Diction in The Scarlet Letter

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  • 0:00 Setting the Tone
  • 0:54 What Is Diction?
  • 2:24 Fear of the 'A'
  • 3:05 Angelic Reverend Dimmesdale
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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' by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a story about the severe judgment of an adulterer in Puritanical New England. In this lesson, we will examine how diction is used to set the tone of the story.

Setting the Tone

Imagine making one mistake that is considered so terrible that you are outcast from your community for the rest of your life. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's book, the Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne's mistake is that she falls in love and becomes pregnant during a time when her husband has gone missing for many years. The idea of an abandoned young lady being expected to live a life of solitude seems so foreign to most Americans, but the religious ideas that governed Puritanical New England in the middle of the 17th century required severe judgment by public shaming. In his novel, Hawthorne uses formal diction with figurative language to indicate the Puritanical religious views of the time. Let's look at some examples of diction from the novel.

What Is Diction?

What is diction? Diction is one of the ways the author sets the tone of the story. Diction describes the choice of words that is used by the author to reflect typical language of a community during the time and place that the story occurs. Diction can also be used to reflect the characters' attitudes and feelings about the events in the story.

For example, in chapter two, the narrator states, 'Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand.' One of the things the reader notices in this passage is the use of multisyllabic and unfamiliar words. When was the last time you used the words 'physiognomies' and 'augured?' It seems like it would have been much simpler for the author to have said something like, 'People in other places or who lived in a later time period would have been less severe and caused less trouble.' However, the use of phrases such as, 'grim rigidity,' 'petrified,' and 'bearded physiognomies' (characteristics) indicate the advanced level of sternness that exists within this community during this time period that impedes any show of love or compassion for Hester by her fellow citizens.

Fear of the 'A'

When Hester is released from prison, she discovers that her punishment has barely begun. Hester and her daughter, Pearl, are not only outcasts, but the stories about Hester grow to the point that she is viewed as Satanic by the community. 'They averred that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night-time.' The community's fearful imaginings were fully expressed through descriptive references to the letter as 'red-hot,' 'infernal fire,' and 'glowing all alight.'

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