Writing a literary analysis essay about a classical literary work is a common assignment in literature courses. Not only does it force students to read the original text, but it also pushes them to delve into the author’s opinions and commentaries on the text. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the richest novels when it comes to themes and ideas, which is why many instructors choose it for literary analysis write-ups.
If you have this book on your reading list and have to write a literary analysis on it, refer to the list below to decide on an aspect to tackle. If you want to come up with your own idea, check our 10 facts on ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by N. Hawthorne for a literary analysis. Without further ado, the topics:
- The Role of Pearl in Hester’s Transformation
- An Exploration of the Relationship between Hester’s Identity and the Scarlet Letter
- The Contrast between Herter’s Self-Created Identity and the One Which Society Assigns to Her
- The Scarlet Letter as a Commentary on the American History
- The Use of Symbols: Puritan vs. the Narrator
- The Functions of Physical Settings in the Scarlet Letter
- An Analysis of Chillingworth’s Ideas of Revenge
- Pearl: A Blessing and a Curse for Hester
- Pearl as a Symbol of Hester’s Conscience
- The Contrasting Behavior of Children and Adults in the Scarlet Letter
- Hawthorne’s Ideas of the Inherently Flawed Human as Presented in The Scarlet Letter
- Hester Prynne: When Women Break Cultural Bonds and Gain Personal Power
- Sphere Imagery: Purpose and Effectiveness
- The Scarlet Letter: An Embodiment of the Tradition of Romanticism?
- The Difference between Hester and Dimmesdale
- An Exploration of How Tone, Word Choice, and Symbolism Help In Character Development in the Scarlet Letter
- The Literary Devices in the Scarlet Letter: Types, Usage and Effect on Persuasiveness
- Hypocrisy and Conformity in the Scarlet Letter
- Sin in the Puritan Community: A Comparison between the Punishments of Men and Women
- Hester Prynne: A Sinner and a Saint
You can use these topics as is or tweak them a little to suit the purpose of your thesis. If you wish to explore a more specific aspect, you can choose to refine any of the topics from our list. This will ensure that you choose something substantial and relevant.
A sample essay is added below to help inspire your literary analysis. The following lines explore the symbolism of the major characters in the text.
Sample Literary Analysis: An Exploration of How Tone, Word Choice, and Symbolism Help in Character Development in the Scarlet Letter
‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the prominent romance novels despite not appearing to be one. It delves deeply into the Puritan community, highlighting its rigid rules of life and how its members could suffer by going against them. One of the aspects that make ‘The Scarlet Letter’ truly immortal is the author’s extensive use of symbols. Therefore, in order to understand the text, it is necessary to analyze the myriad of symbols presented.
In literature, a symbol is often a concrete idea used to represent a more complex, abstract idea. This idea is broader in meaning and scope, and is usually a religious, philosophical or moral concept. The Puritans view the world through allegories. Simple patterns of nature such as a meteor moving through the sky held a deeply religious meaning. This is just one facet of the repressive thinking. Hawthorne shows their moral attitudes in a different light through the symbolism of his characters.
The Puritan society looks at Hester as a woman fallen from grace, Dimmesdale as a saint-like personality, and was likely to consider Chillingworth as a victim and a betrayed husband. The author turns these interpretations around; he ultimately shows Hester as a sensitive human being, strips Dimmesdale of his saint-like façade, and reveals Chillingworth as an offender of humanity who pursues evil and revenge.
The Puritan mentality refuses to accept the reality of these characters. Hester is shunned and Dimmesdale’s confession is not believed by many people. This shows that underneath the public displays of piety so favored by Puritanism, there exists a grim underside that goes unseen. The static and stagnant thinking of the Puritanical society is shown through the transformation of characters as symbols and the subsequent refusal of the society to accept this change.
Hester is a fallen woman in the beginning; she is publically shamed and shunned, causing her to suffer greatly. She struggles to understand the letter’s symbolic meaning only to come out as a strong woman in the end. Hester gains a unique understanding of humanity and the struggles of other people. As Hawthorne says, “The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread.”
Dimmesdale is a private sinner; his sins remain a secret. His public face presents a stark contrast with his private face. The Colony of Massachusetts looks at him as an embodiment of sanctity and goodness, but this is just a façade. Dimmesdale struggles internally and drowns in the storm raging between his holiness and guilt. Dimmesdale is a symbol of hypocrisy and moral weakness. He refuses to do the right thing and the reader comes to view his piety as something superficial. Ultimately, he manages to redeem his soul, albeit quite late.
Pearl is by far the strongest of the allegorical images in this text. She symbolizes the freedom of nature. Hester views her as “the living hieroglyphic” of her sin. Hester describes Pearl to the community leaders by saying, “she is my happiness! — she is my torture. . . See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a million-fold the power of retribution for my sin?”
The Scarlet Letter displays symbols through characterization, colors, location and light. The author’s brilliant use of these symbols and their transformation is a major reason for the acclaim and popularity of this classical work and why it has become a peerless example of romance novels.
After reading this analysis, you probably have a few suggestions and thoughts to make it appear better. So, quickly jot those down and begin creating an outline for your own literary analysis. If you need more help with this assignment, check out our guide on how to write a literary analysis on ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by N. Hawthorne.
Hunter, Dianne, Seduction and theory: readings of gender, representation, and rhetoric. University of Illinois Press. 1989. Pgs. 186-187
Schreiner, Samuel A., Jr. The Concord Quartet: Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Friendship That Freed the American Mind. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006: 158.ISBN 978-0-471-64663-1
Crowley, J. Donald, and Orestes Brownson. Chapter 50: [Orestes Brownson], From A Review In Brownson’s Quarterly Review.” Nathaniel Hawthorne (0-415-15930-X) (1997): 175–179. Literary Reference Center Plus.
Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. Random House: New York, 2003: 209–210. ISBN 0-8129-7291-0.
Wright, John Hardy. Hawthorne’s Haunts in New England. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008: 47. ISBN 978-1-59629-425-7.
McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004: 136. ISBN 0-8021-1776-7
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is my Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 299. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
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Tags: literary analysis essay topics, the scarlet letter essay ideas, the scarlet letter essay topics
Is Hester truly penitent for her crime?
Answer: Though Hester regrets the effect her crime has had on her child and on her position in society, she sees Chillingworth's betrayal of Dimmesdale as an even greater crime. Ultimately, Hester learns to forgive herself for her sins while Dimmesdale does not.
Why does Dimmesdale intervene on Pearl's behalf when Governor Bellingham orders her removed from Hester's care?
Answer: There are two possibilities: either he fears Hester revealing his name or he truly believes that Hester deserves to care for her daughter, since he is emotionally connected to Pearl as her father and wants Hester to raise her. Ultimately, we believe that it is guilt which motivates him most, since he comes to Hester's defense only after she looks at him with imploring eyes.
What is the difference between how adultery is viewed now and how it was viewed by Puritan society? In other words, where does the blame lie?
Answer: In modern society, adultery is seen as a breach of contract between two people and therefore a private matter. In Puritan society, adultery was seen as a breach of contract between two people and the community in which they lived.
How is the Scarlet Letter embodied by Pearl?
Answer: Pearl, in her wild, unrepressed passion, represents the adulterous passion of her parents, as does the scarlet letter. In her society, she is completely out of place, a child of illicit passion and a constant reminder, like the scarlet letter, of that passion.
Why does Dimmesdale keep putting his hand over his heart?
Answer: Pearl asks this question repeatedly of her mother, but Hester will not answer her. Over time, we understand that Dimmesdale has literally and figuratively inscribed his own scarlet letter into the flesh above his heart so that he can commune with Hester's guilt, shame, and public excommunication.
Do people in the community believe Hester's punishment for adultery is too light or too strict?
Answer: For the most part, they believe it is too lenient, and some advocate branding her with a hot iron or death, the sentence associated with the crime of adultery both in the New England statutes of the time and in the Bible. As time progresses, however, they loosen slightly in their attitudes, though not as much as Hester would expect. Those who acknowledge their own sinfulness are somewhat less quick to judge Hester and can see the case for a less strict punishment by the community.
What are the purposes of the opening Custom-House essay?
Answer: The Custom-House introduction does more than increase the length of the novel, which Hawthorne thought was too short. It also adds a frame story and a romantic sense of truth or non-fiction to the tale. It introduces themes and imagery that will appear later in the novel. And it adds weight to the story by suggesting that the actual fabric of the scarlet letter continues to hold power.
Who is more racked by guilt, Hester or Dimmesdale?
Answer: Dimmesdale has sinned according to his own system of beliefs, since as the town minister he has violated the values he has preached against for decades. He takes his guilt to heart and suffers mightily. Hester, meanwhile, has come to terms with her sin over time.
What do Dimmesdale and Chillingworth share, other than Hester herself?
Answer: Both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth conceal their relationships to the adulterous act, leaving Hester as the only person to take public responsibility for the affair. They continue to maintain prominent roles in society. Both men are ultimately destroyed by this secrecy as they become entangled in a parasitic relationship.
Does Chillingworth ever forgive Hester?
Answer: Chillingworth seems forgiving of Hester at the outset, and he seems to transfer his rage onto Dimmesdale, whom he pursues relentlessly. Indeed, he seems to understand that he shouldn't have married a woman who would never love him, but Dimmesdale must be punished for allowing Hester to indulge her passion. His sinister acts toward the end of the novel are ameliorated somewhat by his choice to leave his estate to Pearl.