Comment on the Use of Irony in The Scarlet Letter

Irony means the juxtaposition of two mutually incompatible views of a given situation; it is a “natural discoverer and explorer of incongruities” and consists in the perception of contradictions in human nature. Irony aroused from contrast - contrast between the surface meaning of a statement and its real or intended meaning.

The Scarlet Letter

The placing together by the presence and the truth provides an ironic vision; it may be a speech of a character that is not intended to convey its literal meaning; in fact, there may be layers of meaning in it. It may also arise when certain facts, already known to the reader are unfolded to the characters concerned during the turn of events or by a malicious rick of fate. And Hawthorne makes abundant use of this device in The Scarlet letter.

To begin with, it is the irony and the ambiguity in Hester’s badge of shame - the scarlet letter ‘A’ that she wears on her bosom as a mark of punishment. On the surface, it stands for ‘ Adulteress’ but, with the passage of time, it comes to signify ‘Able’ when Hester transforms herself into a Sister of Mercy and later, people interpret it for ‘Angel’ when Governor Winthrop dies and is assumed to have become one.

It is also there in the statement that the various characters make. For example, when Hester stands on the scaffold with little Pearl her arms and the embroidered scarlet letter ‘A’ on her bosom, one of the female spectators, unaware of the relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale, comments, “ The Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.’ This assumes ironic overtones when the reader comes to know that the ‘godly’ pastor is himself Hester’s partner-in-sin; he is not a ‘godly’ pastor but the one who has also committed the unpardonable crime of adultery and begotten an illegitimate child. Here, then, is a contrast between pretence and reality that illustrates Hawthorne’s use of irony in the tragic tale.

The irony of the situation is revealed when Chillingworth, who has been separated from his wife for the last two years, suddenly discovers her in the settlement and is a witness to her shame and public disgrace. Here is the incongruity between what the husband had expected from his wife, i.e., fidelity, and what he is suddenly confronted with, i.e., adultery. The irony is heightened when Dimmesdale exhorts Hester to reveal the name of her partner-in sin in public: “Hester Prynne! If thou feelest  it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer.” Dimmesdale’s words have ad double connotations- one of the crowd and the other for Hester and; Dimmesdale himself.

Roger Chillingworh, by his concealment of his identity (to which he swears Hester also) and by the concealment of his real motive, befriends Arthur Dimmesdale. This is ironic and it is followed by a constant and continuing contrast between appearance and reality right till the end of the novel. Neither the minister nor others in the settlement know of Chillignworht’s real intentions when he comes to live with Dimmesdale under the pretense of a physician with the express purpose of looking after his health. Even Hester does not know the real intention of Chillingworth. But she tells Chillingworth after his medicine has quieted the screaming Pearl and pacified her nervous excitement after the scaffold scene: “Thy acts are like mercy. But thy word interpret thee as a terror!” Posing as a well-wisher of Dimmesdale, Chillingworrh acts as a Devil incarnate. He is ironically referred to as “the physician as well as friend of the young minister, whose health had severely suffered.” The fact, he is the minister’s sworn enemy. Dimmesdale’s condition is further aggravated when he is thrown into the constant company of the revenge seeking a physician, who misses no opportunity of tormenting him. Outwardly, Chillingworh does no harm to the minister. “What evil have I done the man?” he asks Hester, and adds, “I tell thee, Hester Prynne, the richest fee that ever physician earned from monarch could not have bought such care as I have wasted on the miserable priest.” This is how Chillingworth puts his persecution and torturing of the helpless, conscience-stricken minister. Chillingworht apparently consoles Dimmesdale in the last chapter when the priest climbs up the scaffold and ask Hester and Pearl to join him while he makes his confession, “Do not blacken your fame, and perish in dishonor; I can yet save you. Would you bring infamy on your sacred profession?’ the words sound innocent but are full of malevolence. Chillingworth is no angel trying to save the minister from ignominy. He is, in fact, concerned about the minister escaping his evil clutches. In trying to save Dimmesdale, Chillingworth damns himself. He was once an upright man, a man of intellect, a gifted scholar who has turned into a fiend in order to wreak revenge. And when there  is no more work for him, he withers and dies.

Arthur Dimmesdale, like Roger Chillingworht, also lives a lie in public. His private sense of sin, of having broken the sacred law, is a source of constant torture to him, a torture that is accentuated by the subtle devices and machinations of the physician as well as self-flagellation. He lives with and suffers from a guilty conscience for seven long years while performing his priestly duties. It is ironic that he should die on the scaffold after delivering his most brilliant Election Day sermon to the crowd that has almost worshipped him all these years. He leads a double life. The contrast between his public postures and private suffering is ironic, indeed. He attempts to present himself as a fellow-sinner to his parishioners has an effect opposite to the one he intends upon them. His standing on the scaffold on the dark night of the vigil is called a “mockery of penitence” by Hawthorne, which it truly is. The truth about this weakling is known only to Hester, Chillingworth and the reader.

There is also a sense of irony when, in the last scene, Hester stands in the crowd on the Election Day and the people of the settlement as well as strangers are looking at her scarlet letter. She seems to be telling the assembled people: “Look your last on the scarlet letter and its wearer. Yet a little while, and she will be beyond your reach! A few hours longer, and the deep, mysterious ocean will quench and hide for ever the symbol which ye have caused to burn upon her bosom.” At that very moment, Dimmesdale is preparing himself to confess his sin in public and put an end to Hester’s hopes an aspiration.