Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter


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Honors 10

Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter

  1. Generally speaking, a symbol is anything which is used to represent something other than itself. It is in his use of symbols in The Scarlet Letter that Hawthorne has made one of his most distinctive and significant contributions to the growth of American fiction. This book is usually regarded as the first symbolic novel to be written in the United States.

  2. Listed below are the major symbols used by Hawthorne in this novel and an explanation of their meanings as applied in the context of the story.

      1. Prison- represents “the black flower of civilized society”: Hawthorne is using the prison building to represent the crime and punishment which are aspects of civilized life.

      2. The Grass Plot- “much overgrown with such unsightly vegetation” as another brief symbol of civilization corrupted by the elements which make prisons necessary.

      3. Wild Rose-Bush- “ it may serve… 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.”

      4. The Letter “A” Itself-(1) Its initial form as a red cloth letter standing for the sin of adultery, that A is little more symbolic than a man’s initials, but Hawthorne makes much more of it before the book ends. (2) The letter appears in a variety of forms and places. (3) The letter acquires a variety of meanings. Even as the original mark of adultery, the scarlet letter has different personal meanings.

  1. To the puritan community it’s a mark of just punishment.

  2. To Hester, a device of unjust humiliation.
  3. To Dimmesdale, a piercing reminder of his own guilt.

  4. To Chillingworth, a spur to the quest for revenge

  5. To Pearl, a bright and mysterious curiosity.

  6. “Angel” when it appears in the sky and on the might of Governor Winthrop’s death.

  7. “Able” when, years after her humiliation of the scaffold. Hester has won some respect from the Puritans.

      1. Scaffold - it is not only a symbol of the stern Puritan Code but also becomes a symbol for the open acknowledgment of personal sin; it’s the place to which Dimmesdale knows he must go for atonement, the only place where he can escape the grasp of Chillingworth, for the devil.

      2. Night- used as a symbol for concealment.

      3. Day- a symbol for exposure.

      4. Sun- used as a symbol of untroubled, guiltless, or the approval of God and Nature.

      5. Forest- is symbolic in a variety of ways.

  1. As a place where witches gather, where souls are signed away to the devil, and where Dimmesdale can “ yield himself with deliberate choice… to what he knew was deadly sin,” it’s symbolic of the world of darkness and evil.

  2. As a place where Pearl can run and play freely, a friend of the animals and wild flowers, and where even Hester can throw away her letter, let down her hair, and become a woman, it’s symbolic of a natural world governed by natural laws as opposed to the artificial community with its man-made Puritan laws.

  3. As a place where darkness and gloom predominate and where one can find his way only by following a narrow twisting path, it’s symbolic of the “moral wilderness” in which Hester has been wandering.

      1. Brook -
  1. Because of its unknown source its travels though gloom, it’s suggestive of Pearl.

  2. Because of its mournful babble, it becomes a kind of history of sorrow, to which one more sorrowful tale is added.

  3. When Pearl refuses to cross the brook to join Hester and Dimmesdale, it becomes to the minister “a boundary between two worlds.”

  1. The minor characters in the novel are almost purely symbolic. The Puritan worlds of church, state and witchcraft are personified in the figures of the Reverend Mr. Wilson, Governor Bellingham, and Mistress Hibbins, respectfully; it’s interesting to note that Hawthorne mentions all three of them in connection with each of the scaffold scenes. The groups of unnamed somber and self-righteous Puritans in the marketplace are clearly representative of Puritanism generally even down to the detail of the gentle young wife who saves Hawthorne’s condemnation of the Puritans from being a complete one.

Imagery in The Scarlet Letter:

The novel develops the conflict through its imagery and through two opposing clusters of images, one associated with society and the other with nature.

  1. Images Related to Nature: The images, characters, colors and setting which are associated with Hester and the natural impulses that led her to adultery can be leted as follows:

      1. Natural Images: rose, sun, brook. These are images from nature which always stand in contrast to the weed-filled, sunless, and parched world of the Puritans.

      2. Artificial Images: the scarlet letter, earned by Hester’s passion, is of course, the major man-made symbol of Hester’s unrestrained natural (and sinful) act.
      3. Character Symbols: Indians and sailors. Indians are frequently considered natural man (or noble savages): Hawthorne calls the sailor “wild men of the ocean, as the Indians were of land.” Both outside of the society’s world. They are untamed and “wild” like the wild rose-bush growing near the prison.

      4. Colors: yellow, gold, green, red. There are nature’s colors, and are associated with Pearl and Hester and natural settings (like the forest) in contrast with the drab colors of Puritan society.

      5. Setting: the forest is where Hester and Dimmesdale meet and almost repeat their sin by adopting a new immoral plan according to their natural impulses.

      6. Major characters: of the major characters in the novel, Hester and Pearl are most comfortable outside society’s rigid conventions and more at home in nature’s setting.

  2. Images Related to Society: The images, characters, colors and setting which are associated with society can be listed as follows;

      1. Natural Images: weeds. Society’s role is to restrain (or repress) human nature which threatens to disregard society’s conventions, As we have seen, characters driven by natural impulses are associated with nature’s world, with rose bushes, brooks, and the sun. Society is thus out of harmony with these, largely unassociated with nature, or at most, related to nature’s weeds, the enemies of her more beautiful flowers.

      2. Artificial Images: prison and scaffold. Society’s structures for punishing those who disobey it are the major artificial or man-made images associated with it. These structures are reflected throughout the novel in other architectural images of rigidity meant to mirror Puritan inflexibility, like the steeple-pointed hats, the oak and nail-studded prison door, and the governor’s hall, with its arched door, iron hammer, shuttered windows and narrow tower.

      3. Character Symbols: the puritans. The characters who symbolize society make up the faceless, unmerciful judging Puritan crowd which appears most significantly in the opening scene and at the final scene around the scaffold when Dimmesdale makes his confession.
      4. Colors: gray and black. The colors of Puritan society and the color of gloom, particularly black and gray.

      5. Setting: The scaffold and the Puritan marketplace. These are the places where society enacts its role, and where 3 of the novel’s major scenes take place.

      6. Major Character: Dimmesdale. Society has made him its symbol: he is the most respected member of the community, although in a painfully false and ironic position. He is thus never associated with nature and seeks the scaffold for his major revelations, both private (when he airs his guilt along) and when he openly confesses.

III. Chillingworth and the Image Pattern:

A. Chillingworth, the novel’s most corrupt and corrupting character represents corruption of both worlds.

1.) He uses natures only in its corrupt (or poisonous) form, and then for corrupt and sinisterly scientific purposes.

2.) At the same time, he is associated with the Indians and the sailors, with whom he appears in the opening and closing scenes of the novel, bur from then he learns the darker secrets of uncivilized man.

B. He is a representative of society in his sinister attempt to punish one of its sinners, but he is a perversion of society in the lawlessness is a perversion of the harmless lawlessness of Pearl.

  1. Detailed criticism of the Puritan way of Life:

Hawthorne is building up an elaborate picture to show his contempt of a society which could be so intensely intolerant of individuals and their slips from the path of virtue. The women in Chapter II (to the best of our knowledge, representative of Boston womanhood) are vicious in their criticism of Hester. They regret she is not to die- or, at least, to be branded on the forehead with a hot iron. Consider Hester’s good deeds to the poor (nursing and sewing): the very ones she helps generally throw bitter words in her face. Later in her life, Hester is a respected member of the community, for the passage of time and her good deeds help people to forget her sin of adultery.

  1. Pride and Intellect:

Chillingworth is a scientist-physician, proud of his achievements. When he finds Hester in her distressed condition of the scaffold, he rejects her. His pride is hurt. Here is a struggle between the head (study, reflection, and speculation) and the heart (his former affection for Hester). If he were to allow his heart to win the struggle, he might still be capable of future happiness. But, as is often the case he brings suffering on himself because of his disregard of the basic laws of human affection and brotherhood.

  1. The Evil of Isolation:

(That is, being separated from others physically, mentally, socially, or morally). Because of her sin of adultery, Hester is isolated from others in the community. She is not allowed to sew certain objects (such as new brides’ veils), for her tainted hands would soil them. She has no idle chatter with others. She is either ignored or taunted by parents and children alike. Many examples could be cited to point out the isolation of Dimmesdale (secretly suffering with remorse and a bad conscience) and Chillingworth (eagerly pursuing the victim of caused the various types of isolation), not only from other children, but also from her mother (to a great extend_ and from her father (until near the end of the story.)

D.) Obsession for revenge:

Chillingworth, in the process of destroying the minister’s soul, destroys his own and ruins any chance he may have had for happiness. Revenge destroys Chillingworth the avenger, more completely than it does his victim, Dimmesdale.

IV. Guilt Which is Hidden:

Guild which is admitted openly, such as Hester’s daily wearing of her scarlet symbol, eventually is cleansed out of the system. But that which is hidden (such as Dimmesdale’s) succeeds only in exciting remorse, a bad case of conscience, and eventual hypocrisy. The Puritan belief in confession as a means of purifying the soul applies troubled conscience bothers him almost as much as the “red stigma” (unhealed would on his breast) over which he often places his hand. Actually, Hester’s wearing the scarlet letter does not make her sin (as it was supposed to do). It only makes her submissiveness, and the Puritan community is happy and contented that it has the upper hand over her. In like fashion, Dimmesdale’s “red stigma” represents his deep regret for the sin, but it is not a proper substitute for public confession.

Hawthorne’s Style and Techniques
I. Language:

  1. Hawthorne’s vocabulary was wide and well controlled. He chose his words with a sharp sense of precise meaning and a keen ear to sound. The language of the book is clean, precise and effective. One may occasionally be driven to a dictionary, but more often than not it’s because a word in standard usage in 1850 has become obsolete since that time.

  2. Hawthorne’s style is also noteworthy for his frequent use of images. Metaphors and similes are frequently used and he makes skillful use of colors, from the red foes of the opening chapter to the red and black shield of his final sentence. Red, black, and gray predominate.

  3. The chief fault to be found in Hawthorne’s language it tends to be too consistently the same, whether inside quotation marks or out. The character, when they speak, all speak essentially like Hawthorne, and although they are quite different in their ages, and educations, and their backgrounds, it is almost impossible to tell them apart from the manner of their speech. This failure to individualize the dialogue, or the speaker, is a weakness which later novelists have tried hard to avoid.

II. Sentence Structure:

  1. Hawthorne’s sentences, like his language, show the effects of his long years of study and practice in writing.

    1. The sentences may appear to be too consistently long, but they were not abnormally long for their day, and even the longest are so logically constructed as to give little difficulty.

  1. Punctuation:
  1. The book is clearly over punctuated, by modern standards: there are superfluous commas, excessive dashes, and far too many exclamation points.

  2. But Hawthorne can not be condemned for following the mechanical conventions of his day.

IV. Narrative Method:

  1. Among the significant questions of technique often applied to novels is whether the writer tells his story primarily through summarized historically narrative (telling us, in his own words what happens to the characters) or through dramatic scenes (letting the characters convey the story through their own actions and words, as in play). It is often objected that Hawthorne depends too heavily on summarized historical narrative and thus fails to give his novel the life which dramatic presentation lends to a book.

  2. But laid between passages of long summary, are scenes vividly dramatic.

  3. What Hawthorne has done is to present the key scenes dramatically and use summarized historical narrative to ling those scenes together and explain their significance.

  1. Author Instructions:

  1. Occasionally Hawthorne interrupts his novel to address the reader directly, with some comment on the story, some piece of background information, or a brief moral essay.

  2. Often in such cases he refers to himself by using the editorial “we”.

  3. Regardless of whether his comments are interesting or valuable, such intrusions tend to break the continuity and the mood of the story, and are thus generally regarded as technical flaws.

  1. Optional Readings:
  1. A characteristic device of Hawthorne’s which is employed several times in this novel is the “optional reading,” or as F.O. Matthiessen has called it, the “multiple choice,” This is the device in which Hawthorne casts doubts on his own story as the has told it, and suggests that an incident may have happened in quite a different way, if at all.

  2. Hawthorne leaves it to the reader in all these cases, to decide what was “literally true.” It seems as if he wishes to make use of the supernatural devices for symbols, but then having used them, he wants to open some route of escape for the literal-minded reader to whom the supernatural is not justified even by its artistic effects.

  3. Actually this gives Hawthorne the better of two worlds. He is somewhat like the trial lawyer who withdraws a telling remark upon the judge’s objection but knows that the implications of his remark will remain in the jury’s minds.


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