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The Scarlet Letter Irony Essay

Essay on Irony in The Scarlet Letter

Born into a strict, old Puritan family, Nathaniel Hawthorne grew up in seclusion. Sin and punishment were largely the themes of Hawthorne's writing and were most likely influenced from his early years. These themes were sparked from possible guilt he may have felt for the role his ancestors played in the persecution of Quakers and in the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692, where his grandfather was a presiding judge. In 1850 Hawthorne created the most recognized work of his career. In the novel The Scarlet Letter there are many examples of verbal, situational, and dramatic irony. (96)

The first type of irony is verbal irony, in which the speaker says one thing but means another, or says something without realizing its significance. The first example of verbal irony takes place when Hester stands on the scaffold and Dimmesdale makes a plea for her to voice her fellow sinner. Dimmesdale informs her that her silence would only "add hypocrisy to sin." This is particularly ironic because Dimmesdale does not yet know the life of hypocrisy he will live as a result of the sin. The second example of verbal irony is when Pearl asks her mother, "Why does Dimmesdale cover his heart?" This is ironic because Pearl makes the connection about what he is doing but does not grasp that Dimmesdale actually covers a scarlet letter upon his chest. The final example of verbal irony is when Hester and Pearl walk in the forest. Pearl warns her mother to "Come away, or yonder the Black Man will catch you!" Pearl does not realize that the Black Man is actually Chillingworth and that he is evil. Since she does not quite grasp the full meaning of what she is saying, it is considered to be ironic. (197)


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The second type of irony in the novel is situational irony where something unexpected occurs. The first example of situational irony is when the Puritans, upon arrival at the New World, made a portion of the "virgin soil as a cemetery", and the other "as a prison." They came from the Old World to create a new one, a "city on a hill" where everything was to be perfect. If this were true there would be no need for a prison, especially as the first thing built. Another example of situational irony is that the children play games imitating behaviors that their parents are opposed to. They play games such as "scourging Quakers", pretending to be witches, and "taking the scalps of Indians." The Puritans allow their children to play such games that represented the opposite of what they want them to grow up and become. The final example of situational irony is that Hester gave her money to charity. She bestows "all her superfluous means" in it. This is particularly ironic because Hester is actually seen by the town as a charity case and one would not expect for her to be helping the needy. (196)

The final type of irony in the story is dramatic irony in which the reader knows something that certain characters do not. The first example is when Hester tries to convince the governor to let her keep Pearl. She insists that the reverend speak for her saying, "You know me better." This is ironic because the others think she says this because he is her Reverend. However, the reader knows that he is actually the equal in her sin and really does know her better. The second example of dramatic irony is when Dimmesdale becomes sick and moves in with Chillingworth for him to be his physician or leech. However, Chillingworth is actually making his condition worse. He constantly reminds Dimmesdale of the consequences of sin and tortures him.

Chillingworth's face becomes something "ugly and evil" as he subtly reminds Dimmesdale of his equal guilt in Hester's sin. This is ironic because we know that he is actually Hester's husband but Dimmesdale does not. The final example of dramatic irony is the townspeople's opinion of Chillingworth. They think he is an "eminent doctor of physic from a German University." The townspeople generally praise him and look up to him. This is ironic because the reader knows that he is actually not worthy of praise. Chillingworth conveys the worst sin of the book; he plots revenge on Hester and Dimmesdale. (229)

The Scarlet Letter is bursting with examples of verbal, situational, and dramatic irony in use to create a thought provoking moment for the reader. The use of irony in the story reflects the ironic nature of Hawthorne and his feelings towards the themes in the novel. His obsession with sin, guilt, and punishment may be the result of something morbid from his own life or merely the seclusion he grew up in after his Puritan ancestors. Nevertheless, The Scarlet Letter is one of the most ironic and read books in American literature. (92)

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"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...

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