‘Theme’ is a universal idea presented in a literary piece of work. Themes in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne include criticism of Puritan beliefs regarding sin, individual and society, social norms and sense of guilt. Some of these major themes have been discussed below.
Themes in The Scarlet Letter
Sense of Sin
Sin and the sense of sin is one of the major themes that appear from the very first chapter from the discovery of the story and the scarlet letter. However, not only does sin mean an act against the accepted religious norms, but also a rebellion against social traditions. The passionate act of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale which is considered as adultery, and when caught Hester is sentenced. However, Dimmesdale remains free due to his position, status, and influence. Hester has to go through grueling isolation due to her daughter, Pearl who is born out of wedlock. This sense of sin in the case of Dimmesdale becomes a psychological stigma. He goes through severe depression and trauma to stay silent and to save his skin. Therefore, the sense of sin is the major theme of the novel.
Conformity to Religion
The punishment of breaking religious rules invite heavy censure and punishment. This is also one of the major themes of The Scarlet Letter. Sexual relations without marriage are still frowned upon. During the Puritan period in Boston, society has strict rules for such cases of which Hester becomes an unwitting victim. Dimmesdale and the governor punish her and her daughter to live outside the town near the forest because of her non-conformity. However, it is another tale that Dimmesdale, the other culprit, goes free because he doesn’t disclose the secret. Therefore, the theme of conformity and non-conformity to religion looms large in the background of the sin.
Criticism of Puritanism
Criticism of Puritanism is another major theme of the novel, The Scarlet Letter. Hester’s crime is as huge as that of Dimmesdale. However, one is caught and sentenced, while the other is free. Dimmesdale hides his secret due to his position and status. When Hester is released, it is stated by the anonymous narrator that even the Puritan code of law would be dismayed to see this sort of justice. It is because the law is mixed with the Bible commandments and human judgment, both are wrongly used. The contrast of nature and Puritan laws further sheds light on the type of society where discrimination in case of punishment exists in letter and spirit, though not on the surface. This is a strong criticism of the Puritanism that an innocent child suffers only due to the supposed sins of her parents.
Public and Individual Guilt
The nature of guilt and its public and individual status is laid bare in The Scarlet Letter. The status of the guilt committed by Hester and her public punishment plays havoc with her life. The consequences of this public punishment are to ostracize only her and not the man in question. Hence, this affair has left a great stain on the Puritan interpretation of religion and morality. Dimmesdale’s silence adds further to Hester’s sufferings. The final atonement of Dimmesdale seems to mitigate her sufferings, yet it is too late.
Partial Punishment and Moral Codes
Seeing only Hester going through punishment is a secondary theme of the novel. The minister and the supposed judge, Dimmesdale, also deserves the punishment. The Puritan moral code applies to both individuals. However, it happens that only, Hester Prynne has to go through the punishment and public shaming, while Dimmesdale goes free. This theme of partial and discriminatory punishment only to a woman looms large in the background of the Puritanical moral code and even in the present times in a few countries.
The public shaming act of Hester Prynne and her resilience to go through the grueling social isolation is another major theme of the novel. It seems that Hawthorne has unconsciously placed his weight on the feministic side. The projection of Hester as an epitome of an individual having suffered unjustly shows that The Scarlet Letter is not merely criticism but also a condemnation of the moral code of that time. It shows that feminine resilience is not merely a myth; it is a fact as well. Hester Prynne’s long-suffering shows that she has suffered more than an ordinary man could have in such circumstances.
Mockery of Law
The novel had imperceptibly mocked at the rule of law of that time when Puritanism was thriving in the region. The rule of law does not permit a woman to engage in adultery and when caught they must endure severe punishment. However, the same law does not do the same for a man. Mr. Dimmesdale not only escapes punishment but also is a part of the jury. This is a sheer mockery of the same law that a person who is engaged in awarding the punishment with the governor is also guilty of the same crime. Hence, the mockery of law is another theme of the novel.
Domination of Patriarchy
The domination of the patriarchy is another theme of the novel, The Scarlet Letter. The novel opens with an anonymous narrator, who is narrating the story of a woman. Interestingly, the narrator is a male, narrating about the male-dominated society. They have legislated the laws, formed the religious codes and also arranged the court for Hester’s trial. There is no other woman except Pearl or those anonymous ladies who come into contact with Hester just to have their veil embroidered. This makes this novel an unconscious criticism of the male domination.
Although it is not very dominant, the theme of redemption looms large in the background of the sin and punishment. Hester, though ostracized, earns redemption by helping the poor and working as a seamstress. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, earns his redemption when he confesses his crime after giving a passionate final sermon after many years.
Although it does not seem that love is a dominant theme, Dimmesdale and Hester love each other during the absence of her husband. The result is the birth of Pearl. It is because of love towards Dimmesdale Hester doesn’t disclose his identity. She is shown as an epitome of love that she never ever tries to expose her lover. Her silent sacrifice wins Dimmesdale by the end, and he agrees to take her to England.