Allegory in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

''The Scarlet Letter'' is an allegory by Nathaniel Hawthorne that symbolizes the views of the author on sin, guilt, and judgment in Puritanical New England.

A Symbolic Story

Do you remember the story of ''The Tortoise and the Hare?'' In the children's fable, the tortoise represents those who are hardworking and diligent and who end up winners. The hare represents those who are foolish and over-confident and lose as a result. It is a recognizable example of an allegory. An allegory is a story that represents a bigger idea about human behavior. In an allegory, each character is used as a symbol. Let's look at why Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlet Letter, is considered an allegory.


As Hester Prynne stands on the scaffold to be scorned by the townspeople for her adulterous sin, the people beg to know who the father of her child, Pearl, is. Even Reverend Dimmesdale, who is the father, says to her, 'Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so than to hide a guilty heart through life.' He does not have the strength to admit to his own shame, and Hester is willing to carry it for both of them so that he doesn't have to. Hester's character symbolizes strength as she willingly martyrs herself to prevent her lover from having to bear the burden of punishment and humiliation. What she does not realize is that the guilt he carries is much more destructive than the shame she faces. Dimmesdale represents the damage that guilt from unconfessed sin causes.


Dimmesdale's secret is not the only one that Hester keeps. In response to her silence about who the father is, Hester's husband, Chillingworth, makes Hester promise that she will not tell anyone who he is. He introduces himself as a physician who is new in town and disassociates himself from Hester. Believing that his motive is to spare himself the shame of being married to an adulteress, Hester agrees to protect him. However, his motive is less pure. Chillingworth uses his anonymity to gain access to Dimmesdale so he can psychologically torture him. When Hester realizes the pain Chillingworth is causing, she vows to tell Dimmesdale the truth. 'He must discern thee in thy true character. What may be the result I know not. But this long debt of confidence, due from me to him, whose bane and ruin I have been, shall at length be paid.' When the secret is first revealed, Dimmesdale is upset, but then makes plans to run away with Hester and Pearl so they can be a family. Chillingworth represents hidden evil. Once exposed, Chillingworth is unable to continue his path of destruction, but as long as he stays in the shadows, he has the power to harm Dimmesdale.


Another big message that the author sends to the readers is his criticism of religious judgment in Puritanical New England. Hester faces condemnation from the entire community for her forbidden affair with Dimmesdale. When Dimmesdale attempts to alleviate his guilt by speaking of himself as a sinner, he is elevated to near sainthood by the congregation. The townspeople all have hidden sin. The way they view the sins of others is in relation to how it makes them feel about their own sin. Condemning Hester makes them feel better about themselves because each thinks that regardless of whatever she has done, at least she has not had a baby out of wedlock. At the same time, knowing that Dimmesdale has sinned like them, but no knowing what the sin is, makes them feel better because they enjoy comparing themselves to this sainted man.

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