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MonkeyNotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Book Notes
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AMBIGUITY

A study of The Scarlet Letter reveals that Hawthorne intentionally includes many ambiguities in the story, allowing the reader to reach his own conclusions. A major use of ambiguity occurs in Hawthorne's treatment of Mistress Hibbins. She never becomes a major character in the novel, but she appears momentarily, in person or by implication, in most of the major scenes. Hawthorne never clearly states that she is a witch, but since the real Mistress Hibbins was condemned of witchcraft, the reader must assume that she functions as one in the novel as well. She certainly is treated as an incarnation of the devil as she torments and tempts the major characters.


Another important use of ambiguity concerns the scarlet letter itself. The appearance of the letter in the sky may have been a figment of Dimmesdale's tormented mind or it could really have been a meteoric phenomenon. The important thing is that is has different meaning to different people. To Dimmesdale is clearly an announcement of his adultery; to others it is a symbol for angel, since Governor Winthrop has just died. Hawthorne leaves it to the reader to come up with his own conclusion about the illuminated "A". Even when Dimmesdale finally bares his chest, the author does not say directly that the scarlet letter was carved there. He hints at the possibility of its physical presence by having Chillingworth look in horror at his chest and having Dimmesdale constantly placing his hand on his heart.

Chillingworth is also full of ambiguity. It is hinted that he practices black magic, and the author states that he has knowledge of herbs and has been captured by the Indians. He also hints that he conspires with Mistress Hibbins. But is dealing in witchcraft is intentionally vague. There is also ambiguity surrounding Dimmesdale. He fears Chillingworth and yet he continues to use him as his personal physician. He indicates there is a mark of the devil on his body by baring his chest before the crowd, but what is there is unstated and ambiguous. Even his sermons that inspire the people and hint at his guilt are intentionally ambiguous. Only the honest and open Hester is free from ambiguity.

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