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Light and Darkness in The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, felt that the Puritans were people who believed that the world was a place where the battle between good and evil was a never-ending one. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne uses the symbols of light and dark to depict this battle among the characters Hester Prynne, Pearl, and Roger Chillingworth.

After Hester commits her sin, her beauty almost immediately vanishes into darkness. Her hair no longer hangs freely about her face, instead she ties it up in a bonnet. Hester is not perceived as an evil person, but her sin makes her “light” hide away. The sun is used as a descriptor of the goodness or pure nature of character. Because of her sin and the scarlet letter, Hester is no longer pure, therefore she is not seen in the sun. Hawthorne states, “It was only the darkened house that could contain her. When sunshine came again, she was not there.” While on a walk to the forest, Pearl, Hester’s daughter states, “…the sunshine does not love you. it runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom.” This is evidence that the scarlet letter itself may be the cause of Hester’s darkness.

Pearl is the character most recognized for her presence in the sun. She is drawn to the sun, as the sun is drawn to her. While at the governor’s house, Pearl notices how brightly the sun shines through the windows. She requests that, “the sunshine be stripped off its front and given to her to play with.” Hester responds by saying, “No my little Pearl. Thou must gather thine own sunshine. I have none to give thee!” Pearl has been seen as a character that always persists on knowing the truth. While in the forest Pearl wants to hear a story from Hester. She asks Hester if she has ever seen the Black Man. Hester replies that she has seen the Black Man once before. This suggests that the Black Man may be her husband, Roger Chillingworth.

Roger Chillingworth is a character who is almost Satan-like. Chillingworth is described as the Black Man by Pearl and his own description of himself suggests that he is a fiend of some kind. When Chillingworth discovers that Dimmesdale was the father of Pearl, he taunts him and makes him feel more guilt than he already possesses. Hester feels guilty because she has suppressed from Dimmesdale who Chillingworth really is. Chillingworth says, “Ye that have wronged me not sinful, save in a kind of typical illusion, neither am I fiend like who have snatched a fiend’s office from his hands. It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may!” The black flower, as Chillingworth describes it, is the truth of all the events leading up to who the father is, and who Chillingworth is. The truth is a dark truth, therefore it is related with the darkness.

Hester, Pearl, and Chillingworth are all characters associated with good and/or evil. Hester’s character is at first beautiful and after she bonds with the scarlet letter she is seen with the darkness, and shadows. Her transformation occurs when she takes the bonnet off, and detaches the letter. Almost immediately her light comes back and she is beautiful again. This is her physical exposure to Pearl, as well as the exposure of her adulterous sin. Pearl does not have anything to expose, but she does witness Hester’s transformation in the light. Pearl, for the first time, expresses human emotion, which happens in her mother’s light. Roger Chillingworth is the dark force in this particular story. He suffices the truth through Dimmesdale and Hester’s guilty feelings. Hence, Chillingworth is the tool for exposing the dark truths.


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