The Themes of The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter is a romantic novel, mainly because it is a long, fictitious tale of heroes and extraordinary events. Unfolding over a seven year period, we are treated to the heroism of Hester Prynne and her adulterous beloved, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and the mysterious actions and behavior of their love child, Pearl, and the witch, Mistress Hibbins. The story is set against the background of Puritan, New England, a stern, authoritarian, colony founded by a group of religious reformers. Before the novel begins, Hester is guilty of an affair which produced Pearl while her husband was abroad. Her husband, Roger Chillingworth, comes to America just as Hester is being pilloried. He determines to remain in Boston in disguise in order to discover the man with whom she had the affair. Chillingworth soon uncovers the identity of Pearl's father, the young and emotionally captivating pastor. He proceeds to torment Dimmesdale's soul, eventually foiling the escape of the pastor, Hester, and Pearl. At the end of the novel, Hester and Dimmesdale mount the pillory with Pearl together, where he reveals that he, too, has a scarlet "A" etched on his chest from remorse. However, this act of public repentance allows him to be free of the Satanic clutches of Chillingworth. Pearl, too, a child that barely seems human to others in the novel, reclaims her humanity by giving her real father a kiss and crying for the first time in the story. There are two main themes at work in the novel. The first is the conflict between romanticism and religion. The second is the nature of sin, which the novel suggests is a guilty secret of all people. The novel also portrays the sin of Chillingworth as being more reprehensible than either Dimmesdale's or Hester's, because he has invaded the inviolate ground of another man's soul.
The conflict between romanticism and religion is not difficult to understand, as everyone in the novel including the narrator is ambivalent or dualistic regarding point of view. If we look at the primary symbol of the novel, Hester's adulterous "A", we can see the conflict between romance (individuality) and religion (community). For the "A" is symbolic of two main aspects of existence. On the one hand, it symbolizes the imposed will or enforced judgement of the Puritan community regarding adulterous sex. On the other hand, it must represent individuality and the conflict of personal identity over community. For, though it may symbolize a weakness or intemperance in Hester and Dimmesdale, it, too, surely symbolizes their rejection of what they know are community values in favor of their own personal desires. Brodhead (Gross, Bradley, Beatty, and Long, 397) points to the duality underlying the wearing of the "A", and the inherent conflict between community and individuality it symbolizes:
He converts the isolated symbol into a badge fashioned by a historical...