The Scarlet Letter

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter: Tone 1 key example

Definition of Tone
The tone of a piece of writing is its general character or attitude, which might be cheerful or depressive, sarcastic or sincere, comical or mournful, praising or critical, and so on. For instance... read full definition
The tone of a piece of writing is its general character or attitude, which might be cheerful or depressive, sarcastic or sincere, comical or mournful, praising or critical... read full definition
The tone of a piece of writing is its general character or attitude, which might be cheerful or depressive, sarcastic or sincere, comical... read full definition
Chapter 6
Explanation and Analysis:

On the whole, the tone of The Scarlet Letter is rather bleak and severe—a tone that matches Hester's persecution at the hands of a cruel community. To that end, the narrator's tone is generally critical toward Puritan society but empathetic toward individual characters (especially Hester). For example, in Chapter 6, the narrator expresses disdain for the Puritans' use of discipline for moral education:

The discipline of the family, in those days, was of a far more rigid kind than now. The frown, the harsh rebuke, the frequent application of the rod, enjoined by Scriptural authority, were used, not merely in the way of punishment for actual offences, but as a wholesome regimen for the growth and promotion of all childish virtues.

The narrator imagines that readers may be baffled by the way Puritans use corporal punishment. Even by 19th century standards, hitting children did not seem appropriate as a "wholesome regimen for the growth and promotion of all childish virtues." The narrator explains that the Puritans believed wholeheartedly in corporal punishment not only so that their society appears outlandishly cruel, but also so that he can go on to portray Hester in a more favorable light. He describes Hester as an especially gentle mother who refuses to "teach" Pearl through physical violence. Hester belongs to Puritan society, but the narrator portrays her, as an individual, in a much better light than the rest of society. She makes Puritanism look worse, and Puritanism makes her look better.

Although the narrator is for the most part empathetic toward individual characters, he still often uses a critical, disapproving tone. In Chapter 13, in fact, the narrator remarks that Puritan society is too lax toward Hester:

The public is despotic in its temper; it is capable of denying common justice, when too strenuously demanded as a right; but quite as frequently it awards more than justice, when the appeal is made, as despots love to have it made, entirely to its generosity. Interpreting Hester Prynne's deportment as an appeal of this nature, society was inclined to show its former victim a more benign countenance than she cared to be favored with, or, perchance, than she deserved.

Although this moment in the text seems less empathetic toward Hester than other moments, the criticism he levels at her serves a more pronounced critical attitude toward Puritan society again. If Hester has done anything wrong, which according to Puritan doctrine she has, she "deserves" some punishment. But the same society that decided that she deserved to be shunned "show[s] its former victim a more benign countenance" than it ought to. Puritans are inconsistent in the way they dole out justice, the narrator is saying here. He indulges in some minor criticism toward Hester (the idea that she "deserves" bad treatment) not out of genuine disdain for her, but rather in order to condemn the Puritans for failing to uphold any of their professed principles.

Chapter 13
Explanation and Analysis:

On the whole, the tone of The Scarlet Letter is rather bleak and severe—a tone that matches Hester's persecution at the hands of a cruel community. To that end, the narrator's tone is generally critical toward Puritan society but empathetic toward individual characters (especially Hester). For example, in Chapter 6, the narrator expresses disdain for the Puritans' use of discipline for moral education:

The discipline of the family, in those days, was of a far more rigid kind than now. The frown, the harsh rebuke, the frequent application of the rod, enjoined by Scriptural authority, were used, not merely in the way of punishment for actual offences, but as a wholesome regimen for the growth and promotion of all childish virtues.

The narrator imagines that readers may be baffled by the way Puritans use corporal punishment. Even by 19th century standards, hitting children did not seem appropriate as a "wholesome regimen for the growth and promotion of all childish virtues." The narrator explains that the Puritans believed wholeheartedly in corporal punishment not only so that their society appears outlandishly cruel, but also so that he can go on to portray Hester in a more favorable light. He describes Hester as an especially gentle mother who refuses to "teach" Pearl through physical violence. Hester belongs to Puritan society, but the narrator portrays her, as an individual, in a much better light than the rest of society. She makes Puritanism look worse, and Puritanism makes her look better.

Although the narrator is for the most part empathetic toward individual characters, he still often uses a critical, disapproving tone. In Chapter 13, in fact, the narrator remarks that Puritan society is too lax toward Hester:

The public is despotic in its temper; it is capable of denying common justice, when too strenuously demanded as a right; but quite as frequently it awards more than justice, when the appeal is made, as despots love to have it made, entirely to its generosity. Interpreting Hester Prynne's deportment as an appeal of this nature, society was inclined to show its former victim a more benign countenance than she cared to be favored with, or, perchance, than she deserved.

Although this moment in the text seems less empathetic toward Hester than other moments, the criticism he levels at her serves a more pronounced critical attitude toward Puritan society again. If Hester has done anything wrong, which according to Puritan doctrine she has, she "deserves" some punishment. But the same society that decided that she deserved to be shunned "show[s] its former victim a more benign countenance" than it ought to. Puritans are inconsistent in the way they dole out justice, the narrator is saying here. He indulges in some minor criticism toward Hester (the idea that she "deserves" bad treatment) not out of genuine disdain for her, but rather in order to condemn the Puritans for failing to uphold any of their professed principles.

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