Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter Themes

  • Revenge

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Revenge is a dish best served cold. (And with a side of fries. But isn't everything best served with a side of fries?) Roger Chillingworth seems to agree, as you can no doubt tell by the extremely frosty fake name that he chooses. He spends seven years psychologically torturing Hester's lover Dimmesdale, keeping him alive just so he can squeeze out just… a… little…. more vengeance. Unfortunately, revenge in The Scarlet Letter is also served with an unexpected side: the loss of humanity. It turns out that God is the only one who gets to do the revenging around these parts, and he's got a little surprise for our anti-hero.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Why does revenge end up making Chillingworth evil? Was he always a little evil, or does the revenge actually twist his soul around?
    2. Is Hester's scarlet letter a form of revenge? What's the difference between revenge and punishment?
    3. Can a community take revenge, or is revenge an individual act? What forms of revenge do communities take? What position does The Scarlet Letter seem to take on the issue of old-fashioned public shaming (wearing letters, being paraded through towns) and acts of punishment like imprisonment, which is the way we deal with wrong-doers today?

    Chew on This

    The Scarlet Letter suggests that revenge is a dish best served by God.

    Chillingworth redeems himself with his final act, giving Pearl and Hester the money they need to escape their community.

  • Women and Femininity

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Hester takes stand by your man seriously—so seriously that she stands by two men, keeping secrets not only for her secret lover but for her wacko husband, too. And it's a good thing that someone is looking out for them, since they both seem incapable of taking care of themselves. But Hester isn't The Scarlet Letter's only woman: we see all kinds of femininity, from the bitter witchiness of Mistress Hibbins to the gentle piety of the one of two wives who actually feel sorry for Hester. Women might be the weaker sex, but, the way Hawthorne sees it, they have plenty of power.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Why does Hester choose to protect Dimmesdale from facing punishment alongside her? Why does she then agree to keep Chillingworth's secret? Is keeping these secrets part of her identity of a woman, or not related to it?
    2. How does witchcraft seem to relate to the Puritans' conception of womanhood? Why doesn't Hester decide to join the witches after Mistress Hibbins invites her?
    3. Who seems to judge Hester more harshly—men or women? Or do they judge her both equally? Would they have judged Dimmesdale as harshly, if they'd known that he was Pearl's father?

    Chew on This

    Hawthorne characterizes women as strong and independent (though sometimes morally repugnant), while many of his male characters are morally weak.

    In The Scarlet Letter, women can either be evil witches or good wives. Hester confuses the community because she chooses to be neither.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    You hear about an awesome party happening in the Valley. Only problem is, if you go, you know you'll end up being at least half an hour late for your curfew. (Even though everywhere in L.A. takes twenty minutes.) Do you (1) ask for permission and grudgingly obey when your parents say no, or (2) go and beg for forgiveness later?

    If you answered (1), congrats! You'd fit right in with the Puritans, who are a legalistic crew: they believe that your best bet to get to heaven is to conform to strict set of religious and social laws. If you answered (2), you'd probably fit in better with a religion that emphasizes grace: being forgiven for your sins through faith. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne shows us an essentially legalistic society, with its inhabitants adhering to strict moral codes, and punishing and isolating transgressors. But the narrator disagrees. Maybe, he says, a religious society should be ruled by grace—and, at the end of the novel, Hester has been forgiven by the strict society that once punished her.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Does Hawthorne seem to reject legalism entirely, or does he suggest that forgiveness and compassion have to go hand-in-hand with punishment?
    2. In The Scarlet Letter, is compassion a female trait? A male trait? Or is it equally shared? How do you know?
    3. Is forgiveness a religious duty? Does Hawthorne seem to think it's more or less important than other religious feelings?
    4. Whose act of forgiveness seems most profound? Hester's? Chillingworth's (if he ever does forgive)? Pearl's? The community's?

    Chew on This

    Although Hester Prynne is judged and punished in a legalistic society, she transforms her scarlet letter into a symbol of grace rather than shame.

    Even though Reverend Dimmesdale avoids confessing his sin for seven years because he fears the wrath of a legalistic society, he finds grace through confession in the last moments of his death.

  • Sin

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Face it: we've all made mistakes. (Even Shmoop.) But there's a difference between "Oops!... I Did It Again" and "He's a killer just for fun." Or is there? Not according to the townspeople and magistrates of The Scarlet Letter. To them, sin is sin: it has to be punished publicly and harshly. But Dimmesdale offers us a hierarchy of sin—a crime of passion, like the one he and Hester committed, isn't nearly as bad as betraying the human heart by mercilessly plotting to destroy a man. That earns you a mark from the Black Man himself—without all the pretty embroidery.

    Questions About Sin

    1. Why do Hester and Dimmesdale think that Chillingworth's sin is worse than theirs? Do you think the community would agree?
    2. How and why is sin a communal, collective problem in The Scarlet Letter? Are there communities today that still treat sin as a collective problem, or do we mostly see "sin" as a private, individual matter?
    3. Does wearing the scarlet letter allow Hester to make up for her sin, or is it the act of living charitably that serves as penitence? Does Dimmesdale's confession cleanse his soul?

    Chew on This

    Whether a sin is committed secretly or not, it ends up affecting everyone.

    Hester and Dimmesdale may not be angels, but Chillingworth is actually transformed into a living devil by his sin.

  • Hypocrisy

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Everyday, Dimmesdale has to wake up and receive the adulation of his community for being basically a saint on earth. It's exhausting.

    But seriously, Dimmesdale is living a lie—and that is exhausting. You have to be on your guard constantly, so no one finds out that you're lying about only liking Nickelback ironically. In The Scarlet Letter, hypocrisy is one of the worst sins that a man can commit. Just as adultery produces a physical mark on Hester's body (the baby), hypocrisy produces a physical mark on Dimmesdale's body. And only Pearl can see through him—so, when he finally confesses, she can love him for who he is: her father. In the end, our reputations are less important than our lives. (Maybe. Except when it comes to Nickelback.)

    Questions About Hypocrisy

    1. Which characters are represented as hypocrites in this book and why? Who is free of hypocrisy, and why? Is the community itself hypocritical?
    2. Where does hypocrisy seem to rank on the Puritan Sin Hierarchy™?
    3. Is it possible to say that Hester Prynne is a hypocrite? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Hypocrisy is sometimes necessary. Dimmesdale destroys himself through hypocrisy, but his life is a blessing to many in the community.

    Even though hypocrisy appears to save Dimmesdale from punishment and humiliation, his torment is worse even than Hester's.

  • Guilt and Blame

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Blame may be something one person does to another, but it takes a consciousness of wrong doing to feel guilty. And Hester feels plenty guilty. Also guilty? Dimmesdale. The one person in this messy triangle who seems to escape the feeling of guilt is Chillingworth—but he gets plenty of blame. By the end of The Scarlet Letter, both Hester and Dimmesdale agree that Chillingworth is the real villain in this situation. And the only way to relieve your guilt? To confess. We're not positive, but we think that, when Chillingworth leaves his fortune to Pearl, he's doing just that: guilty as charged.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Do guilt and blame work together to bring reformation of any of the characters in this book? Why or why not? Can you have guilt without blame, or blame without guilt?
    2. What does "redemption" mean to the Puritans in this novel? What does "redemption" seem to mean to Hawthorne? How about to the other characters—to Chillingworth, Dimmesdale, and Pearl?
    3. According to The Scarlet Letter, does redemption require confession? To whom?

    Chew on This

    The Puritan use of public shaming and blame-placing backfires, pushing Hester and Dimmesdale to the margins of their community and making them contemplate even worse actions.

    Guilt proves to be an effective emotion, because it pushes Hester into reforming herself and eventually being forgiven and respected by her community.

  • Justice and Judgment

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Some laws can straddle the religious/secular divide pretty comfortable. Stealing? We're pretty sure God wouldn't want you to do that. Murder? Definitely not. But what about driving without your license? Or doing some underage drinking (which Shmoop firmly disapproves of)? Does God care about those laws? If you lived in Puritan America as represented by The Scarlet Letter, the answer would be yes: there's no difference between God's law and man's law. Breaking colonial law is the same as breaking God's law. On the one hand, great: at least there's clarity, right? On the other hand, the conflation of God's law with man's law creates an intolerant, authoritarian society with no room for human mistakes. Not too cool.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. What is the difference between justice and judgment? Who officially gets to make judgments and hand out punishments? What about unofficially?
    2. Why do the townspeople like to judge so much? What kinds of judgment do we see?
    3. Does Hester ever judge others?

    Chew on This

    The townspeople in The Scarlet Letter want justice, even if they have to overlook the truth.

    The most painful kind of judgment inflicted in this novel is self-judgment.

  • Isolation

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Puritan society in The Scarlet Letter seems just as judgmental and cruel as any school cafeteria. Make one tiny misstep—spill your food; show up to school wearing the wrong kind of backpack—and you're an outcast, with the name-calling and ostracization to prove it. Pretty soon, you're hiding in the bathroom during the whole period just to avoid having to eat alone—like Hester Prynne, hiding out in a cottage on the outskirts of town; or Dimmesdale, respected by his community but without a single close friend. Ahem. Excuse us, we're having horrible flashbacks to middle school.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. What's the difference between Hester's isolation and Dimmesdale's? How does isolation affect them differently?
    2. How does Hester's isolation affect her? How about Pearl?
    3. How do the landscape and setting contribute to a feeling of isolation in this novel? What is Massachusetts Bay Colony like? It is isolated?

    Chew on This

    Isolation empowers Hester Prynne.

    Hester loses a sense of her own humanity as a result of being cut off from society.

  • The Supernatural

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Lots of crazy things go down in The Scarlet Letter—like eyes that glow red; meteors in the shape of an "A;" and witches who hang out with the Black Man in the woods. But this is more fable or fairy tale than horror movie. We're not so much concerned with whether these supernatural occurrences are real or not, as we are with what they're telling us about our characters—and the secrets they keep.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. What role does Mistress Hibbins play in this story? Why is it significant that she is related to the Governor?
    2. How do the characters in The Scarlet Letter feel about supernatural things and events? Do they believe in the supernatural? What's the relationship between the supernatural and the natural?
    3. What exactly does Mistress Hibbins do in those woods, eh?
    4. Is Pearl supernatural? Or is she just a precocious kid?

    Chew on This

    In the world of The Scarlet Letter, the supernatural is anything that cannot be explained.

    Pearl's eerie intelligence and elfish ways are just a product of being excluded from society. The girl's got no social skills.

  • Fate and Free Will

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    From the minute you wake up, your life is full of choices: get out of bed, or hit the snooze button? Use the cinnamon or the mint flavored toothpaste. Cereal or eggs for breakfast? Etc. But if you're a Puritan, you believe your entire life is governed by Divine Providence: God controls every aspect of life—and your nation's life. So, obviously, the Puritans were constantly looking for messages and signs from God, letting them know what's on the horizon. Characters in The Scarlet Letter constantly struggle between letting fate run its course and choosing a path for themselves. The one advantage to being ostracized is that you just might get to decide your own fate.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Do any of the character actually believe they're exercising free will? Who? When?
    2. Does Hester believe in fate or in free will? Do her beliefs change over the course of this story?
    3. Is Dimmesdale's refusal to publicly declare himself to be Pearl's father a result of fate or free will?
    4. What do the characters mean when they refer to "Providence"? Why do they say "Providence" instead of "God," or some other name?

    Chew on This

    Hester believes she is fated to wear her scarlet letter for the rest of her life.

    Dimmesdale's final act of confession is an act of free will.

  • Man and the Natural World

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    In The Scarlet Letter, all the good stuff goes down in the woods. Secret trysts? Head to the wood. Major confessions? Head to the wood. Need to gather some medicine that actually works? Yep, head to the woods. Nature is almost like a character, personified as listening, commenting on, and interacting with the other characters. At the same time, it can be menacing. The Puritan community is like an island surrounded by nature, bordered on one side by a huge expanse of woods, home to Native Americans (the Wampanoag tribes); and on the other the big blue Atlantic Ocean.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What is Pearl's relationship to nature and to the natural world? Does she seem to have a closer relationship to it? Why does Mistress Hibbins, the witch, always talk about having parties in the woods?
    2. What do the woods and the ocean represent in the world of The Scarlet Letter? Are they different types of nature, or is nature all kind of the same?
    3. What role does the wild rosebush play in this story?

    Chew on This

    In this story, nature is violent and deadly. Even if humans can survive in it, they have to be careful.

    Nature represents everything the Puritan society tries to suppress or outlaw.