Allusions in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter is one of the most celebrated American literary works. As the title suggests, the book deals with a story of adultery in Puritan New England, where women convicted in such an offense had to mark their shame with a big red letter A. The novel, its themes, and the scarlet letter motif is still used today in more than a few contexts.

This critical analysis paper deals with allusions from the novel and other literary works, as used today. Hence, the aim of this paper is twofold: first, it describes three means by which people allude to The Scarlet Letter. Second, it presents three additional cases, in which other literary works bring about allusions in people’s mind and the popular culture.

Contemporary Allusions of The Scarlet Letter         

Whereas Hawthorne used the scarlet letter as a motif in several contexts, people today mostly refer to the original meaning of shame and disgrace, though not always as a physical marker. For example, the letter A in the novel can see not only as a scarlet letter for adultery but also as a symbol for the isolation of the individual, such as the artist and the author (Person, 2007). Thus, people can use the idiom “scarlet letter” not only in its classical context but also to note something that separates them from the collective.

One example for the traditional use of the scarlet letter as a marker of shame is a punitive action taken by courts in several states against drivers convicted with DWI. As reported by Maureen (1996), New York courts may oblige such drivers to attach pink neon signs saying “convicted DUI” instead of imprisonment. Although this idea may sound like a “good deal,” the state’s Court of Appeals, knowing the implication of the scarlet letter as described in Hawthorne’s novel, overturned the idea, arguing “the humiliation the sign would cause made it too punitive to qualify as rehabilitation – a key purpose of probation” (ibid.).

However, “scarlet letters” may not have to be always so clear. Today, many of our past actions, including those that we already forgot (or wish to forget) may be found over the Internet. Since site operators are not obliged to remove offensive content, “the Internet has become a scarlet letter, an albatross” (Friedman, 2007, 529). That is, anyone can theoretically learn everything about you since it is stored in an online server.

Other Literary Allusions

Many elements from our everyday culture and narrative are allusions from literary works. Very often, even people who never read the book or even never heard of it use them. Below are several examples:

The motif of the Big Brother, appeared in George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, was initially the image of the all-knowing, all-seeing leader. Later on, the Big Brother’s ability to observe one’s actions everywhere inspired the use of this idiom to describe the alarming state, in which our activities are monitored, especially electronically. In 1997, a Dutch reality TV format of the same name was launched and based on the idea that the viewers can see everything that happens on the set.      

Another famous figure of speech is the term catch-22, based on Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel with the same title. In the book, catch-22 refers to the paradoxical situation, in which an airman can be released from duty only if he is found insane, but anyone who does not want to fly in such missions is sane. Since then, many people use the term catch-22 to describe the absurd situation, in which no one can win.

Finally, the Bible and the New Testament are sources for many allusions. One example is 666, the number of the beast, probably first appeared in the New Testament: “He that hath understanding let him count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man: and his number is Six hundred and sixty and six” (The Revelation to Saint John 13:18, World English Bible). Since then, many cultures saw 666 as the number of the devil. A 1980 science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein, used the name (66)6 (equal to more than 1027) to describe the number of parallel universes, which the protagonist can access. In popular culture, the heavy-metal band Iron Maiden’s 1982 song The Number of the Beast (appeared in an album of the same title) also deal with the number 666 and is opened with the band’s adaption of the original passage.     


Friedman, T. L. (2007). The world is flat: a brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Picador.

Maureen, F. (1996). New York’s First Scarlet Letter? Retrieved September 8, 2009, from <>

Person, L. S. (2007). The Cambridge Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Cambridge University Press.