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The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne


The style of The Scarlet Letter is ornate and subtle, characterized by long, intricate sentences, suggesting the path to the truth is twisting and complicated. Hawthorne’s long sentences contain many clauses, or ideas, and often only communicate the main idea at the end. For example, when the narrator describes Hester Prynne standing on the scaffold, he notes that “Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity.” The main idea of this sentence is that Hester resembles Mary, a woman who in the Catholic religious tradition gave birth to Jesus while also remaining a virgin. Rather than stating the comparison in simple and direct terms, Hawthorne suggests the hypothetical possibility of what an imaginary Catholic observer might have seen, saving the actual comparison for the end. This style echoes the larger themes of concealment and eventual revelation in the novel.

The main idea of Hawthorne’s sentences often changes halfway through, suggesting things are not as they first appear. For example, Hawthorne’s narrator describes his feelings about the three years he spent at the Old Custom House: “a term long enough to rest a weary brain; long enough to break off old intellectual habits, and make room for new ones…too long, to have lived in an unnatural state, doing what was really of no advantage or delight to any human being.” At first, the sentence seems to be implying that there were positive aspects to this experience. However, the second half of the sentence abruptly switches to describing the negative aspects. The reader cannot know for sure what the point of a sentence will be until reading all the way to the very end. Similarly, characters initially appear one way, like the seemingly saintly Dimmesdale or the apparent stranger Chillingworth, only to be revealed as the opposite of how they first appeared.

Hawthorne frequently employs figurative language, including metaphors and similes, to convey the psychological and ethical themes of the novel. Most of the characters are quite reserved and private in their outward behavior, even though they are actually keeping important secrets and experiencing very intense emotions. Hawthorne’s use of metaphors and similes show a reader what is happening below the surface. For example, when Hester and Chillingworth first meet, Hester notices a horrible look pass over Chillingworth’s face: “A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed involutions in open sight.” By comparing the expression on Chillingworth’s face to a snake, a tiny event becomes significant and vivid. The simile forces the reader to carefully examine each word, enhancing the meaning of the plot.