Religious Symbolism In The Scarlet Letter And
Billy Budd Essay, Research Paper
Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne were contemporaries of each other. They lived very different lives, one living as a sailor for four years and the other attending an Ivy League school, yet their writing reflects a similar style, as shown in Melville?s Billy Bud and Hawthorne?s The Scarlet Letter. Religious symbolism is found in abundance in each of the works.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne?s The Scarlet Letter, life is centered around a rigid, Puritanistic structured society in which one is unable to express her innermost thoughts. When Hester Prynne was in prison for her crime, just outside the door was a rose bush that corresponded with Hester?s situation. The bloom itself represented Hester?s beauty and the thorns represented her pain she experienced from her circumstance as Jesus experienced pain from his crown of thorns during his persecution. The rose bush was at that particular place to ?serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow? (p.1029). Also in the novel, several characters including Hester Prynne and Roger Chillingworth, repeat themselves three times to show emphasis of their determination to stay quiet, as in Hester?s situation, and to uncover the man who slept with his wife, as in Roger Chillingworth?s predicament. In the Bible?s book of Revelation 13:18, the number six is repeated three times to emphasize the height of imperfection, as the number seven represents perfection and six falls short. Also in Revelation, the word holy is repeated three times to emphasize God?s holiness. Hester?s product of her crime is her infant named ?Pearl,? as being of great price, ?purchased with all she had, ? her mother?s only treasure!? (p.1051). Pearl?s name symbolizes how Hester gave up all she had by committing adultery and Pearl was the good that came out of the chaos. Roger Chillingworth, who Hester cheated on, figured out that Reverend Dimmesdale was the father of Hester?s baby and thus the other half of the crime adultery.
In the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, Chillingworth sees a soul that he can bring to damnation, perhaps hating him because Dimmesdale had a quality that made him attractive to Hester. Either way, Chillingworth raises himself to the level of judge and spiritual warden over Dimmesdale, trying to effect his demise, the same way that Claggart essays with Billy. Both cases of desire are male-male, where one tries to destroy the other for some reason or another. The relationships between Billy and Claggart, and Dimmesdale and Chillingworth are at the heart of both novels. Both show a case where two pairs of men seem to be inextricably linked.
In Billy Budd, Claggart sees a purity that his experiences in the world, his very existence, seems to deny, therefore Claggart hates Billy. After Billy?s unintentional sin of killing Claggart, his resignation to his fate presents Billy as Christ in his willingness to accept the verdict of his own life being taken in order to maintain social order. Billy, like Christ, was also betrayed by someone he thought he could trust. Claggart would often say nice things to Billy such as ?Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!? and Billy innocently thought that Claggart was complementing him (p. 1270). Billy is also compared to Christ in the scene in which Billy is hanged. The gallows where Billy is hung is seen as a Crucifix and Billy himself as a Christ-like figure. Billy is closely associated with Adam before the Fall. Claggart is like the serpent Satan who wormed his way into Eden and tricked mankind out of a state of purity, innocence, and happiness. Billy Budd reenacts this age-old conflict between good and evil symbolically and in the workings of the plot. However, this parable only goes as far as Billy killing Claggart. Even beyond that simple understanding, the fall of man can be looked at in different ways. Sociologically, purity and innocence is stripped away by the act of killing Claggart.
Religious symbolism is prevalent in both of these novels as shown. Both of the main characters end up being seen as two of the most prominent figures in the bible: Billy is compared extensively to Christ and Hester to the Virgin Mary. This theme goes to show that religion was a great influence, even to the Romantics, who tried to get away from the normal style of writing and into a free, more imaginative style that was different from their predecessors.