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Biblical Allusions in the ‘Scarlet Letter’

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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, biblical allusions are crucial to the story as a whole. For example, in the chapter entitled “The Marketplace”, Hawthorne explains that a Papist (Roman Catholic) would view Hester Prynne–who was standing on a scaffold in front of the Salem townsmen at that time–“picturesque in her attire and mien”, “an object to remind him of Divine Maternity” and also “of that sacred image of sinless motherhood.” By referring to a Papist point of view, Hawthorne hints that Hester Prynne is truly innocent, as is proved at various points throughout the novel.

Another noticeable biblical reference is in “The Elf-Child and the Minister”, when Hawthorne brings up the Westminster Catechism. A catechism is a comprehensive handbook used to teach children the principles of a religion. He uses this reference to reinforce Pearl’s religious denial by revealing that she does not know the answer to the very first question in the catechism: “Who made thee?” This religious denial is an important part of the novel because it reflects how Pearl resembled a “product of sin.”

Finally, in “The Interior of a Heart,” Hawthorne relates the disciples at the Pentecost to Reverend Dimmesdale’s class among his fellow clergymen. The disciples at the Pentecost–the commemorative festival fifty days after Easter Sunday–were said to be fluent in “tongues as of fire,” a peculiar style of speech, involving blurry, incomprehensible wording which supposedly influenced their spread of the word and founding of some of the earliest Christian churches. Hawthorne connects this with Dimmesdale’s style of preaching by implying it to be just the same as the disciples: in “tongues of flame.”

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