Important Quotes from The Scarlet Letter: Examples & Analysis

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  • 0:01 The Scarlet Letter
  • 1:02 Important Quotes
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Molly Richards

Molly has ten years of middle school teaching experience and two master's degrees in teaching.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter'' tells the story of scandal in a 1700s Puritan settlement in Boston. In this lesson, we will see many themes emerge from various quotations.

The Scarlet Letter

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne lives in a Puritan settlement in 17th-century Boston. She's been convicted of adultery, though she won't reveal the name of her baby's father. Hester is forced by the strict Puritan town to wear a scarlet letter A on her dress as a reminder of her sinful acts. It's thought that Hester's husband was lost at sea, but he's alive and well and living in Boston. Faced with humiliation after seeing Hester on the town scaffold, he hides his identity and changes his name to Roger Chillingworth. Intent with revenge upon Hester and the baby's father, he introduces himself to the town as a physician and soon begins helping Arthur Dimmesdale, the town minister who suffers from strange heart trouble. It turns out that his heart trouble is actually the guilt he carries around, because he is the father of Hester's child, Pearl. Dimmesdale finally faces his sin and admits to the townspeople that he is as guilty as Hester; then, he dies.

Hester Prynne with her daughter Pearl
Hester Prynne and Pearl

Important Quotes

The Scarlet Letter addresses themes such as forgiveness, guilt, truth, identity, and good versus evil. We'll see examples of these themes in the following quotes.

In Chapter 2, a townsperson says to Chillingworth:

  • ''People say that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to his heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.''

Dimmesdale has become ill, and people often see him clutching at his chest. Though no one quite knows what's wrong, we find out later that his guilt and shame is slowly killing him. Many in the town think he's so overcome with Hester's sin that it's hurting his heart. He's looked upon very highly in his congregation, and the townspeople just assume that he's taking this matter to heart.

In Chapter 5, in regards to Hester, the narrator says:

  • ''. . . if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom . . .''

What does this mean? On one hand, Hester feels a sense of relief that she wears her sin every day, because at least it's out in the open. She sympathizes with people who are walking around hiding their shame and guilt and believes that most people would probably be worthy of a scarlet letter themselves. On the other hand, she feels as though the devil is creeping in, making her think the worst of people. She would like to believe in mercy and forgiveness and goodness, but then is flooded with thoughts of darkness and a physical throbbing in her chest.

In Chapter 11, in regards to Dimmesdale, the narrator says:

  • ''To the untrue man, the whole universe is false--it is impalpable--it shrinks to nothing within his grasp.''

Dimmesdale keeps his secret hidden from everyone, yet in his own private thoughts, it haunts him. He punishes himself physically and emotionally, yet it doesn't seem to ease the guilt he feels. Because Dimmesdale is being untrue to himself by keeping his secret hidden, he can't find truth in anything else. The only thing that reminds him he's real is the constant pain he feels from shame and guilt.

In Chapter 17, Dimmesdale says to Hester:

  • ''The judgment of God is on me. It is too mighty for me to struggle with!'!'

Hester responds:

  • ''Heaven would show mercy hadst thou but the strength to take advantage of it.''

Here, Dimmesdale feels that his sin is something he needs to live with, and that the guilt and shame are part of his punishment from God. He also feels the need to physically punish himself for what he's done, hence the marks on his chest and back. Hester sees it differently and tells him that it actually takes more strength to ask for forgiveness. When showing this kind of strength, God will show mercy. Mercy will free his soul from the weight of his shame and guilt.

Also in Chapter 17, Dimmesdale says to Hester:

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