Literary Devices & Elements in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

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

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece, 'The Scarlet Letter', is often considered one of the greatest novels in American literature. This lesson explores Hawthorne's masterful use of literary elements to construct his classic tale of sin and redemption.

Literary Elements in The Scarlet Letter

Let's face it: sex sells. And when it comes to a story of cheating and revenge, you can't get much juicier than an affair between a handsome, young minister and a beautiful housewife. So the plot, or storyline, of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, is in itself enough to get tongues wagging and pages turning.

But what makes Hawthorne's story of the aftermath of the tumultuous affair between Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale more than a tawdry tale of adultery, punishment, and revenge? What transforms The Scarlet Letter from a salacious story into such an important novel in American literature?

A look at Hawthorne's masterful use of literary elements may provide some insight and answers.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne

Symbols

Symbolic imagery is used when physical objects represent broader, more abstract ideas. Symbols give literary work depth and interest because they allow us, as readers, to supply our own meanings. We're required to look beneath the surface to figure out what is truly being said and meant.

The Scarlet Letter abounds in symbols. The first and most obvious of which is the scarlet letter itself, a large red A that stands for adultery. Hester must wear this symbol as punishment for her sin. As the novel progresses, though, the significance of the letter changes, from representing abject shame and humiliation to signifying human frailty and the importance of compassion. The letter symbolizes the evolution of Hester's own moral code, as she learns to define purity and sin, love and forgiveness, on her own terms.

The Scarlet Letter
Scarlet

Narrative Structure

The Scarlet Letter is a frame narrative, in which the novel's beginning and ending occur in roughly the same period of time, while the middle--and the main plot--occurs in the past.

This, however, is not your typical frame narrative, because the novel's narrator, a Custom House, or tax house, officer of the early 1800s, is telling a story that took place around 200 years prior, in 1640s Massachusetts Bay Colony. Additionally, the plot of the novel is almost entirely a construct of this unnamed narrator's imagination. He pieces together Hester and Dimmesdale's story from bits of evidence he finds in the Custom House archives: snippets of faded legal documents, fragments of witness testimony transcripts, and, most significant, a tattered remnant of the scarlet letter.

When you read the novel, though, it can be hard to remember that what you're reading is the narrator's own imaginative reconstruction, so lifelike, believable, and enthralling is the story itself. And that's exactly how Hawthorne wants it. He wants us to appreciate the power of storytelling, to see how mesmerizing it can be, and even to recognize how potentially deceptive it can be.

The Custom House narrator all but disappears as Hester and Dimmesdale's story ramps up--at least until he pops up again to remind us that the story we've been so sucked into may not have happened that way at all.

Setting

Hawthorne masterfully juxtaposes two distinct time periods, the 1640s and the 1840s, to show that while some things are breathtakingly different, many things are appallingly similar. Hester and Dimmesdale live in a Puritan community, emphasizing the purification of the church and society through a strict reading and application of Christian doctrine.

In other words, sin was very much on the minds of the Puritans--more specifically, how to identify and eliminate it. Failing to do so would bring the wrath of God. That's why Hester's sin, and her punishment, which included not only wearing the scarlet letter, but also being ostracized from the community, was such a public affair. The idea being that if you don't reject and punish the sin, you might as well be endorsing it and sinning yourself.

So Hester's Puritan community was a community of fierce judgment and righteous indignation. And hypocrisy, lots of hypocrisy. Dimmesdale, the cheating minister, is a prime example: he is beloved by the community and his parishioners and upheld as a paragon of moral virtue. Because of this, he can't confess that he was Hester's lover and is the father of her beloved daughter, Pearl.

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