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Symbolism In The Scarlet Lette Essay, Research Paper
Have you ever did something wrong but felt that it was right? After thinking about the situation, did you feel like it was the worst sin you ever committed? Did you confess at the time you realized it was wrong or did you confess because you had no other choice? In Nathaniel Hawthorne s The Scarlet Letter , Hester Prynne, the wife to master Prynne, commits adultery with Reverend Dimmesdale. Hester does not announce that Dimmesdale is the man she sins with. In the act of committing the sin, they had a child (Pearl). Throughout the novel Dimmesdale hurts from the pain of secrecy and tells the community that he is Pearls father. After confessing he dies. Nathaniel Hawthorne writes this novel to show the readers that hidden sin is a burden on the conscience and it will hunt you until it is revealed.
In The Scarlet Letter, expressions using symbols are the main focal points of the novel. Generally speaking, a symbol is a sign or token of something. Literary symbols usually don t have instantly recognizable meanings, but usually take their meanings from the works of which they are a part. Symbols are most often a connected purpose that is used to represent something more hypothetical and progressive in meaning. Often it s a moral, religious, or philosophical perception. Symbols can differ from the most obvious substitution of one thing for another, as in the red cloth letter A on Hester s chest, to creations as immense, complicated, and perplexing as the imprint or ideal of the letter A on Dimmesdale chest. In the following essay, I will explore the symbolism of the prison, the letter A on each main character, and several elements of setting that come in different forms and places throughout the story.
The prison, which Hester was in at the beginning of the novel, is described as the black flower of civilized society (Hawthorne, 1331). The building of the prison represents the crime and punishment, which are the aspects of early Boston s civilized life. In the Custom House, Hawthorne writes, Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison (Hawthorne, 1331). Hawthorne shows the reader that the prison is a very unorthodox place and full of darkness. This scene shows the sin in hester s heart, dark and ugly. There is a rosebush and some weeds that grow beside the prison. The wild rosebush is another symbol but a very positive one. Still at the prison door, Hawthorne quotes, It may 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 (Hawthorne, 1332). The rose is an icon of sunshine or light in a gloomy part of the setting. In the book Hawthorne s Imagery by Richard Fogle, he states Hawthorne calls the progression of the story the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow (Fogle, 138). It is dark to begin with then it grows steadily deeper in gloom. Almost every image has symbolic functions and no scene is unnecessary.
Among the many symbols is the initial form of the letter A . This symbol is a red cloth letter A that is symbolic for the sin of adultery. Even though the letter A stands for adultery it is expressed in a variety of forms and places. The scarlet letter A appears on Hester s chest. Hester is wearing the letter A to signify her sin of adultery. In Hester s eyes the letter A is also symbolic of unjust humiliation. The symbol also appears in the armor breastplate at Governor Bellingham s mansion. Hawthorne quotes, Little Pearl-who was as greatly pleased with the gleaming armour as she had been with the glittering frontispiece of the house-spent some time looking into the polished mirror of the breastplate (Hawthorne, 1362). Pearl recognizes the symbol as her mother s sin. On the night of Dimmesdale s vigil on the scaffold, he sees an immense red A in the sky. He thinks that this is a sign for him to confess his sins. Another form of the letter A is when Hester is conferring with Chillingworth near the bay shore and Pearl arranges eel-grass to form a green A on her own breast. In Marjorie J. Elder s book, Nathaniel Hawthorne, he writes The sin of Dimmesdale with which Hawthorne is primarily concerned is not the sin of passion which precedes the story, but the minister s divergence from Truth (Elder, 124). Dimmesdale is finally revealing the A on his chest to most of the spectators who witness his confession and death. The A on Dimmesdale chest is a piercing reminder of his own guilt. Chillingworth s letter A is imaginable. It symbolizes his quest for revenge even though it s not visible. According to Marjorie Elder, author of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Roger Chillingworth, was a striking evidence of man s faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil s office (Elder, 126). Chillingworth tries to use Hester by making her keep quiet about him. Instead, he metamorphoses himself into a devil by engulfing himself with revenge which is considered a worse sin. Another symbol in the story is Pearl. She symbolizes Gods way of punishing Hester for her sin. Pearl would harass her mother over the scarlet “A” which she wore. Pearl would also make her own “A” to wear, and sometimes she played games with her mother s, trying to hit it with rocks. Pearls behavior is very unusual that she is often referred to as the elf-child, imp, and airy sprite. Pearl herself is a creature of nature, most at home in the wild forest: the mother-forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child (Fogle, 136). She is the living symbol of the scarlet letter and her unique traits make her appear as a demon offspring. Even as the letter A appears in various forms, it also differs in meaning. The letter A meaning adultery also symbolizes Angel when it appears in the sky on the night Governor Winthrop dies. It also symbolizes Able when years after Hester humiliation on the scaffold she finally wins the respect of the Puritans (Elder, 76). The letter A is worn because of the hidden sins in the characters.
Many of the important symbols in the novel lie either in the settings or in the characters. The scaffold is a symbol of Puritan code, but also serves as an open acknowledgement of personal sin. Dimmesdale also knows that the scaffold is the place he must go to escape the old physician Roger Chillingworth. Hawthorne s use of night symbolizes the need of concealment and day symbolizes exposure. Dimmesdale will stand at the scaffold with Hester and Pearl at daylight to symbolize his acceptance of his guilt. The sun is used as a symbol of guilt free feelings, and the approval of God. In Hyatt Waggoner s book Hawthorne, he tells us that Pearl is potentially an immortal soul, but actually, at least before the Conclusion , she seems more nearly a bird, a flower, or a ray of sunlight (Waggoner, 152). Pearl has certain naturalness that even in the forest she seems to absorb the sunshine. Hester cannot retain the sunshine because of the mark of sin on her chest. The forest is symbolic in a variety of ways. The forest symbolizes darkness and evil. It is also where witches gather and souls are signed away to the devil. The natural settings provides many of the most striking symbols in the story, but the most revealing display of Hawthorne s symbolism is what lies in his use of characters. The last sentence of the book describes the heraldic device on the tombstone of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so somber is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow . (Fogle, 22). The tombstone reads On A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A GULES (Hawthorne, 1447). This means the black background was the letter A in red. The setting reveals the hidden sin by the way the scenes or arranged in the novel.
In conclusion, In Nathaniel Hawthorne s, The Scarlet Letter, expressions using symbols are the main focal points of the novel. Hawthorne uses the four major characters as well as the elements of settings as a symbolist. Each one of the characters symbolizes a certain view of sin and its effect on the human heart. One of the symbols, Pearl, is almost a self-contained symbol. She is the most striking symbol that Hawthorne created. In the story, the word symbol means sin to the means of identity. The letter A in the story does not only mean sin of adultery for Hester, but also has several symbolic meanings for many characters.
Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Fogle, Richard Harter. Hawthorne s Imagery. Norman: The University of
Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Waggoner, Hyatt H. Hawthorne. Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 1963.
Fogle, Richard Harter. Hawthorne s Fiction. Norman: The University of Oklahoma
Elder, Marjorie J. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Charlotte: Ohio University Press, 1969.
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