Isolation in The Scarlet Letter

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  • 0:04 Isolation in 'The…
  • 2:12 The Isolation of Guilt
  • 3:35 The Isolation of Revenge
  • 4:32 Isolation of the Outcast
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

Isolation plays a vital role in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 classic, 'The Scarlet Letter.' Each major character finds him- or herself alone and excluded in some fundamental way, but while some are destroyed by their isolation, others are empowered by it.

Isolation in The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, tells the story of the adulterous Hester Prynne and the punishment she endures at the hands of her Puritan community (that is, a community dedicated to the purification of society through the strict application of Christian gospels) in 1640s Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In Hester's community, the sin of one individual is considered to be the sin of every individual. Because of this, the entire community is invested in punishing the sinner, and in the process, cleansing themselves of the stain she brings.

Hester is condemned to wear forever the scarlet letter signifying her sin, but along with this stigma, or mark of shame or suffering, comes life as an eternal outcast. Hester and her daughter, Pearl, are excommunicated from the church and barred from any respectable home unless Hester is there to nurse the sick or the hungry. As she grows, Pearl won't be admitted to school or into the company of other children.

But Hester and Pearl are not the only isolated figures in this novel. The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl's father, whose identity remains a secret from the town for most of the novel, is isolated in the throes of his hidden guilt. Additionally, Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband, has returned after being held for years as a captive of the Native Americans. Unrecognized by everyone but Hester, and now living under an assumed name, he endures his own bitter isolation. His is the isolation of the vengeance he seeks.

But while Dimmesdale and Chillingworth wither in their isolation, Hester and Pearl learn to thrive. So what makes isolation in The Scarlet Letter so poisonous to one and yet so powerful to another?

The Isolation of Guilt

Dimmesdale is the darling of the town. Young, handsome, and brilliant, to his community he's Elvis and the Pope all rolled into one. His reputation is illustrious and growing. He's even won the confidence and admiration of the governor. There seems to be no limit to what this young reverend might do.

But his secret sin devours him. As a minister, he is to embody Christ's commandments on earth. Were it known that he is the father of Hester's child, his career would be destroyed. He would certainly face swift and brutal punishment, punishment likely far worse than Hester endures. After all, as a minister and as a man, Dimmesdale is expected to know and behave better than a poor, misguided woman.

Dimmesdale sees signs of his guilt everywhere. He suspects at every moment that he's been found out and that his supposedly adoring congregation is only waiting to spill his secret and deal his death blow. He both craves and resents the adulation, resents it primarily because he knows how quickly the congregation would turn on him if his true self were ever revealed. Though the town darling, Dimmesdale is isolated in a cocoon of guilt, shame, and hypocrisy.

The Isolation of Revenge

In many ways, Chillingworth's isolation is similar to Dimmesdale's. Chillingworth goes on the prowl for the man who he feels wronged him, the man who stole his property, which, in 1600s America, is what a wife essentially was. Chillingworth wants the man who stole his manhood and, seemingly, got away with it. Chillingworth is brilliant. It doesn't take him long to figure out what no one else in the town could, that Dimmesdale is Hester's lover.

Chillingworth's vengefulness is all consuming. It colors every second of every day. He, like Dimmesdale, becomes a hypocrite, pretending to be one thing (in this case, pretending to be Dimmesdale's friend and physician) while in actuality being another. Chillingworth sees through eyes of hatred and rage. He too is enveloped and alone in a straitjacket of his own design.

The Isolation of the Outcast

Dimmesdale and Chillingworth are both isolated even in the center of their community. Both hold prominent, respected positions in the town. Their isolation is internal and unknown to others.

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