Every great story has at least one theme, a central idea that the story’s events make the reader think about deeply. These themes are like the foundation of the story, giving the reader some solid ground to stand on as the tale unfolds. While some stories may contain many themes, they all need at least one to give them a purpose and direction. Several themes appear in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, including those of consequences for sin, sympathy, and the nature of evil, and as a result, the book takes on greater meaning because it encourages readers to study and interpret those themes.
The most apparent and recurring theme in The Scarlet Letter is that sin and consequences are unavoidably connected, represented by Hester Prynne’s adultery and resulting punishment. Hester commits adultery in an environment that upholds strong standards and enforces harsh punishment; when her sin is discovered, she is soon heaved onto a platform to be mocked publicly (Hawthorne). These events show how sin is often—if not always—followed by an awful consequence. Hester’s adultery directly causes her humiliation, reflecting the relationship between consequence and sin. Beyond the sentence given by the judge, Hester feels the consequence of her actions by being isolated from society. She lives in a house far away from town, and no one will speak to her unless they want to arrange to have needlework done (Hawthorne). Even young children run from her presence in fear of what might happen if they get too close. Again, sin leads to punishment, even if the consequence is unofficial and unusual. Rather than being something that can only be arranged by people, punishment is portrayed as a natural consequence of sin.
Another theme that occurs throughout The Scarlet Letter is that sympathy can be more powerful than hatred or justice. In spite of all that has happened, Hester is still shown some sympathy by the very judge that is supposed to punish her. The punishment for adultery would usually be death, but
the judge shows compassion by lessening Hester’s sentence to merely standing on a platform in the market for three hours and wearing the scarlet A (Hawthorne). The judge is not the only person to show sympathy for Hester; her husband, despite his plot for revenge, is also merciful when he learns about her disloyalty. Instead of having Hester severely punished, he takes pity on her and gives her child medicine to help it heal (Hawthorne). This act of sympathy is one of the most touching examples in the novel because Hester’s husband chooses to pity her even though he has the legal right to punish Hester and could just let her baby die out of hatred or jealousy. The most important example of sympathy in the novel is the sympathy Hester does not receive from the townspeople who shun her because of her sin. It is this lack of
sympathy that causes Dimmesdale’s internal torment and eventual death as well as Hester’s removal from society and the poverty that follows. Both in its presence and its absence, the theme of sympathy is a crucial part of The Scarlet Letter.
Throughout Hawthorne’s novel, the idea that evil is part of human nature is investigated in order to discover what it is that causes evil and why it exists. A conversation about Hester Prynne’s sin between a townsman and a disguised Chillingworth reveals the idea that evil is part of human nature. The townsman tells Chillingworth about how Hester was sent to Boston by her husband and “left to her own misguidance,” and Chillingworth instantly knows exactly what Hester’s sin is (Hawthorne). This
implies that humans without moral guidance are naturally prone to sin; rather than assuming the best about people, the characters assume that people’s basic instincts are evil. The theme appears again in a conversation Hester has with her daughter, Pearl. When Hester tells Pearl that she hopes Pearl will never have to wear a mark like the AHester wears, Pearl asks, “Will it not come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?” (Hawthorne). Again, the assumption is that evil is an unavoidable result of being a human. Pearl believes that when she loses her childhood innocence, she will eventually bear a sin just like her mother’s. In these conversations and other places in the novel, evil is represented as a natural human quality, the result of people governing themselves instead of following religious guidance.
Many themes can be universally understood, and the themes of consequences for sin, sympathy, and evil are no exception. The Scarlet Letter takes place in a specific time and location, but its themes can be applied to people of any society during any time period. Every person must face the consequences of their actions, choose whether or not to show sympathy to those who need it, and question whether their own nature is as naturally evil as this novel suggests.