Verbal Irony in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In ''The Scarlet Letter'' by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author makes extensive use of irony in his novel about secrets, sin, and vengeance. In this lesson, we will look at some examples of verbal irony.


Have you ever heard or used the infamous break-up line, ''You deserve better than me''? While the intention is to soften the blow, both the speaker and the recipient know that the words and the sentiment do not match in this painful example of verbal irony. In literary terms, verbal irony is when a character's words intentionally contradict the intended meaning.

Frequently, verbal irony comes in the form of sarcasm, but in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the irony is more subtle. Having grown up in Salem, Massachusetts, during the 1800s as a direct descendant of one of the judges that oversaw the Salem witch trials, Hawthorne has much to say about casting judgment on the sin of others. Let's look at some examples from the novel.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Mixed Feelings

When Hester Prynne is convicted of adultery, she is forced to stand on a scaffold for three hours before the townspeople, and must display the scarlet letter 'A' on her clothing for the rest of her life to announce her sin to all who meet her. Her minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, begs her in front of the entire town to relieve her sin by confessing who the father of her illegitimate child is.

''If thou feelest it to be for thy soul's peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer!'' This is an example of verbal irony because Dimmesdale knows that he is the father, but doesn't have the courage to confess his sin to his congregation. In this scenario, verbal irony is used to convey Dimmesdale's mixed feelings between his need to relieve his guilty conscience and his fear of losing his position in the community.

Consumed by Hate

Hester's husband, Chillingworth, arrives in town, after being held captive for a year by Native Americans, to see his wife standing on the scaffold in shame for her adulterous affair. Chillingworth forces Hester to hide his identity from the town but is unclear about why he is being so secretive. However, he reassures her that if she keeps his secret, he will not harm her lover.

''Yet fear not for him! Think not that I shall interfere with Heaven's own method of retribution, or, to my own loss, betray him to the gripe of human law.'' While Hester holds up her end of the bargain by keeping her marriage a secret, Chillingworth becomes obsessed with finding out who fathered Hester's daughter and seeking revenge against him. It is ironic that Chillingworth, who had the opportunity to be the shameless victim in this terrible situation, becomes the villain as hate consumes him.

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