Writing a literary analysis essay about a classical literary work is a common assignment in literature courses. Not only does it force students to read the original text, but it also pushes them to delve into the author’s opinions and commentaries on the text. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the richest novels when it comes to themes and ideas, which is why many instructors choose it for literary analysis write-ups.
If you have this book on your reading list and have to write a literary analysis on it, refer to the list below to decide on an aspect to tackle. If you want to come up with your own idea, check our 10 facts on ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by N. Hawthorne for a literary analysis. Without further ado, the topics:
- The Role of Pearl in Hester’s Transformation
- An Exploration of the Relationship between Hester’s Identity and the Scarlet Letter
- The Contrast between Herter’s Self-Created Identity and the One Which Society Assigns to Her
- The Scarlet Letter as a Commentary on the American History
- The Use of Symbols: Puritan vs. the Narrator
- The Functions of Physical Settings in the Scarlet Letter
- An Analysis of Chillingworth’s Ideas of Revenge
- Pearl: A Blessing and a Curse for Hester
- Pearl as a Symbol of Hester’s Conscience
- The Contrasting Behavior of Children and Adults in the Scarlet Letter
- Hawthorne’s Ideas of the Inherently Flawed Human as Presented in The Scarlet Letter
- Hester Prynne: When Women Break Cultural Bonds and Gain Personal Power
- Sphere Imagery: Purpose and Effectiveness
- The Scarlet Letter: An Embodiment of the Tradition of Romanticism?
- The Difference between Hester and Dimmesdale
- An Exploration of How Tone, Word Choice, and Symbolism Help In Character Development in the Scarlet Letter
- The Literary Devices in the Scarlet Letter: Types, Usage and Effect on Persuasiveness
- Hypocrisy and Conformity in the Scarlet Letter
- Sin in the Puritan Community: A Comparison between the Punishments of Men and Women
- Hester Prynne: A Sinner and a Saint
You can use these topics as is or tweak them a little to suit the purpose of your thesis. If you wish to explore a more specific aspect, you can choose to refine any of the topics from our list. This will ensure that you choose something substantial and relevant.
A sample essay is added below to help inspire your literary analysis. The following lines explore the symbolism of the major characters in the text.
Sample Literary Analysis: An Exploration of How Tone, Word Choice, and Symbolism Help in Character Development in the Scarlet Letter
‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the prominent romance novels despite not appearing to be one. It delves deeply into the Puritan community, highlighting its rigid rules of life and how its members could suffer by going against them. One of the aspects that make ‘The Scarlet Letter’ truly immortal is the author’s extensive use of symbols. Therefore, in order to understand the text, it is necessary to analyze the myriad of symbols presented.
In literature, a symbol is often a concrete idea used to represent a more complex, abstract idea. This idea is broader in meaning and scope, and is usually a religious, philosophical or moral concept. The Puritans view the world through allegories. Simple patterns of nature such as a meteor moving through the sky held a deeply religious meaning. This is just one facet of the repressive thinking. Hawthorne shows their moral attitudes in a different light through the symbolism of his characters.
The Puritan society looks at Hester as a woman fallen from grace, Dimmesdale as a saint-like personality, and was likely to consider Chillingworth as a victim and a betrayed husband. The author turns these interpretations around; he ultimately shows Hester as a sensitive human being, strips Dimmesdale of his saint-like façade, and reveals Chillingworth as an offender of humanity who pursues evil and revenge.
The Puritan mentality refuses to accept the reality of these characters. Hester is shunned and Dimmesdale’s confession is not believed by many people. This shows that underneath the public displays of piety so favored by Puritanism, there exists a grim underside that goes unseen. The static and stagnant thinking of the Puritanical society is shown through the transformation of characters as symbols and the subsequent refusal of the society to accept this change.
Hester is a fallen woman in the beginning; she is publically shamed and shunned, causing her to suffer greatly. She struggles to understand the letter’s symbolic meaning only to come out as a strong woman in the end. Hester gains a unique understanding of humanity and the struggles of other people. As Hawthorne says, “The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread.”
Dimmesdale is a private sinner; his sins remain a secret. His public face presents a stark contrast with his private face. The Colony of Massachusetts looks at him as an embodiment of sanctity and goodness, but this is just a façade. Dimmesdale struggles internally and drowns in the storm raging between his holiness and guilt. Dimmesdale is a symbol of hypocrisy and moral weakness. He refuses to do the right thing and the reader comes to view his piety as something superficial. Ultimately, he manages to redeem his soul, albeit quite late.
Pearl is by far the strongest of the allegorical images in this text. She symbolizes the freedom of nature. Hester views her as “the living hieroglyphic” of her sin. Hester describes Pearl to the community leaders by saying, “she is my happiness! — she is my torture. . . See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a million-fold the power of retribution for my sin?”
The Scarlet Letter displays symbols through characterization, colors, location and light. The author’s brilliant use of these symbols and their transformation is a major reason for the acclaim and popularity of this classical work and why it has become a peerless example of romance novels.
After reading this analysis, you probably have a few suggestions and thoughts to make it appear better. So, quickly jot those down and begin creating an outline for your own literary analysis. If you need more help with this assignment, check out our guide on how to write a literary analysis on ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by N. Hawthorne.
Hunter, Dianne, Seduction and theory: readings of gender, representation, and rhetoric. University of Illinois Press. 1989. Pgs. 186-187
Schreiner, Samuel A., Jr. The Concord Quartet: Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Friendship That Freed the American Mind. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006: 158.ISBN 978-0-471-64663-1
Crowley, J. Donald, and Orestes Brownson. Chapter 50: [Orestes Brownson], From A Review In Brownson’s Quarterly Review.” Nathaniel Hawthorne (0-415-15930-X) (1997): 175–179. Literary Reference Center Plus.
Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. Random House: New York, 2003: 209–210. ISBN 0-8129-7291-0.
Wright, John Hardy. Hawthorne’s Haunts in New England. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008: 47. ISBN 978-1-59629-425-7.
McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004: 136. ISBN 0-8021-1776-7
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is my Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 299. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
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Since its publication in 1850, The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print, nor indeed out of favor with literary critics. It is inevitably included in listings of the five or ten greatest American novels, and it is considered the best of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings. It may also be the most typical of his work, the strongest statement of his recurrent themes, and an excellent example of his craftsmanship.
The main theme in The Scarlet Letter, as in most of Hawthorne’s work, is that of sin and its effects both on the individual and on society. It is frequently noted that Hawthorne’s preoccupation with sin springs from the Puritan-rooted culture in which he lived and from his knowledge of two of his own ancestors who presided over bloody persecutions during the Salem witchcraft trials. It is difficult for readers from later times to comprehend the grave importance that seventeenth century New Englanders placed on transgression of the moral code. As Yvor Winters has pointed out, the Puritans, believing in predestination, viewed the commission of any sin as evidence of the sinner’s corruption and preordained damnation. The harsh determinism and moralism of those early years softened somewhat by Hawthorne’s day, and during the twelve years he spent in contemplation and semi-isolation, he worked out his own notions about human will and human nature. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne proves to be closer to Paul Tillich than to Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards. Like Tillich, Hawthorne saw sin not as an act but as a state—what existentialists refer to as alienation and what Tillich describes as a threefold separation from God, other humans, and self. Such alienation needs no fire and brimstone as consequence; it is in itself a hell.
There is a certain irony in the way in which this concept is worked out in The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne’s pregnancy forces her sin into public view, and she is compelled to wear the scarlet A as a symbol of her adultery. Yet, although she is apparently isolated from normal association with “decent” folk, Hester, having come to terms with her sin, is inwardly reconciled to God and self; she ministers to the needy among her townspeople, reconciling herself with others until some observe that her A now stands for “Able.” Arthur Dimmesdale, her secret lover, and Roger Chillingworth, her secret husband, move much more freely in society than she can and even enjoy prestige: Dimmesdale as a beloved pastor, Chillingworth as a respected physician. However, Dimmesdale’s secret guilt gnaws so deeply inside him that he is unable to make his peace with God or to feel at ease with his fellow citizens. For his part, Chillingworth permits vengeance to permeate his spirit so much that his alienation is absolute; he refers to himself as a “fiend,” unable to impart forgiveness or to change his profoundly evil path. His is the unpardonable sin—unpardonable not because God will not pardon, but because his own nature has become so depraved that he cannot repent or accept forgiveness.
Hawthorne clearly distinguishes between sins of passion and those of principle. Even Dimmesdale, traditional Puritan though he is, finally becomes aware of the difference. We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so.
Always more concerned with the consequences than with the cause of sin, Hawthorne to a remarkable extent anticipated Sigmund Freud’s theories of the effects of guilt. Hester, whose guilt is openly known, grows through her suffering into an extraordinarily compassionate and understanding woman, a complete person who is able to come to terms with all of life, including sin. Dimmesdale, who yearns for the relief of confession but hides his guilt to safeguard his role as pastor, is devoured internally. Again like Freud, Hawthorne recognized that spiritual turmoil may produce physical distress. Dimmesdale’s health fails and eventually he dies from no apparent cause other than guilt.
The characters in The Scarlet Letter are reminiscent of a number of Hawthorne’s shorter works. Dimmesdale bears similarities to Young Goodman Brown who, having once glimpsed the darker nature of humankind, must forevermore view humanity as corrupt and hypocritical. There are also resemblances between Dimmesdale and Parson Hooper in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” who continues to perform the duties of his calling with eloquence and compassion but is permanently separated from the company of men by the veil that he wears as a symbol of secret sin. Chillingworth shows resemblances to Ethan Brand, the limeburner who finds the unpardonable sin in his own heart: “The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its mighty claims!”
Hawthorne’s craftsmanship is splendidly demonstrated in The Scarlet Letter. The structure is carefully unified, with three crucial scenes—at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the action—taking place on the scaffold. The scarlet A itself is repeatedly entwined into the narrative as a symbol of sin and shame, as a reminder of Hester’s ability with the needle and her capability with people, and in Dimmesdale’s case, as evidence of the searing effects of secret guilt. Hawthorne often anticipates later developments with hints or forewarnings: There is, for example, the suggestion that Pearl lacks complete humanity, perhaps because she has never known great sorrow, but at the end of the story when Dimmesdale dies, Hawthorne writes, “as [Pearl’s] tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.”
Hawthorne’s skill as a symbolist is fully in evidence. As one critic has noted, there is hardly a concrete object in the book that does not do double duty as a symbol, among them the scarlet letter, the sunlight that eludes Hester, the scaffold of public notice, the armor in which Hester’s shame and Pearl’s selfishness are distorted and magnified. The four main characters themselves serve as central symbols in this, the greatest allegory of a master allegorist.