In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne explores two important themes, the first of which has been described by critics as the conflict between “heart” and “mind.” Hawthorne contrasts the feelings of the more sympathetic characters, such as Hester Prynne, with the harsh rules of conduct established by those, such as the Puritan magistrates, who seem incapable of any emotional response whatsoever to their fellow human beings. This conflict is dramatized within the context of the Puritan moral and social code: individuals who are predestined for salvation exhibit their election by living in strict accordance with “God’s laws.” These laws are interpreted by Puritan elders who have rigid attitudes toward dress, decorum, and above all, sexual conduct. Men and women who commit acts of sexual misconduct are branded-literally, in Hester’s case, with the decree that she wear the letter “A” over her heart. Hawthorne demonstrates that individuals who have sinned in the eyes of their fellow citizens are still capable of exceptional goodness, while those who relentlessly pursue the exposure and punishment of sinners are often the real villains.
Hawthorne’s second major theme is the nature of sin itself. His examination is complex and heavily shaded with irony: although Hester and Arthur are guilty of committing adultery, it is clear that they turned to each other because they both found themselves in loveless, emotionally barren situations. Hester and Arthur feel guilty for having transgressed the moral order but gradually come to realize that Puritan society shares part of the blame.
Hawthorne concentrates on four characters in his dramatization of these themes. Hester Prynne, a woman of great courage and pride, suffers the disgrace of wearing the scarlet “A” as a sign of her sin. Although she is a devoted mother to her daughter Pearl and is genuinely repentant for her transgressions, Hester feels that she and Arthur are not totally culpable for their actions. She seems to take pride in being set apart from society, and is willing to make a life for herself and Pearl despite her ostracism.
On the other hand, Hester’s lover, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale, suffers tremendously but silently. Unable to expiate his sin by making a public declaration of his guilt, he suffers inner torments until he finds the strength to confess to the community in Boston. Pearl, the offspring of Arthur and Hester’s unlawful union, is depicted as a child of nature, more at home in the forest than the city and often unwilling to heed the strictures of society. Hawthorne develops Pearl more as a symbol than as a realistic, engaging child.
Roger Chillingsworth, Hester’s husband who is living in Boston incognito, proves the most problematic character in the novel. Obsessed with discovering the father of Hester’s child, Chillingsworth seems to associate himself with the forces of evil. Though his motives seem understandable-he wants the man who cuckolded him to pay for his sin-Chillingsworth never gains the reader’s sympathy. Hence, the suggestion that characters such as Chillingsworth are less admirable than the sinners they pursue lurks beneath the surface of the work.