Writing a literary analysis essay about a classical literary work is a common assignment in literature courses. Not only does it force students to read the original text, but it also pushes them to delve into the author’s opinions and commentaries on the text. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the richest novels when it comes to themes and ideas, which is why many instructors choose it for literary analysis write-ups.
If you have this book on your reading list and have to write a literary analysis on it, refer to the list below to decide on an aspect to tackle. If you want to come up with your own idea, check our 10 facts on ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by N. Hawthorne for a literary analysis. Without further ado, the topics:
- The Role of Pearl in Hester’s Transformation
- An Exploration of the Relationship between Hester’s Identity and the Scarlet Letter
- The Contrast between Herter’s Self-Created Identity and the One Which Society Assigns to Her
- The Scarlet Letter as a Commentary on the American History
- The Use of Symbols: Puritan vs. the Narrator
- The Functions of Physical Settings in the Scarlet Letter
- An Analysis of Chillingworth’s Ideas of Revenge
- Pearl: A Blessing and a Curse for Hester
- Pearl as a Symbol of Hester’s Conscience
- The Contrasting Behavior of Children and Adults in the Scarlet Letter
- Hawthorne’s Ideas of the Inherently Flawed Human as Presented in The Scarlet Letter
- Hester Prynne: When Women Break Cultural Bonds and Gain Personal Power
- Sphere Imagery: Purpose and Effectiveness
- The Scarlet Letter: An Embodiment of the Tradition of Romanticism?
- The Difference between Hester and Dimmesdale
- An Exploration of How Tone, Word Choice, and Symbolism Help In Character Development in the Scarlet Letter
- The Literary Devices in the Scarlet Letter: Types, Usage and Effect on Persuasiveness
- Hypocrisy and Conformity in the Scarlet Letter
- Sin in the Puritan Community: A Comparison between the Punishments of Men and Women
- Hester Prynne: A Sinner and a Saint
You can use these topics as is or tweak them a little to suit the purpose of your thesis. If you wish to explore a more specific aspect, you can choose to refine any of the topics from our list. This will ensure that you choose something substantial and relevant.
A sample essay is added below to help inspire your literary analysis. The following lines explore the symbolism of the major characters in the text.
Sample Literary Analysis: An Exploration of How Tone, Word Choice, and Symbolism Help in Character Development in the Scarlet Letter
‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the prominent romance novels despite not appearing to be one. It delves deeply into the Puritan community, highlighting its rigid rules of life and how its members could suffer by going against them. One of the aspects that make ‘The Scarlet Letter’ truly immortal is the author’s extensive use of symbols. Therefore, in order to understand the text, it is necessary to analyze the myriad of symbols presented.
In literature, a symbol is often a concrete idea used to represent a more complex, abstract idea. This idea is broader in meaning and scope, and is usually a religious, philosophical or moral concept. The Puritans view the world through allegories. Simple patterns of nature such as a meteor moving through the sky held a deeply religious meaning. This is just one facet of the repressive thinking. Hawthorne shows their moral attitudes in a different light through the symbolism of his characters.
The Puritan society looks at Hester as a woman fallen from grace, Dimmesdale as a saint-like personality, and was likely to consider Chillingworth as a victim and a betrayed husband. The author turns these interpretations around; he ultimately shows Hester as a sensitive human being, strips Dimmesdale of his saint-like façade, and reveals Chillingworth as an offender of humanity who pursues evil and revenge.
The Puritan mentality refuses to accept the reality of these characters. Hester is shunned and Dimmesdale’s confession is not believed by many people. This shows that underneath the public displays of piety so favored by Puritanism, there exists a grim underside that goes unseen. The static and stagnant thinking of the Puritanical society is shown through the transformation of characters as symbols and the subsequent refusal of the society to accept this change.
Hester is a fallen woman in the beginning; she is publically shamed and shunned, causing her to suffer greatly. She struggles to understand the letter’s symbolic meaning only to come out as a strong woman in the end. Hester gains a unique understanding of humanity and the struggles of other people. As Hawthorne says, “The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread.”
Dimmesdale is a private sinner; his sins remain a secret. His public face presents a stark contrast with his private face. The Colony of Massachusetts looks at him as an embodiment of sanctity and goodness, but this is just a façade. Dimmesdale struggles internally and drowns in the storm raging between his holiness and guilt. Dimmesdale is a symbol of hypocrisy and moral weakness. He refuses to do the right thing and the reader comes to view his piety as something superficial. Ultimately, he manages to redeem his soul, albeit quite late.
Pearl is by far the strongest of the allegorical images in this text. She symbolizes the freedom of nature. Hester views her as “the living hieroglyphic” of her sin. Hester describes Pearl to the community leaders by saying, “she is my happiness! — she is my torture. . . See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a million-fold the power of retribution for my sin?”
The Scarlet Letter displays symbols through characterization, colors, location and light. The author’s brilliant use of these symbols and their transformation is a major reason for the acclaim and popularity of this classical work and why it has become a peerless example of romance novels.
After reading this analysis, you probably have a few suggestions and thoughts to make it appear better. So, quickly jot those down and begin creating an outline for your own literary analysis. If you need more help with this assignment, check out our guide on how to write a literary analysis on ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by N. Hawthorne.
Hunter, Dianne, Seduction and theory: readings of gender, representation, and rhetoric. University of Illinois Press. 1989. Pgs. 186-187
Schreiner, Samuel A., Jr. The Concord Quartet: Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Friendship That Freed the American Mind. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006: 158.ISBN 978-0-471-64663-1
Crowley, J. Donald, and Orestes Brownson. Chapter 50: [Orestes Brownson], From A Review In Brownson’s Quarterly Review.” Nathaniel Hawthorne (0-415-15930-X) (1997): 175–179. Literary Reference Center Plus.
Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. Random House: New York, 2003: 209–210. ISBN 0-8129-7291-0.
Wright, John Hardy. Hawthorne’s Haunts in New England. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008: 47. ISBN 978-1-59629-425-7.
McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004: 136. ISBN 0-8021-1776-7
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is my Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 299. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
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1. Tragedies of Ancient Greece
Sophocles� Oedipus Rex:
� The Concept of the �Divine Right of Kings� in Oedipus and in America (see various presidential speeches which invoke God or speak of divine sanction for an administration�s actions � ex. See inaugurals of Harry Truman and 2nd speech of George W. Bush.)
� Community: Private lives of heroes and their effect on the community in Oedipus and in modern America
� The Plague of Thebes: Punishing the city to punish the King (discuss how it operates in Oedipus and perhaps in the Bible or in our lives as citizens today)
� The Role of Advisors to the Leader then and now: in Oedipus and in modern politics
� The Truth Teller (�soothsayer�) and the Leader: Speaking Truth to Power in Oedipus and in modern politics
� Punishment of the Leader in Oedipus and in American politics
� Fathers and Sons: Sins of the Father (explore the concept from the Greek perspective); also, see topic under Fences.
� Polarities: Explore one or two of the contrasts in the play ( i.e., youth vs. age, gods vs. humans, pride vs. wisdom, freedom vs. bondage). Discuss them as public issues.
� Gender Conflicts: (choose one)
o woman vs. man = the family vs. the state
o woman vs. man = divine law vs. human law
o woman vs. man = conscience/morality/religion vs. pride/power
� Civil Disobedience (bringing in Thoreau�s essay as well)
� Antigone as a Feminist play: women vs. patriarchal power
� Antigone as a play that speaks to homosexuals (their feelings of marginalization)
� Antigone and modern politics: (choose one and connect to a situation in America or elsewhere)
o Concept of unchallenged/unquestioned political forces vs. our own freedom
o Polarization: �You�re either with us or you�re with the terrorists� mentality (do research on current political rhetoric)
� Desecration vs. Burial: (for various possible way to look at this, see class notes in Course Documents; concerning religious/spirituals beliefs about death and the dead). Research the value of burial ceremonies for the grieving family and for society.
2. Concerning Cultural Myths About Women �
Eavan Boland�s “Anorexic”:
� Anorexia and Eve�s Sin: How myth shapes culture (take a feminist view of the Adam and Eve story and include explication of the poem in these terms)
� Misogyny in Organized Religion: using the poem as a jumping off point, look at how religion (you can limit it to Christianity or include other faiths as well) has or has not contributed to the oppression of women over the centuries
� Look at the poem as an expression of the societal effect of the story of Eve. Discuss the illness of anorexia, as portrayed in the poem, as a disease created by a society based on a patriarchal religious construct.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman�s “The Yellow Wallpaper”:
� Using the story as a jumping off point, explore the medical community�s approach to treatment of �women�s illnesses� in the late 1800�s early 1900�s (include information about the infamous �rest cure�)
� Research what life was like for women in the late 1800�s. Explore the image of the woman behind the wallpaper as symbol of women�s position in society then and now (or just then, of you wish)
� Use the story to help you explore women and depression in turn of the century America. Do research into the prevalence of the disease, society�s attitude toward those afflicted and the treatments used.
� Gilman�s story and the struggle of women writers in late 19th century America
� The concept of the wandering uterus (originated in ancient Greek medicine and persisted into the 19th century)
3. Concerning Cultural Stereotypes of Women
Susan Glaspell�s Trifles (also includes various other pieces on syllabus):
� Women in �turn of the century� America (note: before they obtained the right to vote) � choose one
o How does the play reflect the realities of their lives as women, as wives?
o Homesteading: what was life like for homesteading women and how does that affect our understanding of the women in the play, of Minnie Wright?
o What was it like to be a wife in rural, turn of the century America? Connect that to the characters and plot of the play.
� Being a Wife � Through a comparative literary analysis look at whether or not the power of women in public and private life grows stronger in modern times? (address issues of relationships with husbands, position in marriage, duties/responsibilities, societal expectations, or hidden resentments) — choose one of the following —
o Compare the wives in Trifles and one of the following: Fences, �Story of an Hour,� or �Woman Hollering Creek.�
o Husbands: compare how the husband is characterized in Trifles and one of the following: Fences, �Story of an Hour,� or �Woman Hollering Creek.�
� How does either Trifles or Fences illustrate playwright Henrik Ibsen�s idea of �two kinds of conscience, one in man and another in woman� as defined in his �Notes for the Modern Tragedy� (Di Yanni p. 2123). Note that this excerpt refers specifically to his play A Doll�s House, but the non-specific statements can be applied to Trifles or Fences as well.
Sandra Cisneros� “Woman Hollering Creek”:
� Women and Ethnic Beliefs: Using the story as a jumping off point, explore the Mexican Legend of La Llorona and what it says about the public perception of women and marriage.
� Explore how Cisneros creates a modern re-working of the Legend of La Llorona in the story.
Sandra Cisneros� “Pumpkin Eater”:
� Discuss the poem in terms of the children�s rhyme that inspired it. Research the old English nursery rhyme of �Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater� and look at it from a feminist perspective. What did the rhyme say about women�s place in public life and what is Cisneros saying about the nature of male-female romantic relationships today?
� Do research into the images and these used in both poems. Compare the image of women in Cisneros� poem and Marge Piercy�s poem �A Work of Artifice�. How do they reflect the public perception of women in society, in relationships?
Marge Piercy�s “A Work of Artifice”:
� How does the metaphor of the bonsai tree work to explain how patriarchal society has historically treated women?
� Discuss the poem�s references to how women are �shaped� and how male-dominated society imposes its will on women�s physical selves.
� Compare the concepts in this poem to Cisneros� �Pumpkin Eater� or �Woman Hollering Creek,� or to Gilman�s �the Yellow Wallpaper,� or Boland�s �Anorexia,� or Chopin�s �Story of an Hour�.
Kate Chopin�s “Story of an Hour”:
� Explore the story and the typical life of the American wife of the late 1800�s. How is Louise Mallard�s marital experience typical of her time?
� Discuss marital life in the turn of the century in terms of this story and Gilman�s �The Yellow Wallpaper�.
� Point of View: What is unusual about Louise Mallard�s response to the news about her husband? How did or might the reading public respond to such a view of marriage? Discuss typical public expectations about marriage and about women in the late 1800�s.
4. Faith and the Human Spirit:
� Compare �Ecclesiastes� (Di Yanni p. 792) to the writing of Lao Tzu (AWOI p. 24). Do some research into the influence of eastern religious thought on western Christianity.
� Explore the concept of the Christian and Muslim believer�s need to �Battle with God� through an explication of John Donne�s �Batter my heart, three-personed God� and Chairil Anwar�s �At the Mosque�. Include references to specific beliefs the two faiths have about man�s relation to God.
� Discuss the Victorian Age�s battle between faith and science using Matthew Arnold�s �Dover Beach� to frame the discussion.
� Use Arnold�s poem �Dover Beach� as a jumping off point to address the idea that the violence created an unhealed wound in Victorian society. Discuss how the crimes of Jack the Ripper, for example, affected the public psyche of England at that time.
� Discuss William Butler Yeats� poem, �The Second Coming,� in terms of the biblical passage that discusses the coming of the Antichrist (see Matthew 24 and I John 2: 18-25 of the Book of Revelations). Are there beliefs in the public forum that correspond to this concept of the dawning of a new age, or of the end of times?
Re. August Wilson�s Fences:
� Explore the biblical references in the play and discuss how they are used in characterization. How do the characters use them to understand where they fit in in society, in their families?
� Explore the �Sins of the Fathers� theme in biblical terms and in terms of this play (you could also include Oedipus, if you wish). Sometimes the following inscription is printed with the play:
When the sins of our fathers visit us.
We do not have to play host.
We can banish them with forgiveness
As God, in His Largeness and Laws.
How does this poem (written by Wilson) affect your understanding of the play? Does this play seem to be about foregiveness?
� Discuss how we each use faith differently, focusing on Troy and Rose and how faith plays into their lives. You can consider applying this to some present day public figure and discuss similarities or differences in the way her or his faith is a public issue.
� At the end of the play Wilson seems to contend that Christianity, the faith of the white man, does not serve African Americans well? Consider this idea in terms of the way African slaves were �brought to� Christianity in America? Research the intentions of white society to Christianize them.
(Note the following topics do not pertain to faith, per se.)
� Use the play as a jumping off point to discuss common perceptions (misconceptions) about marriage or infidelity or parenthood in the African-American community. Do research into studies that have been done on the subject.
� On Athletic Scholarships: Are they exploitative? In the play Troy refuses to let his son Cory accept a football scholarship. Wilson once said in an interview that athletic scholarships are often exploitative. Athletes �were not getting educated,� he said, they �were taking courses in basket weaving. Some could barely read.� Universities, he continued, �made a lot of money off of athletes.� Do you agree or disagree? Do research to find data that enables you to answer this question.
Flannery O�Connor�s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”:
� Explore O�Connor�s Catholicity in terms of one of the following aspects of the story :
o �Redemption through Catastrophe�
o �Grace� � her perception of how it comes to mankind
o The Public Enemy and Salvation
o Social Standing: blood lineage and the aristocracy of the American south
o Christian Culture�s paradigm of �the good man� � many are Christian but few are Christ-like. How does this pertain to the story?
o The Misfit: agent of God or the Devil? Look into the origins of Christianity�s beliefs about their relationship and relate it to the role of The Misfit.
o Contrast the Grandmother (as symbol of superficial belief) vs. The Misfit (as symbol of profound, but unconventional, belief)
� Discuss the family in the story as representative of a typical (Godless) American family. Are they a bleak depiction of the family that has lost touch with God, belief, the value system of religion?
5. American Culture: Its Roots in Racism
John Edgar Wideman�s “Damballah”:
� How is this story about the person caught between American slave culture and African roots pertinent to African American�s today? What aspects of African American culture that are strongly connected to African heritage have become part of mainstream culture?
� Using the story as a jumping off point, discuss the African American�s struggle to retain some of his African identity in our culture today.
� Discuss the story�s theme of the values of the slaveholder vs. the values of the slave and connect it to the life of Gandhi or some other important figure in public life.
Ralph Ellison�s “Battle Royal”:
� Use the story to discuss the difficulties of the African Male as he comes of age in America. Discuss what sociologists, psychologists, or other scholars say about the challenges they face
� Discuss the exploitation of the African Male in our society, beginning with the scenario set up in the story and then extending to life in America today. Do research to find information that enables you to respond.
� Beginning with the story and expanding the discussion to the public sphere, discuss how racism and sexism go hand in hand in America.
� Is the type of racism we see in the story typical of the southern response to the Civil Rights Movement of the 60�s? Look into how culture and politics worked to make the American Dream a fleeting thing for African Americans.