Point of View in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Rachel Noorda
In this lesson, we'll discusses point of view in 'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne. We'll review the different points of view used in literature and discuss how one in particular worked in the novel.

Defining Point of View

Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. In novels, there are four points of view: first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient.

First person point of view is told from the perspective of one character. This point of view uses words such as 'I' and 'me'. An example of first person point of view is found in To Kill a Mockingbird, which tells the story from the perspective of the main character: Scout.

Second person point of view is told from the perspective of a narrator talking to the audience. This point of view uses words such as 'you' and 'your'. This point of view is rarely used in literature. You can find it in certain 'Choose your own adventure' books.

Third person limited point of view is told from the perspective of a narrator who focuses on one character. So even though the narrator can see the actions of other characters, this is only done through the view of the main character. An example of third person limited point of view is Harry Potter, which tells a story from a narrator who focuses on Harry.

Third person omniscient point of view is told from the perspective of the narrator. In The Scarlet Letter, an unnamed man, who discovers a cloth scarlet 'A' while working in a custom's house, serves as the narrator of the novel.

Overview of The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter is a novel about Hester Prynne, a young woman in a Puritan community in Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1600s. Prynne becomes pregnant out of wedlock and not only has to spend time in prison, but also wear a scarlet letter 'A' (for adulteress) on her clothes. Ironically, a minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, is actually the father of Prynne's child, even though Prynne will not reveal his name. Overcome by guilt, Dimmesdale falls ill; he eventually confesses his sin in public and then dies in Hester's arms.

Hester
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Point of View in The Scarlet Letter

There are two reasons why the third person omniscient is used in The Scarlet Letter: so the all-knowing narrator can act as God in a moral tale and so the narrator can know the thoughts, feelings, and actions of all the characters. Let's take a deeper look at these two reasons.

The Narrator as Moral Judge

In The Scarlet Letter, the narrator has an opinion on the events that happen in the story; he is not impartial or unbiased. Not only does the narrator discuss the events of the moral tale, but comments on and gives opinions about them; in this way, he is also a subjective narrator.

In the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter, the narrator describes the novel's Puritan setting by giving details about a prison door and a nearby rosebush: 'It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.' As the omniscient narrator already knows Hester's story, he can call our attention to the rosebush as a symbol for the moral blossom to be found in this dark tale.

The subjective and omniscient narrator also comments on the character of Reverend Dimmesdale and provides us with a little piece of moral wisdom when he says: 'No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.'

The Narrator as All Knowing

In Hawthorne's novel, the use of the third person omniscient point of view also reveals the thoughts, feelings, and actions of all the characters. This is important in a story that is as emotionally charged and as full of people holding secrets as The Scarlet Letter.

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