, Research Paper
Symbolism of The Scarlet Letter
A symbol is a literary device which is employed to portray another object or individual. In the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, it is most often a tangible object he uses to represent an undefined idea, complex in scope and significance. More times than not, it represents reverent, profound, or virtuous concepts of merit. From the substitution of one idea or object for another, to creations as massive, complex, and perplexing as the veil in the “Minister’s Black veil”, are the domain symbols may encompass. Hawthorne’s notable and unique use of the inanimate letter A, the scenery of the rose bush, and the settings of forest to make the characters -Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Pearl- into symbols in the novel in order to portray his moral and theme of: “Be true. Be true. Be true!”
The red letter A is presented but whose meaning has to be deciphered. What does the letter mean? It is a question every character in the novel repeats who confronts the blatant red token and who has to deal with it. The letter A manifests in a variety of forms and places. Not only does the A manifest in various forms, but it also acquires a variety of meanings. It represents more than just the sin of adultery. Even as the original mark of adultery, the scarlet letter has a different individual meaning to the various characters. To Hester, the A is a symbol of unjust humiliation. The “A” magnifies in an armor breastplate at the Governor’s mansion to “exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be acutely the most prominent feature of [Hester's] semblance. In truth, she emerges absolutely hidden behind it.”. The A grows to be larger than Hester signifying the town’s view of her sin. They do not see the human being behind the scarlet letter, they only see a sinner. For Hester, the “A” is not only a symbol of adultery, but also a symbol of alienation. She is an outcast from society and the women treat her differently by constantly sneering at her in public. The scarlet letter is a symbol of what society wants to see and the decision to create a relativity. The townspeople soon began to accept her and believe that letter had supernatural powers. They decide that “it meant able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength,” that they were allowing her to remove it. Their opinion and vision of the scarlet letter changes into its complete opposite within a short period of under ten year’s time. This opinion conforms according to their worldly view of convenience. To the Puritan community, it is a mark of just punishment. In the beginning of the story the letter struck fear into the society’s hearts. It symbolizes the unfair humiliation she endures, such as humiliation standing on the scaffold at noon in public view. The ornately gold-embroidered A on Hester’s heart, at which Pearl throws wildflowers and decorates with a border of prickly burrs. To Pearl, the A is a bright and mysterious curiosity which symbolizes her existence and the meaning behind it. In mockery, Pearl creates an “A” on her chest made of green seaweed which represents purity and innocence, but also signifies Pearl’s future as the daughter of sinner. For Chillingworth, the A represents the need for revenge and is the spur to this quest. To Dimmesdale, the A is a piercing reminder of his the guilt engulfing his “concealed sin. It drives him to punish himself and endure Chillingworth’s torture. In addition, the A also symbolizes attributes other than adultery. On the night of his vigil on the scaffold, Dimmesdale sees an immense red A in the sky. It symbolizes “Angel” when “a great red letter in the sky, -the letter A, which [the townspeople] interpret to stand for angel,” as it manifests in the sky on the night of Governor Winthrop’s death. One of the most dramatic of the several A’s the book hints at is the A so frequently seen earlier and which Dimmesdale finally reveals to be an A on his chest by “most of the spectators” who witness his confession and death. At the end of the novel, as a summary symbol, the scarlet A refers against the black background on Hester and Dimmesdale’s tombstone.
The forest represents a free world and a dark world. For the latter, it is a place where no Puritan law subsists. Luckily, at least for the four main characters, Hawthorne provides such a sanctuary in the form of the mysterious forest. Hawthorne uses the forest to provide a “shelter” for members of society in need of a refuge from daily Puritan life. In the deep, dark portions of the forest, many of the pivotal characters bring forth hidden thoughts and emotions. Mistress Hibbins invites Hester to attend one of their rendezvous in the forest. “Wilt though go with tonight? There will be a merry company in the forest, and I will nigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should make one.” The forest track leads away from the settlement out into the wilderness where all signs of civilization vanish. This is precisely the escape route from strict mandates of law and religion, to a refuge where men, as well as women, can open up and be themselves. For Pearl, it is a place where she can run and play freely picking flowers and make friends with the animals who live there. It also represents a dark world where witches gather, individuals sell their souls to the devil, and where Dimmesdale can acknowledge his sin to Hester, but not to the rest of the world. The trees surrounding it allow for only minimal sunlight to penetrate making the forest a place of gloom and darkness that looks to be trapped in the symbol of evil and sin. It is a place where one can find their way by following narrow paths. It is here that Dimmesdale openly acknowledges Hester and his undying love for her. It is also here that Hester can do the same for Dimmesdale. The forest itself is the embodiment of freedom. Nobody watches in the woods to report misbehavior, thus it is here that individuals may do as they wish. When Arthur Dimmesdale emerges into the sunlight, she openly talks with Dimmesdale about subjects which he would never be mention in any place other than the forest. “What we did,” she reminds him, “had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said to each other!” This statement shocks Dimmesdale and he tells Hester to hush, but he eventually realizes that he is in an environment where he can openly express his emotions. The thought of Hester and Dimmesdale having an intimate conversation in the confines of the society in which they live is incomprehensible. Yet here, in the forest, young girls, and middle-aged men and women may throw away all reluctance and finally be themselves under the umbrella of security which subsists and pull out secret thoughts and gloat like misers delighting in a hidden stash of gold. The forest brings out the natural semblance and natural personality of the individuals who use it correctly. When Hester takes off her cap and unloosens her hair, a new woman emerges. The real Hester is seen, who has been hidden this whole time under a shield of shame. Her eyes grow radiant and a flush manifests upon her cheek. The beautiful, attractive individual who is not afraid to show her hair and not afraid to display her beauty. For Hester, it allows her to let her hair down and remove the scarlet letter from her chest making her a real woman and member of society once more. It’s Hester’s “moral wilderness.” The sunlight, which previously shunned Hester, now seeks her out, and the forest wants to glow. Dimmesdale has also gains life, if only for a short time, and he is now hopeful and energetic. This side of Dimmesdale has not been seen for a long time, and most likely will not be seen again. Usually a forest signifies the immoral in Hawthorne. Whereas civilization watches and scrutinizes an individual’s actions, the forest is the place where any event may occur, contradictory to the common immorality forests signify. Even Hester removes her letter for a brief time, but Dimmesdale will not agree to reveal himself to the citizens, thus she places it back on her bosom before returning to the city. Their actions are not as deviant as the devil worshipers in his short stories, but the church deems that they are partaking in an immoral act. In fact, he prefers the openness and freedom the forest represents over the strict, repressive element of Puritan civilization. In the eyes of Hester and Dimmesdale their act was not immoral. They both agree in that dramatic scene in the forest that their act “had a consecration of its own.” They follow God’s law, or Nature’s law as one prefers, and in Hawthorne’s eyes that transcends Man or Society’s law. Thus, the forest, Nature’s dominion, strikes one as the only place where true passion and honesty reside. The forest has and will always be the home of darkness and evil. There, Hester conceals her secret sin with Dimmesdale, and Hester’s true evil spirit is present.
The prison, cemetery, and the rosebush in the first chapter have different meanings. The cemetery and the prison are negative values representing evil, while the rosebush has positive values that represent righteousness. The prison is the symbol of moral evil in Puritan society. When contrasting with the cemetery, Hawthorne is suggesting that this moral evil will bring death to civilized society. This idea supports his description of the prison as a “black flower of civilized society. The rosebush contrasts the prison and cemetery in a colorful and beautiful aspect. Unlike the dismal prison and cemetery, the rosebush lives wild with no bounds by society. It is an aspect of nature that should be admired and not judged. It “may be 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,” as Hester or Pearl throughout the novel. The rose was symbol of love and life, to which Hester bore in her child Pearl. Pearl is a delicate petal to which brings much beauty and hope into the lives of others. She also says that her mother plucked her from a wild rosebush when she asks where she “came from.” Dimmesdale bares no connection to the rosebush other than the planter of the seed. The town population assumes that “if still alive, she must now have been in the flush and bloom of early womanhood.” The scaffold occurs in the beginning, middle, and end of the novel. Hawthorne uses this symbol as an open acknowledgment of individual sin and to divide his novel into three parts. Just as it rises above the market place, it rises above the regular structure of the novel. All the three incidents on the scaffold are the high points in novel. Symbolically the scaffold represents the strict moral code of the Puritans. It displays Hester’s act and her punishment and the only place where Dimmesdale is safe from the reach of Chillingworth. It also represents acknowledgment of sin. It is here that both Hester and Dimmesdale acknowledge their sin.
It is apparent from the beginning of the novel that Hawthorne intends to present Hester Prynne as an individual. Her physical beauty sets her apart from the rest of the townsmen. She has rich dark glossy hair, voluptuous figure, beautiful eyes, and a rich complexion. But her most engaging distinction is her moral independence and originality. Hester is modest in all actions that she does. Hester herself wears only poor clothing while she embroiders marvelous works for the rest of Boston. She does the job willingly and rarely ever looks back to the horrid past behind. She is a woman of immense pride who endures the humiliation of the scaffold bravely. She is also a woman of deep conviction who sustains her pride and dignity by wearing the scarlet A constantly until the day she dies. Hester knew that what was done in the past was wrong and that wearing the scarlet A was the right action to take, therefore it is worn with a sense of pride. Along with that pride is her passion which is illustrates not only through her relations with Dimmesdale but her emotional attachment to Pearl, in her defiance of Governor Bellingham, and even in her conversations with her husband, Roger Chillingworth. Her punishment causes her shame and suffering, but it does not look as though to bring her to any clear state of repentance. By making her an outcast of society, it nullifies her obligation to it. She is a liberated, free-spirited woman in a moral society with her way to make in the world thereby making Hester a symbol of strength and prosperity in times of doubt.
Arthur Dimmesdale is the minister who commits adultery with Hester. Though he commits the same sin as Hester, his is the worst for not acknowledging it. This “concealed sin” is the center of his tormented conscience. It is ironic that Dimmesdale, who is supposed to be absolutely pure and urges his congregation to confess and openly repent their sins, is incapable of acknowledging his own sin and repenting. He knows the hypocrisy of his actions, but cannot bring himself to confess and repent his sins publicly. The guilt consumes him and his heart weakens when he sees Hester suffering alone, knowing he committed the same sin. He tries to alleviate the guilt by whipping himself. He also allows Chillingworth to make him experience guilt, thinking that he deserves it. At the end of the novel, Dimmesdale overcomes his weakness. He takes Hester and Pearl by the hand to the scaffold and publicly confesses to his sin. After seven long years, Dimmesdale triumphs over his weakness. Dimmesdale is the character that is always in the grey area of life, and he is the symbol of Cowardice and Remorse and the encompassing sin of hypocrisy.
Roger Chillingworth is a creature right out of melodrama. As Hester’s husband, he is thought to have died at sea, but in reality was held captive by Indians for a year. He returns to find his wife on the scaffold holding a baby that is not his. He is mortified and embarrassed, thus putting forth the false last name of Chillingworth rather than Prynne to the men and women of the town. By the end of the novel, he is guilty of not one sin but two. The first sin being his marriage to Hester. He did not love her and she did not love him. He marries her for the selfish reason of having a beautiful young wife. Chillingworth is aware that marrying Hester, who did not love him, was an act of selfishness. Marrying Hester “into a false and unnatural relation with my decay” is the statement that acknowledges this first sin. His constant tormenting of Dimmesdale is a worse sin than his first. Even his physical features change from a calm intelligent countenance to “something ugly and evil in his face.” His semblance is a hackneyed convention for villainy. A misshapen shoulder, smoldering eyes and his dark, sooty face, make up the grotesque splatter of his physiognomy. His semblance aside, Chillingworth’s singleness of purpose is inhuman. For seven years, he has only one thought: to find and torment the man who betrayed him by eating, sleeping, dreaming, and breathing revenge. He constantly torments the poor minister’s soul while claiming to be his confidant and friend. He blames Dimmesdale for turning him into a “fiend”, but it is actually he who is the cause of his own fall. Despite the demonic imagery surrounding him, he remains the same man. He is a wronged husband, a figure the 17th century held up to ridicule and abuse. His lust for revenge is therefore not unnatural, and his method of revenge not hackneyed at all. No sword or poison could prove more lethal than the psychological approach that Chillingworth took upon Dimmesdale. In last chapter, it is told that Chillingworth withers up and fades away for “there was no more Devil’s work on earth for him to do.” His mind is untempered by mercy, humanity, or compassion until he dies. He is all head and no heart. His probing intellect, as one knows from his dealings with Dimmesdale, recognizes no “stop” or “caution” sign yielding full advice for him to symbolize revenge, evil, and the closest manifestation of a mortal Devil.
One of the most complex and misunderstood symbols in the book is Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne. Pearl, throughout the story, develops into a dynamic symbol- one that is always changing. Although Hester had so much trouble with Pearl, she still felt that Pearl was her treasure. Pearl was the only object of affection that Hester had in life, and if Pearl wasn t in Hester s life, Hester would almost surely commit suicide. Pearl was more than her mother s only treasure; she was her mother s only source of survival. Hawthorne describes Pearl as beautiful child with broad eyes and luxurious hair that will one day be black like her mother’s. Her mood swings are peculiar. One moment she is laughing for no apparent reason and the next she is fills with silence. This odd behavior is why she is sometimes referred to as the “elf-child” or “imp.” The townspeople refer to her as “demon offspring.” Hawthorne uses Pearl as a symbol of the sin committed between Hester and Dimmesdale. Hester is seen refusing to hold Pearl next to her breast with the scarlet “A.” She comments that one symbol of shame would be inadequate to hide another. By acknowledging the letter on her mother’s chest, she plays an active role in Hester’s punishment rather than a passive one. In the forest scene, the real child can carry the symbol, because Pearl’s narrative meaning and her symbolic meaning neatly coincide. The child points an accusing finger at Hester, and so does fate. The child says, “proceed and pick up your own letter.” And fate echoes, “the scarlet letter is your burden to carry and yours alone.” Pearl is seen trying to emulate her mother by placing seaweed in the shape of an “A” on her own chest, once again suggesting her active role in Hester’s punishment. Once and a while, Pearl would bring joy to Hester s life, and that helps her to keep on living. Pearl is the symbol of a rose to her mother, where at some times she could be blooming and love her mother, but at other times, she could be wilting and insult her. It was at these times when she was “wilting” that brought Hester the most grief. Pearl was the scarlet letter, because if she had never been born, Hester would have never been found guilty of adultery, and thus never would have had to wear that burden upon her chest. Without that burden, Hester would have led a much more appropriate life than the one she had throughout the novel. From being a rose, to representing the scarlet letter “A”, she was a burden, yet love for Hester. To Dimmesdale, Pearl is a symbol of a living conscience. Pearl is continuously seeking public recognition from Dimmesdale as her father. She represents the driving force behind his tormented soul releasing him from anguish. In the second scaffold scene, she asks Dimmesdale to stand on the scaffold with her and her mother, but when he refuses she eagerly pulls her hand away, saying he is “not bold” and “not true.” Dimmesdale is again seen to deny public recognition of his daughter. After Dimmesdale denies her request, Pearl wipes away the kiss that he presents earlier. In the final scaffold scene, Pearl’s completes her role as a symbol. Dimmesdale publicly acknowledges his daughter and Hester then dies. Pearl kisses her father signifying the end her father’s anguish. She is a symbol of many ideas and emotions. At the beginning her first action is blinking in the sun. This symbolizes her separation from society and isolation from the rest of the world that she is unused to sunlight. Her shunning of the light symbolizes that she is a child of sin. Pearl’s eyes at one point are described as mirrors. This is a symbol of her reflection of Hester’s guilt. Also Pearl’s beautiful luxuriant hair is symbolic of her passion and her ability to be a temptress like her mother was. Pearl functions in Hawthorne’s as a truth teller, a lone voice of honesty and sensibility tempered by a perverse sense. Again and again she asks Hester, who suffers in silence, unwilling to name her daughter’s illegitimate father, why the Reverend Dimmesdale “has his hand over his heart! Is it because, when the minister wrote his name in the book, the Black Man set his mark in that place? But why does he not wear it outside his bosom, as thou does, Mother?” Astonishingly precocious and prescient, Pearl sends a chill through the hearts of the hypocritical Puritans of seventeenth-century Boston. Even when she’s blissful, Pearl has a “naughty smile of mirth and intelligence.” This intelligence is what Chillingworth recognizes in her and is the reason why he left her his estate and small fortune which is contrite since she was the fruit of the root that he was trying to “wilt” away. It’s clear throughout the novel that Hawthorne himself is enamored with Pearl’s wild “mirth and intelligence.” He notes that the women of the era tended to be countrywomen fresh from England, and “the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into their composition.” Pearl’s presence emerges to augur a new era. Pearl is the symbol of balanced innocence by an odd contrast of super-natural knowledge.
The point Hawthorne is making is that our past actions inevitably shape our lives and by the signs of those actions- be they medals or badges of infamy- which we wear. Symbols like the scarlet letter shape our perceptions and our temperaments. They determine the type of individuals we grow to be. Hawthorne describes the purpose of the novel when he says “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” 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, or the emotions that will continue to be felt by every generation hereafter.