arms? Is Hester and Dimmesdale’s deed responsible for Chillingworth’s 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 novel’s concluding chapter, both emotions depend upon “a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent . . . upon another.” Evil is not found in Hester and Dimmesdale’s lovemaking, nor even in the cruel ignorance of the Puritan fathers. Evil, in its most poisonous form, is found in the carefully plotted 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. His cruel denial of love to his own child may be seen as further perpetrating evil.
After Hester is publicly shamed and forced by the people of Boston to wear a badge of humiliation, her unwillingness to leave the town may seem puzzling. She is not physically imprisoned, and leaving the Massachusetts Bay Colony would allow her to remove the scarlet letter and resume a normal life. Surprisingly, Hester reacts with dismay when Chillingworth tells her that the town fathers are considering letting her remove the letter. Hester’s 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 letter would be an acknowledgment of society’s power over her: she would be admitting that the letter is a mark of shame and something from which she desires to escape. Instead, Hester stays, refiguring the scarlet letter 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 community’s 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 self-assertion and by a reconfiguration, not a rejection, of one’s assigned identity.
Hawthorne explores the theme of female independence by showing how Hester boldly makes her own decisions and is able to take care of herself. Before the novel even begins, Hester has already violated social expectations by following her heart and choosing to have sex with a man she is not married to; she will later justify this decision by explaining to Dimmesdale that “What we did had a consecration of its own.” Because Hester is cast out of the community, she is liberated from many of the traditional expectations for a woman to be docile and submissive. She also has practical responsibilities that force her to be independent: she has to earn a living so that she and her daughter can survive, and she also has to raise a headstrong child as a single parent. These unusual circumstances make Hester comfortable standing up for herself, such as when she violently objects to Governor Bellingham trying to take Pearl away.
The novel suggests Hester’s independence comes at a price. The narrator seems sympathetic to Hester’s vision of a brighter future where “a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.” However, the narrator also makes the point that because Hester has been living outside of social conventions, she seems to have lost touch with key ethical principles: “she had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness.” The novel also ends with Hester returning to the community to live a humble life, and voluntarily choosing to start wearing the scarlet letter again, both of which suggest that by the end of the novel she has abandoned some of her independent and free-thinking ways. The descriptions of Pearl also suggest that female independence is antithetical to happiness. The narrator says no one knew if Pearl’s “wild, rich nature had been softened and subdued, and made capable of a woman’s gentle happiness,” implying that only by forfeiting her independent spirit could Pearl be truly content.
Guilt is a major theme in
Dimmesdale spends a lot of time lamenting what a sinner he is, but he only takes public responsibility for having fathered Hester’s child in the final moments of his life, when it is too late for anything to change. If anything, his sense of guilt is what makes him so vulnerable to being manipulated by Chillingsworth. Through the character of Dimmesdale, Hawthorne suggests that guilt is not necessarily virtuous if it is not accompanied by an effort to change or redeem oneself.
The theme of nature versus society is exemplified by Hester and Dimmesdale’s forbidden passion, and the product of that passion: Pearl. Hester and Dimmesdale are drawn to each other by desires that cannot be controlled by the rules of social, legal, and religious institutions. They follow their impulses, which leads to conception and reproduction. While Hester’s pregnancy is condemned by society, it is the natural outcome of a basic human impulse. The relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale explores the tension between natural desires, and the ways in which society tries to control human nature by imposing rules and laws.
Similarly, Pearl, a product of natural impulses, exhibits a personality that aligns her with nature, rather than society. She is a wild and impulsive child, and the narrator attributes Pearl’s personality to the circumstances under which she was conceived: “In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being, whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder.” The novel’s climax, the key scene where Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl are finally reunited, takes place in the woods. This location highlights the tension between nature and society. In a space that is still untamed and not ruled by social conventions, Dimmesdale and Hester can speak openly with each other, and even dare to imagine a future in which they might be able to break free and find happiness together. Hawthorne depicts Nature being on the side of the lovers: “that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of those two spirits!” Likewise, Pearl can roam safely through the woods because “all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child.” However, while nature offers a safe haven to the unconventional family, they are ultimately still subject to the laws of society, and must eventually live with the consequences.
Throughout the novel, characters either achieve or fail to achieve feelings of empathy for their fellow humans. Both Dimmesdale and Hester achieve greater compassion because they have suffered, and can sympathize with how a good person might still make mistakes. This ability to show empathy makes Hester and Dimmesdale highly sought after within the community: Dimmesdale gains a great reputation as a minister, and by the end of the novel Hester has become a kind of wise woman: “people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble.”
Meanwhile, characters like Governor Bellingham fail to show empathy because they are too busy judging others and focusing on their flaws. For example, Bellingham suggests that little Pearl be taken away from her mother because he thinks Hester’s sin makes her unfit to raise a child. Both Hester and Dimmesdale argue that the child can learn from her mother’s mistakes, but Bellingham shows judgement rather than empathy. Hawthorne connects the experience of suffering to the growth of empathy as a way to suggest that even tragic events can have meaning and value.