Symbolism In The Scarlet Letter Essay, Research Paper
Adultery, betrayal, promiscuity, deception, and conspiracy, all of which would make an excellent coming attraction on the Hollywood scene and probably a rather erotic book. Add Puritan ideals and writing styles, making it long, drawn out, sleep inducing, tedious, dim-witted, and the end result is The Scarlet Letter. Despite all these unfavorable factors it is considered a classic and was a statement of the era (Letter 1).
The Scarlet Letter is pervaded with profound symbolism and revolves around the idea that hidden guilt causes more suffering than open guilt. This theme along with its symbolism is demonstrated through the lives of the three main characters – Hester Pyrnne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth throughout the story. Their personalities are shown most clearly during the scaffold scenes. These scenes are the most substantial situations in the story because they illustrate the immediate, delayed, and prolonged effects that the sin of adultery has on the main characters (Analysis1).
In the first scene, everyone in the town is gathered in the market place because Hester is being questioned about the identity of the father of her child – Pearl (analysis 1). Hester experiences open guilt through being publicly punished for adultery. She is being forced to stand on it for three hours straight to be ridiculed and ostracized by the community.
Dimmesdale however refuses to admit that he committed adultery and thereby eventually suffers hidden guilt. His instantaneous response to the sin is to lie. He stands before Hester and the rest of the town and proceeds to give a moving speech about how it would be in her and the father’s best interest for her to reveal the father’s name (letter 3). Though he never actually says that he is not the other parent, he implies it by talking of the father in third person. Such as, “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-suffer.”
Chillingworth’s first reaction is one of shock, but he quickly suppresses it. Since his first sight of his wife in two years is of her being punished for being unfaithful to him, he is naturally surprised. It does not last long though, because it is his nature to control his emotions.
Chillingworth, subordinating his intellect to his desire for revenge, ultimately destroys himself (stack 34 1). Everything about him gradually changes into evil. Even his facial expressions become noticeably different.
The main characters sharply contrast each other in the way they react to Hester and Dimmesdale’s sin. To begin, Hester becomes stronger, more enduring, and even more sympathetic. She becomes stronger because of all the weight she has to carry. She is a single mother who suffers all of the burdens of parenthood by herself. They live on the edge of town, and Pearl has no one to give her food, shelter and emotional support besides Hester. Pearl is especially difficult to raise because she is anything but normal. Hawthorne gives a pretty accurate description of Pearl when he writes: The child could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder; or with an order peculiar to themselves, amidst which the point of variety and arrangement was difficult or impossible to be discovered (analysis 5).
Pearl serves as a representation of Hester’s relationship with Dimmesdale. Initially Pearl symbolizes the shame of Hester’s public punishment for adultery. Then as Pearl grew older, she symbolizes the decimation of Hester’s life and mental state by harassing her mother over the scarlet “A” which embroidered on her dress. Although Hester had so much trouble with Pearl, she still felt Pearl was her only treasure. Without Pearl, Hester’s life would have been meaningless. Once a while Pearl would bring joy to Hester’s life. In a way she symbolizes a rose to her mother, but at other times she could be wilting. It was at these “wilting” times that brought Hester the most grief. In another aspect, Pearl symbolizes God’s way of punishing Hester for adultery and was really the scarlet letter (analysis 5). If Pearl had never been born, Hester would have never been found guilty of adultery, and thus never would have had to war that burden upon her chest. Without that burden, she would have led a much better life.
Pearl, from being a rose, to representing the scarlet letter “A”, she was a kind of burden, yet love for Hestor. Not only was Pearl her mother’s only treasure, she was her mother’s only source of survival.
Hester becomes a highly respected person in a Puritan society by overcoming one of the harshest punishments, the scarlet letter (puritan 1). This object on “her bosom”; however, does the exact opposite of that which it was meant for. Eventually, Hester inverts all the odds against here due to her courage, pride and effort. Hester went beyond the letter of the law and did everything asked for here in order to prove that she is “able”. (letter 4).
Hester became quite a popular seamstress, admired all over the town of Boston for her work. After years of proving her worth with her uncommon sewing skills and providing community service, the colonists come to think of the scarlet letter as “the cross on a nun’s bosom.” (analysis 5). The only piece of clothing forbidden to create was the wedding vail. Hester also becomes more sensitive to the feelings and needs of other people. She feels that her own sin gives her “sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts”. (analysis 5). So even though the people she tried to help “often reviled the hand that was stretched forth to succor them.” Although she does the job willingly and rarely ever looks back to the horrid past behind. The scarlet letter was constantly worn by Hester with pride and dignity (stack 34 2). Hester knew that what was done in the past was wrong and that the scarlet A was the right thing to do, therefore it is worn with a sense of pride. While Hester tries to make the best out of her situation, Dimmesdale becomes weaker by letting guilt and grief eat away at his conscience, reducing him to a shriveling, pathetic creature.
Dimmesdale can not accept the loss of innocence and go on from there. He must struggle futilely to get back to where he was. Dimmesdale punishes himself by believing that he can never be redeemed. He feels that he will never be seen the same in the eyes of God, and that no amount of repentance can ever return him to God’s good graces. He is so touchy on this subject that when Hester says his good deeds will count for something in God’s view, he exclaims, “There is no substance in it! It is cold and dead and can do nothing for me!” (Hawthorne 202). The Reverend seems to want to reveal himself, at times he realizes his hypocrisy and comes to the verge of confession, only to retreat into vague proclamations of guilt. But Chillingworth’s influence and his own shame are stronger than his weak conscience. Dimmesdale cannot surrender an identity which brings him the love and admiration of his parishioners. He is far too intent on his earthly image to willingly reveal his sin. This inability to confess causes Dimmesdale great anguish and self-hatred. At one point he lashes himself with a whip, and at the end of the book we find that he has inscribed the letter “A” into his own chest. Dimmesdale also believes that his sin has taken the meaning out of his life. His life’s work has been dedicated to God, and now his sin has tainted it (analysis 6). He feels that he is a fraud and is not fit to lead the people of the town to salvation. The feeling is so oppressive that the chance of escaping his work and leaving with Hester and Pearl makes him emotionally (and probably mentally) unstable. He walks through the town with twice as much energy as normal, and he barely stops himself from swearing to a fellow deacon. When an old lady approaches him he can not remember any scriptures whatsoever to tell her, and the urge to use his power of persuasion over a young maiden is so strong that he covers his face with his cloak and runs off (analysis 6). The largest cause of Dimmesdale’s breakdown is the fact that he keeps his sin a secret. As God’s servant, it is his nature to tell the truth, so the years of pretending and hypocrisy are especially hard on him. His secret guilt is such a burden that instead of going with Hester to England and perhaps having a chance to live longer, he finally triumphs over his weakness. On Elect day, after delivering a moving sermon, he ascends the scaffold and admits that he committed adultery with Hester and that Pearl is his daughter. After it is done, he dies in Hester’s arms, freed from the debilitating burden of his secret (letter 3). His confession marks the climax of the novel. Dimmesdale it was whom the sorrows of death encompassed. His public confession is one of the noblest climaxes of tragic literature (letter 3).
Like the two other main characters, Chillingworth is both a victim and a sinner. He is a victim, first of all, of his own physical appearance and self-isolation. He is small, thin, and slightly deformed, with a shoulder being higher than the other. This, coupled with the fact that he has devoted himself almost entirely to his studies, serves to cut him off from the rest of humanity (letter 1). He is also a victim of the events that took place before his arrival to the colony. First he is captured by the Indians. Then, while he is held captive and presumed dead, his wife had a child by another man.
Chillingworth’s sin are far greater than either those of Hester or Dimmesdale. His first sin was when he married Hester. He knew that she would never marry him, and yet he made her marry him anyway. He admits this to Hester while they are talking in the jail cell. “Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed they budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay.” His second and the dominant sin is allowing himself to become obsesse with vengeance against Dimmesdale.
Ultimately, Chillingworth responds to his wife’s betrayal by sacrificing everything in order to seek revenge. After he discovers that his wife bore another man’s child, Chillingworth gives up his independence. He used to be a scholar who dedicated his best years “to feed the hungry dream of knowledge,” but his new allegiance becomes finding and slowly punishing the man who seduced his wife (Hawthorne 74). He soon becomes obsessed with his new mission in life. Once he targeted Reverend Dimmesdale as the possible parent, he dedicates all of his time to becoming his confidant in order to destroy Dimmesdale’s sanity. This obsession turns him from a peaceful scholar into a demon. He blames Dimmesdale for his destruction, but ultimately Chillingworth must take responsibility for his own transgression of sympathy. Vengeance was also one of the reasons that Chillingworth gives up his identity. The only way he can truly corrupt Dimmesdale is to live with him and be by his side all day, every day. The only possible way to do that is to give up his true identity as Roger Pyrnne, Hester’s husband, and become Roger Chillingworth. Since the only person who knew his true identity is sworn to silence, he succeeds for a long time in tricking Dimmesdale until Hester sees that he was going mad and finally revealed Chillingworth’s true identity (Hawthorne 204). His largest sacrifice is by far, his own life. After spending so much time dwelling on his revenge, Chillingworth forgets that he still has a chance to lead a life of his own. So accordingly, after Dimmesdale reveals his secret to the world, Chillingworth dies less than a year later because he has nothing left to live for.
As the author mentioned earlier, The Scarlet Letter is pervaded with symbolism. One of the most prominent and complex symbol has already been revealed. However the novel revolves around two major symbols: light and darkness and the scarlet letter.
The book is filled with light and darkness symbols because it represents the most common battle of all time, good versus evil. When Hester and her daughter are walking in the forest, Pearl exclaims: Mother, the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. Now see! There it is, playing, a good way off. Stand you here, and let me run and catch it. I am but a child. It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet (Hawthorne 192). Hester tries to stretch her hand into the circle of light, but the sunshine vanishes (192). She then suggests that they go into the forest and rest (193). This short scene actually represents Hester’s daily struggle in life. The light represents what Hester wants to be, which is pure. The movement of the light represents Hester’s constant denial of acceptance. Hester’s lack of surprise and quick suggestion to go into the forest, where it is dark, shows that she never expected to be admitted and is resigned to her station in life. Another way light and darkness is used in symbolism is by the way Hester and Dimmesdale’s plan to escape is doomed. Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the shadows of the forest with a gloomy sky and a threatening storm overhead when they discuss their plans for the future (symbol 2). The gloomy weather and shadows exemplify the fact that they can’t get away from the repressive force of their sins. It is later proven when Dimmesdale dies on the scaffold! Instead of leaving with Hester and going to England (symbol 5). A final example occurs by the way Hester and Dimmesdale can not acknowledge their love in front of others. When they meet in the woods, they feel that, “No golden light had ever been so precious as the gloom of this dark forest (Hawthorne 206). This emotion foretells that they will never last together openly because their sin has separated them too much from normal life.
The scarlet letter also takes many different forms in the novel. The first and clearest form that the letter A takes is “Adulteress.” It is apparent that Hester is guilty of cheating on her husband when she surfaces from the prison with a three-month-old-child in her arms, and her husband has been away for two years (symbol 3). Hence, the people look at the letter elaborately embroidered with gold thread and see a worthless woman who is proud of her sin (Hawthorne 54). The second form that it takes is “Angel.” When Governor Winthrop passes away, a giant A appears in the sky. ! People from the church feel that, “For as our good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night, it was doubtless held fit that there should be some notice thereof!” (Hawthorne 16). The final form that the scarlet letter take is “Able.” Hester helped the people of the town so unselfishly that Hawthorne wrote: Such helpfulness was found in her,–so much power to do, and power to sympathize,–that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original significance. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.
In closing, one of the most important reasons that The Scarlet Letter is so well known is
the way Hawthorne leaves the novel open to be interpreted several different ways by his
abundant use of symbolism (symbolism 7~8). This background, together with a believable plot, convincing characterization, and important literary devices enables Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter to the develop the theme of the heart as a prison (analysis 13). Hawthorne describes the purpose of the novel when he says, “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worse, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” (Hawthorne272).
The theme is beneficial because it can be put into terms in today’s world. The Scarlet Letter is one of the few books that will be timeless, because it deals with alienation, sin, punishment, and
guilt, emotions that will continue to be felt by every generation to come (analysis