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The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Tone

The tone of The Scarlet Letter mixes deep irony with sympathy towards the novel’s protagonists, contrasting the hypocrisies of Hester and Dimmesdale’s society with their own attempts to lead virtuous lives. The ironic tone is established in the introduction, when the narrator says “though invariably happiest elsewhere, there is within me a feeling for old Salem,” and where he introduces several ridiculous figures, such as the Inspector, whose greatest life tragedy was a “mishap with a goose.” This scorn for his neighbors later contrasts with his sympathy for Hester and Dimmesdale. The narrator refers to their story as “a tale of human frailty and sorrow,” implying both that their unhappy ending is the inevitable result of human nature, and that the story should be read with pity. In contrast, the tone used to describe the townspeople contains the same ironic disdain as the descriptions of the narrator’s neighbors: about the town’s elders, he says “out of the whole human family, it would not have been easy to select… persons… less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman’s heart.”

The tone of the novel is also highly skeptical, often questioning events as they are being described, suggesting that the underlying themes of the story are more significant than the specifics of Hester and Dimmesdale’s tale. The narrator frequently suggests several interpretations of events, or acknowledges how preposterous his tale sounds, as when he says about Pearl playing in the forest, “a wolf, it is said – but here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable – came up and… offered his savage head to be petted by her hand.” This tone of disbelief maintains an ironic distance between the events the narrator is describing and how literally he expects the reader to take them. It also privileges the reader as more sophisticated and evolved than most of the characters in the book, who lived in an earlier time and believed in witchcraft and supernatural phenomena. His constant questioning and qualifying of events underscores the idea that what matters is the moral of the story, which, according to the narrator, is “Be true! Be true! Be true!” – another instance of irony, since the contents of the preceding pages are fiction.