Motifs in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Jennifer Mallett Smith

Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.

This lesson will explain some common motifs in the novel, ''The Scarlet Letter''. We will learn how sin and atonement, darkness and light, and nature versus society highlight some of the main themes of the novel.


Motifs exist both in life and literature. We may view a thunderstorm as a sign of bad things to come. Children are afraid of the dark because they may associate it with evil and ghosts. These common motifs, or repeating ideas and events that point to a theme, are explored in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlet Letter. The novel's characters demonstrate some of these core themes.

Sin and Atonement


Hester's sin of adultery is well-known throughout the village. She has stood on the scaffolding and endured their judgement, and she has worn her scarlet letter. Hester seems to think that it is her duty to suffer for Dimmesdale as well: 'It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!' Through this admirable quotation, we see that she is atoning for her sins. Compared to Dimmesdale, Hester gets off easily.

Dimmesdale pleads with Hester to give up the name of her lover in front of the village, but she does not. He suffers silently, repenting for his sin. He atones by injuring himself and causing a letter 'A' to appear on his chest, a fact that is revealed at the end of the novel. His final act on the scaffolding frees him from his guilt. He thanks God for allowing him the opportunity to atone for his sins: 'By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast!' He feels that he has a place in heaven because he has suffered greatly for his sin. Both characters have experienced anguish because of their shared sin of adultery.

Light and Dark

We often associate darkness with evil and speak of it with dread. When we first witness Hester, she is described as a dark beauty: 'She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam…' Later, Pearl tells her mother that the sunshine has been avoiding her: 'The sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom.' Hester's guilt has brought darkness into her life. It is only when she removes the scarlet letter in the forest that we see her embracing the sunlight.

Pearl is the stark opposite of her mother and is described as a child with lots of life and light: 'Pearl's own proper beauty, shining through the gorgeous robes which might have extinguished a paler loveliness, that there was an absolute circle of radiance around her, on the darksome cottage-floor.' Pearl is the product of adultery, but her presence is a blessing, rather than a curse. This is an interesting contrast because the scarlet letter, the source of society's shaming of Hester, brings darkness onto Hester.

The characters reveal their true selves in the nighttime. Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold and asks Hester and Pearl to join him at night while the village is asleep. Though this happens at night, an element of light is mentioned, illustrating the positivity of this reunion: 'But, before Mr. Dimmesdale had done speaking, a light gleamed far and wide over all the muffled sky.' Dimmesdale's guilt is part of the darkness, but his admission of guilt in the open gives him a light of hope, even if it is just a passing comet.

Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale stand on the scaffold at night.
Scaffold Scene

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