A Study Of The Use Of Irony As A Literary Device In The Scarlet Letter

Anatole French, a recipient of the 1921 Nobel Prize, said that irony was only lighthearted reflection. Nathaniel Hawthorne uses irony to expose the deeply sad themes in The Scarlet Letter. Hester Pryne is a vibrant young woman who falls for the temptation to commit adultery in Boston, a small Puritan community. Hester must wear a scarlet A to symbolise her sin. Hester is now publicly aware of her wrongdoing, but Arthur Dimmesdale who is the young minister to the town, committed similar acts. Roger Chillingworth returns to Hester’s rescue and learns of Hester’s sins. He vows revenge against Hester. Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s lives are entangled as Pearl, who is the child of Hester. Hawthorne’s use of dramatic, verbal and situational irony allows him to communicate complex themes of sin in The Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne frequently uses situational irony when addressing the major themes in his novels. The novel’s situational irony refers to the divergence between what the reader expects and the reality. Dimmesdale’s double role as minister and adulterer is the best example of situational Irony. “Canst thou consider that, Hester?” I have to stand up in my pulpit as a consolation and look upward to see all the eyes looking at me. Then, I will look inward and see what their idols are. It was bitterness and pain of my heart that made me laugh at the contradiction between what I see and who I really am. It’s funny, Satan! (175)

Dimmesdale, a highly respected minister in his local church, is guilty of a grave sin. It is unimaginable that Dimmesdale, a priest as innocent and pure as he appears to be, would engage in adultery. His actions are also alarming.

They didn’t know what power drove them. The young clergyman was regarded as a miracle of holyness. They saw him as the conduit of Heaven’s wisdom, rebuke, or love messages. He was considered to have sanctified the ground on his feet. (131)

Dimmesdale’s unconfessed guilt does not hinder his ability to preach God’s word. Dimmesdale is regarded highly by his spiritual guides, which is a sign of the hypocrisy found within Puritan societies. This irony is evident in Hester’s scarlet-letter transformation.

So helpful was she…that many people refused the scarlet-A signification. They thought it meant Able, because Hester Prynne was strong with women’s strength. (148)

Hester’s scarlet “A”, which is a red letter, stands for Hester’s good nature and needlework skill. The community alters the original meaning of this letter, which ironically is not expected by the reader. Hawthorne employs situational irony to deal with the main ideas in his novel.

Hawthorne uses verbal Irony to depict the motives, desires and motivations of characters. Verbal Irony is when one character’s message is misinterpreted and is translated into another meaning.

“If thou considers it necessary for thy soul’s tranquility, I command you to call out your fellow-sinners. You should not be silent about any misplaced sympathy or tenderness you feel for him.

While Dimmesdale begs Hester to confess that he is her sin partner, his actions prove otherwise. This scene is only understood when the reader realizes Dimmesdale’s connection to Hester. Also, it is difficult to fully grasp the irony in Chillingworth’s reply to Hester while locked up.

Hester asked him, puzzled by his expression. “Are thou like the dark man that haunts our forest? He smiled again, “No, not thine!” “No! Not thine!” (71-72)

Chillingworth’s vague statement implied that he would cause Dimmesdale to fall. He achieves his stated mission. However, Chillingworth’s search for revenge ironically leads towards his own downfall. When Hester and Pearl are discussing the scarlet letter, Hawthorne uses verbal irony. “As to the scarlet-letter, I wear them for their gold-thread,” (166). Hester has not lied about the scarlet letter’s meaning since its inception. Hawthorne’s piece is notable for the verbal irony displayed by Hester’s dialogue. Hester can say one thing, but clearly mean another.

Hawthorne uses verbal irony when describing characters but he also employs dramatic irony when creating and preventing suffering for them. Dramatic irony happens when one or more characters have knowledge that is critical to the story. Unintended consequences can often be caused by the fact that characters don’t know certain details.

The deacons, elders, motherly dames, and young fair maidens of Mr. Dimmesdale’s flock were all eager to see the doctor’s openly offered skill. (111-112)

If the Bostonians had known Chillingworth was merely vengeful, it is probable they wouldn’t have allowed Dimmesdale to be in a close friendship with Chillingworth. They did not realize the tragic irony of their ignorance, which led to Dimmesdale’s demise. Boston Puritans also fail to notice Dimmesdale and Hester’s relationship. He argues for her favor, but does not appear to be partisan.

“She is right…God gave her the child and also gave her an instinctive knowledge about its nature and needs, both seeming so unique, that no other mortal can have.” (104-105)

Dimmesdale, unbeknownst to other characters, sincerely wishes for Hester’s permission to keep Pearl. His apparent neutrality ensures that his views on issues where they should not be considered bias will be respected. Dimmesdale is not without his foes, but he is still hurt by the fact that he continues to live life with no awareness of who is constantly at his side.

“Thou hast been with such an adversary for so many years, and now dwellest together under the one roof!”

The minister sat up and gasped for air, clutching his chest as though he had torn it from his body. (176)

Dimmesdale does not know Chillingworth is evil and Chillingworth can infiltrate Dimmesdales life, causing havoc to his happiness. Dimmesdale’s inability to understand Chillingworth’s motives is a great example of dramatic irony. Dimmesdale’s death and downfall are directly caused by this blindness. Hawthorne employs dramatic irony in order to show the relationships between main characters.

The Scarlet Letter has layers of meaning because of Hawthorne’s use of verbal, dramatic, and situational irony. Hawthorne’s novel is greatly enhanced by his use of situational irony and verbal irony. This allows for emphasis on concepts and meanings. Dramatic irony creates and prevents suffering for the characters. Anatole French believes that irony is a mere “gaiety or reflection,” but Hawthorne skillfully employs it to advance his theme on sin and repentance.


  • stanleybyrne

    Stanley Byrne is a 26-year-old education blogger and teacher. He has degrees in education and political science from the University of Notre Dame and has worked in various teaching and research positions since he graduated in 2014. He is the author of a number of educational blog posts and has written for Huffington Post, The Guardian, and Salon.