Conflict in The Scarlet Letter

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  • 0:00 What is Conflict?
  • 0:31 Hester Against the World
  • 1:48 Dimmesdale: His Own…
  • 3:10 Chillingworth & Dimmesdale
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

This lesson provides an overview of the main conflicts in the novel 'The Scarlet Letter,' by Nathaniel Hawthorne. These conflicts drive the plot of the story and support the main points of the novel.

What Is Conflict?

Conflict might not be something you want to have in your life, but it is essential in a novel. Conflict with your roommate is bad; conflict in literature is good!

Conflict in literature is when one character is at odds with another character, with him/herself, with nature, or with society. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter provides examples of three of these kinds of conflicts. We don't have time to cover every single conflict in the story, but let's take a look at a few of the major ones.

Hester Against the World

One kind of literary conflict is man vs. society which, in addition to illustrating the gender bias of the English language, means one character in the story is in conflict with a larger culture or society. Hester, in this case, is pitted against the people of her town - or, rather, they are pitted against her. The story opens as the town is gathered in front of the prison, waiting for Hester to be placed on display for public scorn as punishment for having committed adultery. Among the conversation of these gathered locals, we hear things like, 'This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die.' That pretty clearly establishes the conflict in question!

In the face of this scorn from society, Hester remained strong. We are told that she stood in front of this crowd 'with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed.' She acknowledges that she has done something wrong in her burning blush, but with her smile and her unabashed glance, she refuses to allow the people to crush her with contempt.

She bears this out in her actions, too, quietly making a living for herself with her fine needlework. She devotes herself to her work, to her child, and to serving the poor and helping the sick in any way she can. She is so persistent in her good works that people begin to suggest that perhaps her scarlet letter 'A' stands for angel instead of adultery.

Dimmesdale: His Own Worst Enemy

Arthur Dimmesdale, the town minister with whom Hester committed adultery, provides us with an example of another kind of conflict. Dimmesdale labors under a man vs. self literary conflict. Dimmesdale knows of his own guilt in tandem with Hester's, but he hides it inside. He goes on acting the part of a pious minister, and the duplicity tears him apart.

He becomes pale and weak as this inner conflict takes a physical toll on him. We learn that he hides a 'bloody scourge' in his closet. A scourge is a kind of whip used for hitting people. Some extreme religious zealots would use a scourge to inflict injury upon themselves as an act of repentance, which is what Reverend Dimmesdale is doing. This gives a very literal expression for his conflict with himself.

This conflict rages on within Arthur Dimmesdale for seven years. He wearies himself and wastes away physically as he is plagued mentally and emotionally. He speaks of the 'unutterable torment' of one who hides sin within instead of confessing it, and he acts out that agony through his self mutilation.

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