The Scarlet Letter

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Individuality and Conformity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
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The Occult Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Scarlet Letter, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon

As an adulterer, Hester has broken Puritan society's harsh and strict rules. Puritan society demanded conformity because it considered any breach of that conformity a threat to its security and its religion. Hester doesn't conform and she suffers the consequences: the townspeople punish, shun, and humiliate her. The town seeks to use Hester as an example to frighten any other would-be nonconformists from breaking the strict moral rules of Puritanism. Yet Hester's unshakable faith in herself, her love for Dimmesdale, and her devotion to her daughter empower her to resist and transcend enforced Puritan conformity.

In general in The Scarlet Letter, the conflict between individuality and conformity is also a battle between appearance and reality. Because the Puritan government is so harsh, all Puritans are always concerned about looking like conformists to best fit in. This means that they hide the reality of their human flaws, frailties, and sins in order to avoid punishment. The result are secrets that are the embodiment of the disconnect between private individual reality and the need to maintain the appearance of public conformity. And though keeping secrets provide a short-term solution for the sinner to avoid punishment, the novel argues that repression of the individual behind a mask of secret-keeping conformity will ultimately warp and destroy a person's soul.

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Individuality and Conformity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Individuality and Conformity appears in each chapter of The Scarlet Letter. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Individuality and Conformity Quotes in The Scarlet Letter

Below you will find the important quotes in The Scarlet Letter related to the theme of Individuality and Conformity.
The Custom House Quotes
It is a good lesson - though it may often be a hard one - for a man... to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at.
Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator of The Scarlet Letter prefaces his "romance" with an account of his inspiration: he found documents about Hester Prynne's life during his otherwise bland employment as a surveyor at a customs house. He goes into far more detail than necessary, however, as he describes the other individuals -- the father of the Custom House, the Collector -- who surrounded him there. As he describes these various characters, the narrator takes this opportunity to reflect that it is good for a person to occasionally seek to extricate himself from his own social circumstance. We will see characters trapped in such social circumstances throughout the narrative, and this perhaps unusual introduction thus serves to introduce us to the tensions between individual and collective identities that will motivate much of the novel's action.


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Chapter 1 Quotes
On one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:
The Scarlet Letter opens with a crowd at the prison door of a New England Puritan colony. We are immediately introduced to this society, in which characters are expected to conform to all social rules and norms. It is a drab society, made up of men with "sad-colored garments" and gray hats and hoods. These people follow the regulations of Puritanism, a religious sect of Protestantism distinguished by its strict punishments and unambiguous interpretations of what is sinful (which encompasses many of the pleasurable activities of life such as drinking and dancing). These New England townspeople must obey the laws of earlier generations -- those of authority and precedent, which are manifested by the aged appearance of the prison house itself. Yet, at the brink, the entrance and exit, of the prison, there is a rosebush. It is "wild" and "delicate" and "fragile"; it boldly contradicts the much sturdier rules and laws of society (with its wildness), but it is also weak. It represents the individuality and natural spirit which will strain for recognition throughout the novel, within characters such as Hester and Dimmesdale.
The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.
Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Before the narrator introduces the particular characters of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, he grounds their narrative with commentaries about the Puritan colony's past. He describes the novel's first specific setting (the prison) with a focus on its historical presence in the colony, as an early and necessary feature of this settlement. The narrator thus opens up themes of historical traditions and social functions that will resonate throughout the novel. Sin (which leads to punishment and, eventually, death) also appears as an inevitable aspect of human life, a product of mere human existence as well as human passion. Even in a supposed utopia, it's assumed that sin will always be present—thus the necessity for a prison and a cemetery.

Chapter 2 Quotes
On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold-thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it ... was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne
Related Symbols: Red and Black, The Scarlet Letter
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

The second chapter, "The Market-Place," first details a public scene: men and women of the colony are crowding around and conversing outside of the prison-house, discussing Hester Prynne. Once the door to the prison opens "from within," Hester stands at the entrance, on display for the crowd. She holds an infant conceived out of wedlock in her arms, and the breast of her gown displays an elaborately embroidered letter "A." This letter is meant to serve as the symbol of her punishment, a reminder that she failed to follow the common rules of the Puritan colony (the "A" stands for Adultery), yet the "A" itself also becomes another flagrant transgression of the colony's "sumptuary regulations," which limit any luxury or boldness in items such as clothes. Through this letter's extraordinary artistry, the "A" becomes a way for Hester to claim and express her punishment and social isolation in her own manner. 

Stretching for the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward; until, on the threshold of the prison door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free will.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator explicitly informs us that the town-beadle "prefigured and represented in his aspect the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law," so we can view his "official staff" as a symbol of the colony's religious and social regulations. This brief interaction pins down the fundamental background of Hester's character trajectory: her social circumstance constrains and controls her actions (as it might affect any other colonist's actions), until Hester decides to no longer live under such limitations, and she steps away "as if by her own free will." Hester is continually engaged in this process; she vacillates between following and not following various conventions. She will, for instance, feel unacceptable love for the father of her illegitimate child in one moment, and in the next, refuse to publicly acknowledge his presence in her life, fulfilling her expected social role as the isolated woman who has sinned.  

Chapter 3 Quotes
When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne fastened on his own, and saw that she appeared to recognize him, he slowly and calmly raised his finger, made a gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hester observes the townspeople gathered around her, she notices an unusual figure: a man with "a strange disarray of civilized and savage costume." Apparel and appearances serve as important symbols throughout the novel, so this is our first indication that this new character is of special significance. Like Hester (who bears the scarlet letter on her garb), he does not quite belong in this New England, Puritan town. Yet this shared sense of separation does not seem to make this stranger treat Hester better than the townspeople treat her. This figure is menacing; the narrator associates him with snakes and darkness. And, as he and Hester look at each other, he does not come to her aid in any sense. He merely puts a finger on his lips, silently asking her to stay silent about his identity. 

"Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him--yea, compel him, as it were--to add hypocrisy to sin?"
Related Characters: Arthur Dimmesdale (speaker), Hester Prynne
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hester stands on the scaffold, facing her judgment, Governor Bellingham urges the young clergyman Reverend Dimmesdale to speak to Hester in front of the assembled crowd, to command her to reveal, confess, and repent for her sins. Dimmesdale does indeed ask Hester to reveal the name of her child's father -- if she wishes to do so (if she "feelest it to be for thy soul's peace"). As he makes this request, Dimmesdale implies that the child's father would suffer if he stayed silent; remaining hidden would "add hypocrisy to sin," compounding one form of wrong with another. Yet he also suggests that if she decides to remain silent, then the man would have no choice -- he would be "compelled" to stay silent as well. (This is all deeply ironic because, as we later learn, Dimmesdale himself is the child's father.) In this Puritan atmosphere, wrong behavior necessitates public recognition and resolution. Yet Dimmesdale's brief speech here seems to somewhat deviate from strict Puritanism, and from the Governor's intention. He makes a passionate, fleeting request, before other speakers cry more harshly at Hester, and the older clergyman present lectures about sin and the scarlet letter for at least an hour.

Chapter 4 Quotes
As he spoke, he laid his long forefinger on the scarlet letter, which forwith seemed to scortch into Hester’s breast, as if it had been red-hot. He noticed her involuntary gesture, and smiled. “Live, therefore, and bear about thy doom with thee, in the eyes of men and women—in the eyes of him thou didst call thy husband—in the eyes of yonder child! And, that thou mayst live, take off this draught.”
Related Characters: Roger Chillingworth (speaker), Hester Prynne, Pearl, Arthur Dimmesdale
Related Symbols: Red and Black
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

When Hester returns to the prison after this public scene, she is in a state of such agitation that the jailer brings in a man who seems to be a physician. This "physician" knows Hester, however; he is the man who held his finger to his lips, silently asking Hester to not reveal his identity. He gives Hester a medicinal drink ("draught") to ease her distress, but Hester doubts his motives, even questioning if he seeks to murder her for vengeance. His response is chilling; with "cold composure," he comments that Hester's life of shame would be a better form of revenge than death. He then lays his finger on her scarlet letter, instead of on his lips (as he did earlier). A supernatural, strange occurrence follows this man's description of Hester's "burning shame": Hester's breast burns where his finger touched her. This suggests that the strange man will almost personify evil in the novel, despite his familiarity with medicinal knowledge and healing. It is telling that he only reveals his identity as Hester's perhaps former husband (as "him thou didst call thy husband") after he reveals his nefarious nature. 

Chapter 5 Quotes
Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast,—at her, the child of honorable parents,—at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, —at her, who had once been innocent, —as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne, Pearl
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Letter
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Hester's confinement in prison ends, she no longer has any future changes to which she can look forward. As she emerges from the prison, she must confront the rest of her life. Her community will always remember that she conceived a child out of wedlock. Educators -- parents, preachers, and teachers -- will use Hester as a "symbol" ("the figure, the body, the reality") of moral transgression, depraved desire, and female weakness. When Hester stays in this town, she will be "giving up her individuality." Yet, she will stay; there is a feeling of inevitability following her shame that the narrator captures through the future tense of these descriptions ("Thus the young and pure would be taught...).

Chapter 12 Quotes
"Nay; not so, my little Pearl!" answered the minister; for, with the new energy of the moment, all the dread of public exposure, that had so long been the anguish of his life, had returned upon him; and he was already trembling at the conjunction in which—with a strange joy, nevertheless—he now found himself. "Not so, my child. I shall, indeed, stand with thy mother thee one other day, but not to-morrow!"
Related Characters: Arthur Dimmesdale (speaker), Hester Prynne, Pearl
Related Symbols: Pearl
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

On an "obscure night" in May, Dimmesdale stands vigil upon the platform where Hester faced public condemnation with the infant Pearl in her arms. His sanity seems questionable -- at one point in the night he shrieks aloud, startling townspeople including Governor Bellingham and Mistress Hibbins, who appear at their window and lattice. At another point, Dimmesdale merely envisions himself speaking to the passerby Mr. Wilson, and this prospect shocks him, exacerbating his anxiety. Peal and Hester arrive when Dimmesdale laughs, quite strangely, and Pearl echoes his laughter with her own. Dimmesdale invites Hester and Pearl onto the scaffold, and as they stand with linked hands, Pearl asks Dimmesdale to repeat this gesture tomorrow at noon. Dimmesdale refuses; Pearl has reminded him of his constant fear that he will be publicly exposed for his sins, and this fear overpowers his pleasure (his "strange joy") at being (re)united with Hester and Pearl. For Dimmesdale, public life has more power than private, internal desires, and Puritan conformity is stronger than individual conscience.

Chapter 15 Quotes
"Be it sin or no," said Hester Prynne bitterly, as she still gazed after him, "I hate the man!"


"Yes, I hate him!" repeated Hester, more bitterly than before. "He betrayed me! He has done me worse wrong than I did him!"
Related Characters: Hester Prynne (speaker), Roger Chillingworth
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:
As Hester and Chillingworth converse on the beach, Chillingworth admits his malicious nature (which makes him like a "fiend") but refuses to forgive Dimmesdale. Once they part ways, Hester speaks to herself, commenting that she hates Chillingworth. She then remembers the time she spent with Chillingworth in England; she recalls their only "lukewarm" romance and interprets Chillingworth's attempts to capture her innocent love as his "fouler offence." To Hester, Chillingworth was the most evil when he strove to constrain her passions and tame her into his lover and wife. As the memories fade into forgetting, Hester more passionately repeats her declaration of hatred, even adding that Chillingworth acted worse to her than she ever did, even in her adultery. This passage does not only color Hester's adultery in a more sympathetic way; it also illustrates how Hester's moral judgments arise from natural impulses and passions, emphasizing a moral system that is an alternative to Puritanism. 
Chapter 17 Quotes
"Doth the universe lie within the compass of yonder town, which only a little time ago was but a leaf-strewn desert, as lonely as this around us? Whither leads yonder forest track? Backwards to the settlement, thou sayest! Yes; but onward too! Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step! until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man’s tread. There thou art free! So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast been most wretched, to one where thou mayest still be happy! Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of Roger Chillingworth?"
Related Characters: Hester Prynne (speaker), Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

After Dimmesdale faintly asks Hester to "Be .. strong for me" and "Advise me what to do," Hester gives an exhortation reminiscent of Dimmesdale's passionate sermons. She reminds him that the same path which leads back to the town stretches "onward too"; it goes "deeper ... into the wilderness" as well. Hester stresses that Dimmesdale is "free" in woods, in nature; Dimmesdale is not as fundamentally confined in his sin (and in Chillingworth's reaction to his sin) as he believes he is. Dimmesdale need not just be virtuous in life—he also could be "happy," if he left his position in society behind him and journeyed to more natural, less judgmental places. Here, Hester is not merely rousing Dimmesdale to leave the town; she is advocating that he could leave his Puritanism and his sin behind as well. Such a journey would take Dimmesdale out of the social infrastructure which has framed the novel. 

Chapter 18 Quotes
But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness.... The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Letter
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Hester claims that she will join Dimmesdale as he flees from this Puritan town and his past life, Dimmesdale can only gape at her because of his intense emotions -- "hope" mixed with "fear" and "horror." It is difficult for Dimmesdale to fathom Hester's boldness, as he has only lived within his small society as a clergyman, while Hester has lived for seven years without society's approval (in this often-called "moral wilderness"), as an outcast who sinned. Hester's condemnation has indeed led to "shame, despair, solitude," but it also makes her a "strong" enough individual to envisage escaping her current social circumstance -- a prospect which Dimmesdale cannot so easily imagine, as a man caught within conformity.  

Chapter 19 Quotes
"Doth he love us?" said Pearl, looking up with acute intelligence into her mother's face. "Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?"

"Not now, dear child," answered Hester. "But in days to come he will walk hand in hand with us. We will have a home and fireside of our own; and thou shalt sit upon his knee; and he will teach thee many things, and love thee dearly. Thou wilt love him; wilt thou not?"

"And will he always keep his hand over his heart?" inquired Pearl.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne (speaker), Pearl (speaker), Arthur Dimmesdale
Related Symbols: Pearl
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

After Hester directly tells Pearl that Dimmesdale loves both of them, Pearl questions this sentiment, asking if he will prove his love by entering the town while holding their hands. Pearl echoes the question she asked on the scaffold (if Dimmesdale would stand there in the day's sunlight as well), and here the narrator characterizes and directly describes the "acute intelligence" that these probing queries reveal in Pearl. Again, Pearl is told that Dimmesdale will display this connection before the townspeople on another day ("in days to come"), as the final revelation is delayed even further, intensifying Dimmesdale's hypocrisy and the narrative's tension. Yet after the freeing moments in the woods, Hester can more clearly envision such a future with Dimmesdale -- comfortable times with a "home" and a "fireside." This suggests that the splendid moments she and Dimmesdale had in the forest together are dimmed but not eradicated. Their vision of escaping their town has proved quixotic and impossible, but Hester is more willing to ponder a possible future with Dimmesdale than she has ever been before. 

Chapter 22 Quotes
“Mother," said [Pearl], “was that the same minister that kissed me by the brook?"
“Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!" whispered her mother. “We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne (speaker), Pearl (speaker), Arthur Dimmesdale
Related Symbols: Pearl
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis:

During the inauguration ceremony for the new governor, Pearl sees Dimmesdale among the officials who parade across the market-place. Shortly, Dimmesdale will deliver the Election Speech; he is clearly categorized as a public figure, and he does not appear to even notice Hester and Pearl as he passes by them. This is apparent to the ever-observant Pearl, who questions her mother whether Dimmesdale is the "same minister" that she saw in the woods. Pearl thus introduces a powerful question about personal and social identity, a question which her mother rebukes. Hester suggests that we must separate events from "the forest" -- events of natural human passion, from incidents in "the market-place" -- incidents constrained within public arenas. Despite all of her individuality and strength, Hester does not here attempt to close the separation between the personal and the public. 

Chapter 23 Quotes
Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl's errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne, Pearl, Arthur Dimmesdale
Related Symbols: Pearl
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:

After Dimmesdale finally admits his specific sin in front of the townspeople, and reveals that he shares the burden of the scarlet letter with Hester, as the father her child, he asks Pearl for a kiss. Instead of refusing the individuals around herself, and acting according to her personal impulses like a wild creature, Pearl actually complies with Dimmesdale's request. She kisses his lips, and she suddenly appears to transform from supernatural to human. Pearl becomes a woman, wholly ceasing to be the chimerical, precocious child whose unnaturalness reminds Hester of her flawed conception and intimate association with sin. Once Pearl's human father is revealed, Pearl becomes human as well; Dimmesdale saves her as he saves himself. 

Chapter 24 Quotes
But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home. Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But ... the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne, Pearl
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Letter, Pearl
Page Number: 244-245
Explanation and Analysis:

After the narrator describes Pearl's uncertain fate, he more confidently relates that Hester stayed "here," the site of the story. The narrator has described Hester's future with an air of inevitability throughout the novel, and it continues here; it seems that Hester had no way to escape from the scarlet letter, as her association with it was too powerful. The meaning of the scarlet letter continued to mutate over time, however. In the novel it initially signified "adultery," serving as a symbol of shame, and then came to mean "able," serving as a symbol of Hester's abilities, but finally it became a sort of legend -- a garment which brought solemn respect, even reverence (perhaps a reference to it's final possible meaning, "angel"). Hester did not take off the letter again -- Dimmesdale was gone -- yet the letter changed, with Hester, over the ensuing many years.