Allusions in The Scarlet Letter

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  • 0:00 Allusions & The Scarlet Letter
  • 0:30 Chillingworth & Satan
  • 1:46 Adam & Eve
  • 3:19 Cain & Abel
  • 3:54 Greek Mythology
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Mallett Smith

Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.

This lesson will explain allusions in 'The Scarlet Letter.' Nathaniel Hawthorne makes many references to the Bible and Greek mythology to more fully describe his characters and to draw attention to the themes of the novel.

Allusions and The Scarlet Letter

It's easy to understand why The Scarlet Letter is full of Biblical allusions. After all, it is a complete tale of sin and redemption, like the Bible. Allusions are references to popular events, places, and people in a work of literature. Most of this lesson will focus on Biblical allusions and will provide a better understanding of how those allusions enhance the story of The Scarlet Letter, but we will also point out a few other allusions which will help us understand the novel at a deeper level.

Chillingworth and Satan

In the novel, one of the main characters, Roger Chillingworth, is often referred to as a Black Man, which is an allusion to the Biblical character of Satan: 'Why dost thou smile so at me?' inquired Hester, troubled at the expression of his eyes. 'Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the forest round about us? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?' In the Bible, Satan is a fallen angel that led a revolution against God. Many Christians believe that he rules over the sinners in Hell, and tempts people to become sinners and to join him in the afterlife. When Hester speaks to Chillingworth, she questions whether he is tempting her to sin so that she will earn a place in Hell, much like the Puritans believed Satan did.

When Chillingworth finally discovers that his wife's lover is indeed Reverend Dimmesdale, a man of the cloth, he is overjoyed. Like Satan, he seems to be excited at the notion that a priest has committed an egregious sin and has put his salvation is at risk: 'Had a man seen old Roger Chillingworth, at that moment of his ecstasy, he would have had no need to ask how Satan comports himself, when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won into his kingdom.' Chillingworth is ecstatic over the idea that Dimmesdale is in danger of losing his soul, much like Satan celebrates when a new person will be coming to Hell. Hawthorne's allusion to the Bible and Satan is clear in this passage.

Adam and Eve

Nathaniel Hawthorne makes several allusions to the Bible story of Adam and Eve in The Scarlet Letter. In the Bible, God created Adam and Eve and provided them with a place to live in the Garden of Eden. He asked them to not eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. A serpent, which was Satan in disguise, tempts Eve to eat the fruit and she does. She also persuades Adam to eat the fruit. God punishes them by giving them suffering and casts them out of Eden.

The first allusion to this story comes with our first glimpse of Hester Prynne. Hawthorne writes that '. . . she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point that would hereafter be a woman,--at her, who had once been innocent,--as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.' In this quotation, Hawthorne has alluded to the story of Eve. Eve serves as a reminder of the frailty of women, and she is a poster-child for the origin of sin. Hester is compared to her because she was once innocent, but sinned because of her feminine qualities.

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