The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who has had an illegitimate child. Despite being publicly humiliated by wearing a large scarlet letter 'A' on her dress, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child's father, even as the vindictive newcomer Chillingworth becomes determined to make her confess. This story explores the themes of sexual liberation, sin, and vengeance.
It is the unspeakable misery of a life so false as his, that it steals the pith and substance out of whatever realities there are around us, and which were meant by Heaven to be the spirit's joy and nutriment. To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,--it is impalpable,--it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist.
In Chapter 11, while describing the state of Dimmesdale's soul, the narrator echoes the main theme of the book, which is the necessity of being true to oneself and to the world. Dimmesdale is considering the visions he has during his vigils. They are images that confront the duplicity of his situation. He pretends to perform penance, and he gains the praise of his parishioners, but in reality, his penitence is false, and his soul is tormented by the state of dishonesty in which is has to remain. In this moment, his entire life is described as false, and the grand work of the eloquent minister pales in comparison to the ragged state of his own soul. By remaining false to himself and to the world, he loses out on all the beauty around him. Everything he sees, including he respect he sees in the faces of the members of his congregation are turned into shadows and nothingness. If Dimmesdale, or anyone else, remains untrue to himself, he becomes less than air, and completely worthless to himself or anyone else.
In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of man's faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil's office.
In Chapter 13, the narrator considers Chillingworth's transformation from well-respected scholar to devil, intent on vengeance. It demonstrates the dire results of a life devoted to revenge and guilt. Chillingworth had forgiveness for Hester, and if he had also had forgiveness for Dimmesdale, his life would not have ended in hatred and evil. Instead, he focuses on satisfying his need for retribution, and is never satisfied that the debt had been paid. In addition, the theme that everyone has an equal chance for good and for evil is expounded, as Chillingworth is thought to be a solid member of the community, until his intent becomes clear. Like Dimmesdale, his outward appearance and reputation hides the depth of his inner darkness. Though well-educated and wise, he allows himself to be dominated by a single thought which is his downfall.
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.
In Chapter 18, Hester and Dimmesdale are discussing the possibility of leaving Boston to attempt to escape Chillingworth and the doom he represents. Hester first proposes Dimmesdale leaves, and it is she who suggests that they go together. This shocks the minister because the suggestion is an improper one, but as the quote suggests, Hester's isolation has allowed her to break free of the constraints put in place by their religious code. She has had no companion adult companion but her own thoughts, and allows herself to wander freely among all topics of consideration and points of view. She is able to consider her situation from an angle that she might not have imagined seven years ago, but she has grown intellectually to the point where she can challenge the societal structure which isolated her in the first place. She gains strength from it, but at the same time, her thoughts lead her to betray her true self, which is tied to Boston and to Dimmesdale. She suggests they attempt an escape, but escape from Chillingworth and from the community, is not a possibility for either of them. Her despair leads her to desire something which she will soon realize is not possible.
"Mother," said little Pearl, "the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. Now, see! There it is, playing, a good way off. Stand you here, and let me run and catch it. 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 it not come of its own accord when I am a woman grown?"
In Chapter 16, Pearl and Hester enter the forest on their way to meet Dimmesdale. The forest is dark and place in which Hester can move freely, and speak freely with Dimmesdale. Hester is not allowed in places of light or happiness, and the sunshine avoids her. Pearl's comment about the connection between the letter and adulthood, describes the connection between Pearl and her mother. Pearl is, in many ways, a reflection of her mother; she has the same flightiness of moods, and strong-will that her mother had at her age, and they stand together united in the dim circle of isolation enforced by the community. Pearl associates herself with Hester and the letter, just as in a previous situation when she made a letter for herself out of seaweed. She sees the letter as belonging to her as well, and seems to assume that she will gain possession of it when she reaches the proper age.
At the same time, Pearl's comment reaches the heart of Hawthorne's notion of sin. His implication that sin is inherent in everyone, which becomes clear as people get older, is a reflection of the theme that everyone is equally capable of good and evil. She has just as much ability for good, or for evil, as any other Puritan child in the settlement. Each could have the possibility of wearing their own "A" in the future.
But he seemed to stand apart, and eye this former self with scornful, pitying, but half-envious curiosity. That self was gone! Another man had returned out of the forest; a wiser one; with a knowledge of hidden mysteries which the simplicity of the former never could have reached. A bitter kind of knowledge that!
In Chapter 20, Dimmesdale has returned from his meeting in the forest with Hester, where they made their plans to sail to England. He is considering the feelings he experienced walking back through the town, and the temptations he felt to do something that would upset the Puritan order of the settlement. He worries that his temptations are the result of making a dark contract, but it seems as though his new impulses come from a greater understanding of the people within the settlement and the complexity of guilt and sin and the shame he feels. His time in the woods allowed him to step outside of his present situation and view it from another angle. Just as Hester's isolation has freed her from constricting assumptions, Dimmesdale's time in the wilderness where man's laws have no jurisdiction, imparted him with a new, clearer understanding of his own situation. He comes to terms with his inescapable fate and knows the next step he must take.