The Scarlet Letter

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

The Scarlet Letter presents a critical, even disdainful, view of Puritanism. The narrator depicts Puritan society as drab, confining, unforgiving, and narrow-minded that unfairly victimizes Hester. In the scene in which Hester is released from prison, the narrator describes the town police official as representing the "whole dismal severity of the Puritanical code of law," which fused religion with law. In contrast, he describes Hester as a woman marked by "natural dignity…force of character…[and] free will." It is precisely these natural strengths, which the narrator holds in high esteem, that Puritan society suppresses. In The Scarlet Letter, the Puritans appear as shallow hypocrites whose opinion of Hester and Pearl improves only when they become more of an asset to the community, most notably when Hester becomes a seamstress and Pearl inherits a fortune from Chillingworth.

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Puritanism Quotes in The Scarlet Letter

Below you will find the important quotes in The Scarlet Letter related to the theme of Puritanism.
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. 

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Chapter 3 Quotes
"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 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 11 Quotes
Would not the people start up in their seats, by a simultaneous impulse, and tear him down out of the pulpit which he defiled? Not so, indeed! They heard it all, and did but reverence him the more. They little guessed what deadly purport lurked in those self-condemning words. "The godly youth!" said they among themselves. "The saint on earth!
Related Characters: Arthur Dimmesdale
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

As Dimmesdale struggled with his hypocrisy and guilt, he often described his extraordinary wickedness to his congregation during public sermons. Dimmesdale outlined the truth -- the horrifying extent of his moral impurity -- in only vague and general terms, so the congregation who heard him assumed that his words were only spurred by his holiness. They thought Dimmesdale was so holy that his little sins seemed outrageously sinful to him. So, Dimmesdale manipulated the binary between truths and lies; "He had spoken the very truth, and transformed it into the veriest falsehood," as the narrator captures for us. As he flirted with telling the truth, the extent of Dimmesdale's hypocrisy only grew, and with it grew his inner torture as well. 

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 16 Quotes
“'Mother,' said litter Pearl, 'the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom.... I am but a child. It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!' 'Nor ever will, my child, I hope,' said Hester. 'And why not, mother?' asked Pearl, stopping short, just at the beginning of her race. 'Will not it come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?'
Related Characters: Hester Prynne (speaker), Pearl (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Letter, Pearl
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hester seeks Dimmesdale in the wood, hoping to intercept him and inform him about Chillingworth's true nature, Pearl (naturally) accompanies her. On this day, Pearl is able to stand in the patches of sunlight that make their way onto the forest path, but these bursts of light disappear when Hester attempts to touch them. Pearl, as usual, interprets this phenomenon with uncanny metaphorical accuracy for such a young child; the sunlight, like a townsperson, "runs away and hides" from Hester because of her scarlet letter ("something on your bosom"). Yet we also see Pearl's childlike simplicity, as she assumes that every woman must have such a letter on her, thinking that it grows naturally. Pearl indirectly raises the tension of the novel when she so innocently draws attention to the reason why only Hester has a scarlet letter, referencing but not stating Hester's specific sin. 

Chapter 17 Quotes
The judgment of God is on me," answered the conscience-stricken priest. "It is too mighty for me to struggle with!"

"Heaven would show mercy," rejoined Hester, "hadst thou but the strength to take advantage of it."
Related Characters: Hester Prynne (speaker), Arthur Dimmesdale (speaker)
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

Hester succeeds in finding Dimmesdale in the forest, a site far enough removed from society to allow them to carry a frank conversation. They turn to their innermost thoughts, eventually; after moving through more mundane topics, Dimmesdale reveals the intensity of his guilt and Hester exposes Chillingworth's lust for revenge when she admits that she and Chillingworth were married. Dimmesdale claims that God's judgment is "too mighty" for him to face, but Hester urges Dimmesdale to seek God's mercy -- or, at least, she claims that God would show mercy if Dimmesdale had enough "strength" to ask for it. This scene reveals Dimmesdale's weakness of character, and Hester's strength; Hester must encourage him and lead him. Although Dimmesdale is the clergyman, the public leader, Hester is the individual strong enough to guide Dimmesdale, just as she is the only individual strong enough to face the condemnation of the public. 

"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 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.