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A Scarlet I: The Use of Irony Within The Scarlet Letter

“Irony is the gaiety of reflection and the joy of wisdom.” Through this statement, Anatole France, a 1921 Nobel Prize recipient, states his belief that irony is only lighthearted reflection. However, Nathaniel Hawthorne employs irony to reveal the distinctly morose themes of The Scarlet Letter. Within the novel, Hester Prynne, a young and vibrant woman, succumbs to the temptation of adultery in her small Puritan town of Boston. As punishment for her transgression, Hester is forced to wear a scarlet “A” to symbolize her sin. Although Hester’s wrongdoing is publicly recognized, the similar misdeed of her partner, Arthur Dimmesdale, the town’s young minister, is unknown. When her husband, Roger Chillingworth, reappears and discovers Hester’s actions, he vows to seek revenge on Hester’s lover. As Pearl, the result of Hester’s adultery, grows from childhood, Hester’s, Chillingworth’s, Dimmesdale’s, and Pearl’s lives become inescapably entangled. The effectual use of situational, verbal, and dramatic irony allows Hawthorne to convey complex themes of sin and repentance in The Scarlet Letter.

When dealing with prevalent themes of the novel, Hawthorne often uses situational irony to emphasize his concepts and meaning. Situational irony, the difference between what the reader expects to happen and what actually happens is evidenced throughout the novel. Dimmesdale’s dual role of adulterer and minister creates the most dramatic example of situational irony.

“Canst thou deem it, Hester, a consolation, that I must stand up in my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to my face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from it…and then look inward, and discern the black reality of what they idolize? I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at it!” (175)

Dimmesdale is guilty of a grievous sin even though he is greatly renowned as a minister within his community. It is unexpected that a church official as outwardly pure and innocent as Dimmesdale would commit adultery. Moreover, his actions have consequences that are startling.

The people knew not the power that moved them thus. They deemed the young clergyman a miracle of holiness. They fancied him the mouthpiece of Heaven’s messages of wisdom, and rebuke, and love. In their eyes, the very ground on which he trod was sanctified. (131)

Instead of diminishing his effectiveness as a preacher of God’s word, Dimmesdale’s unconfessed sin allows him to reach his congregation better. The high regard given to Dimmesdale by those under his spiritual guidance serves to demonstrate the hypocrisy within Puritan communities. This use of irony is mirrored in the transformation of the meaning of Hester’s scarlet letter.

Such helpfulness was found in her…that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength. (148)

Hester’s scarlet “A” comes to stand for her good heartedness and skill of needlework, rather than a symbol to be shunned. The original meaning of the letter is drastically altered in the minds of the community, an ironic event which is unexpected by the reader. Hawthorne uses situational irony when dealing with main ideas of the novel.

Unlike situational irony, Hawthorne utilizes verbal irony to represent the motives and desires of various characters. Verbal irony, when a character’s message is interpreted one way, but means something else, is found in the dialogue of the main characters.

“If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace…I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-suffer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, thou he were to step down from a high place…yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life.” (63)

Although Dimmesdale is begging Hester to reveal that he is her partner in sin, his actions clearly show otherwise. The intense verbal irony of this scene can only be understood in retrospect, once the reader is aware of Dimmesdale’s link to Hester. Likewise, the irony of Chillingworth’s response to Hester in prison can only be fully realized once the plot develops.

“Why dost thy smile so at me?” inquired Hester, troubled at the expression of his eyes. “Art thou like the black man that haunts the forest round us? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?” “Not thy soul,” he answered, with another smile. “No, not thine!”(71-72)

Chillingworth’s ambiguous statement implies that he will cause Dimmesdale’s downfall. Although he accomplishes his stated mission, Chillingworth’s quest for revenge ironically leads to his own downfall. Hawthorne continues to use verbal irony when Hester is discussing her scarlet letter with Pearl. “As for the scarlet letter, I wear it for the sake of its gold-thread” (166). Until this time, Hester has never lied about the meaning of the scarlet letter she wears. Because Hester says one thing but clearly means another, her dialogue stands as an example of verbal irony within Hawthorne’s piece.

While Hawthorne utilizes verbal irony in the dialogue of the characters, he employs dramatic irony to create and prevent suffering for the characters. Dramatic irony is when the reader knows something critical that one or more of the characters do not. Because other characters are unaware of certain details, their decisions often lead to unintended consequences.

The elders, the deacons, the motherly dames, and the young and fair maidens, of Mr. Dimmesdale’s flock, were alike importunate that he should make trial of the physician’s frankly offered skill. (111-112)

Had the inhabitants of Boston known Chillingworth’s true motive, revenge, it is certain they would not have sanctioned a close relationship between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Their ignorance led to the eventual decline of their beloved Dimmesdale, a powerful example of dramatic irony. The Puritans in Boston are also oblivious to Dimmesdale’s relationship with Hester. Because of this, he effectually argues in her favor without seeming to be partisan.

“There is truth in what she says…God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and requirements, both seemingly so peculiar, which no other mortal can possess.” (104-105)

Unbeknownst to the other characters, Dimmesdale sincerely desires for Hester to be allowed to keep Pearl. His position of apparent neutrality assures that his opinion will be highly regarded on an issue where it should be disregarded as biased. Although Dimmesdale does benefit in one instance of dramatic irony, he is gravely hurt when he proceeds through life unaware that an enemy is continually with him.

“Thou hast long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him, under the same roof!”

The minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and clutching at his heart, as if he would have torn it out of his bosom. (176)

Dimmesdale’s ignorance of Chillingworth’s evil intentions allows Chillingworth to infiltrate Dimmesdale’s life and cause wreck havoc upon his health and happiness. A supreme example of dramatic irony and its effect upon unknowing characters is Dimmesdale’s lack of insight concerning Chillingworth’s purpose. This blindness directly causes Dimmesdale’s downfall and eventual death. Hawthorne effectually employs dramatic irony to portray the relationships between the main characters of the novel.

Hawthorne’s application of situational, verbal, and dramatic irony throughout The Scarlet Letter adds layers of meaning to this otherwise simple novel about sin and redemption. By using situational irony to emphasize concepts and meaning, verbal irony to comment upon the character’s desires and motives, and dramatic irony to create and prevent suffering for the characters, Hawthorne immensely enriches his novel. Although Anatole France believes irony to be only the “gaiety of reflection,” Hawthorne masterfully utilizes it to develop his theme of sin and repentance.

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