Biblical Allusions in The Scarlet Letter

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  • 0:00 Context and Summary
  • 1:26 General Biblical Allusions
  • 2:26 Specific Biblical Allusions
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson we will study 'The Scarlet Letter' and the biblical allusions that are used to help us understand sin, knowledge, and evil in a Puritan community.

Context and Summary

Society's values can change drastically over the centuries. Something that was considered an egregious sin hundreds of years ago might be forgiven or not even noticed these days, like working on Sundays or sex before marriage. Sometimes it's easy to see in hindsight how we may have limited and hurt our communities and ourselves with strict religiosity.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter takes place in Puritan New England in the 1600s in a backdrop of rigid rules and Christian faith. In this setting, Hawthorne provides ample biblical allusions in order to better explore sin, hypocrisy, and true salvation.

Hawthorne himself comes from a Puritan heritage and was interested in the hypocrisies such rigidity could produce. In 1850 when the book was written, America had progressed to popular ideologies that were more relaxed. Hawthorne followed some tenets of transcendentalism, believing that people could explore divinity everywhere, particularly in nature.

In the novel, Hester Prynne falls short of the Puritan ideals by committing the sin of adultery. She becomes pregnant while her husband was away, and thus the community knows that another man is the father. She refuses to identify this man, but we learn that it is Reverend Dimmesdale, the minister of this Puritan town, and a greatly respected man.

General Biblical Allusions

The city at first calls for Hester's death, because the Bible calls for adulterers to die. Yet they decide that a better punishment is that she wear a scarlet letter 'A' on her bosom. This way all can remember her sin and rebuke her. Even this punishment is based on biblical laws: 'Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear' (1 Timothy 5:20).

The story also explores the nature of evil and knowledge, frequently alluding to Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were in Paradise until they were tempted by Satan, ate the fruit of knowledge and were cast out into the world. They were punished and cast out of the garden due to their sin, but they also received knowledge. Both Hester and Dimmesdale, who sinned, learn from the experience and thus gain knowledge and grow personally. The community remains ignorant, only ostracizing the sin and sinner, so they remain stagnant and cannot progress.

Specific Biblical Allusions

A specific biblical allusion is in the name 'Pearl' that Hester chooses for her daughter: 'she named the infant 'Pearl', as of being of great price,--purchased with all she had,--her mother's only treasure!' This is in reference to a scripture in the Bible where the gospel and salvation are described of greater value than anything else. 'The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it' (Matthew 13:45-46).

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