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The Scarlet Letter Theme Symbols Essay, Research Paper

Nathaniel Hawthorne chose the market place and the forest as settings used to symbolically develop his portrait of society and the characters in The Scarlet Letter. In this novel a story unfolds of three people who are torn apart by sin, revenge, and guilt. The market place reveals to the reader a place of restraint and severe Puritan laws. The setting of the forest yields

the impressions of wild unrestraint and passion.

The market place paints a careful picture of restraint and law that seldom delves into the depths of raw human emotion. As we study the buildings, we receive an equally strict message. The churches plant a vision of austere religion and conformity into the minds of eager readers. The closeness of the buildings in proximity to one another demonstrates the level of care and

interest each member of the population is meant to take in the others. One of the most prominent structures in the market place is the scaffold. It was in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus holding it up to public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron (56). It was made clear that this structure was a symbol of punishment to the people, but it also came to be a symbol of sin, guilt, death, and release.

How did this structure take on so many meanings throughout the book? The answer is that each time there was an event occurring at the scaffold, each of the main characters was present. The place that Hawthorne chose to unite the characters and hoard symbolic meaning was the scaffold. In the second chapter, entitled The Market-Place, the reader is first introduced to Hester Prynne as she serves her punishment on the scaffold with her child, Pearl, in her arms. A careful survey of this scene reveals her minister Dimmesdale above

the scaffold and her husband, Chillingworth, in the crowd. From the very beginning, Hawthorne has brought these characters together in the ominous presence of the scaffold.

In chapter seven, entitled The Minister s Vigil, we find Dimmesdale standing atop the scaffold with his arms outstretched to his mundane lover and daughter. Chillingworth also emerges out of the darkness to call in the minister. In the final scaffold scene, we see the minister openly admit his sin, with Hester and Pearl by his side, and Chillingworth at the bottom of the

scaffold, just out of reach of the minister as he desperately attempts to stop him. After the confession, this becomes the site of Dimmesdale s death. The scaffold anthologized these meanings throughout the course of the novel. The scaffold serves as a place of update on the immediate, delayed, and prolonged effects of the sin. It carries Hester s initial guilt, Chillingworth s initial response of shock to the sin, Dimmesdale s insanity after Hester has already come to terms with the sin, Chillingworth s revenge affirmed in the night, and the eventual death of the minister from the burden of the sin.

While the setting in the market place places an emphasis on the woes of sin, punishment, and law, the forest gives us a glimpse into the unbridled passion at the heart of the love story. Amidst the trees, a wanderer may take refuge in a place far removed from the law that governs the ever stern market place. This wild refuge peers into the soul in a way that one might reveal hidden desires and passions. Symbolically, the forest is passion, the heart, darkness, and light.

The passionate sin commited between Hester and Dimmesdale was one of unrestraint, the same unrestraint that might be found in the forest where the heart rules over the head. It is in the forest that the two merge after the hardships that they have suffered. Darkness is related to the Puritain belief that the Dark man dwelled among the trees. Light is found when the impetuous

Pearl chases after sunlight along the forest path, Hester streches out her hand to catch a ray. but the sunshine vanishes. The light found in the forest, represents the purity that Hester seeks. The movement of the light represents the denial of purity that Hester has faced. Hester s lack of surprise and quick retreat into the darkness shows that she never expects to be admitted into

purity. These truths can only be revealed as one explores the setting of the heart, the forest. It is the forest that brings to life the unyielding village, yet the village that shows how savage the forest is by contrasting these settings.

When discussing symbols, we must concur that they have their place in enhancing the themes. The forest is considered by the Puritan people to be a source of sin, while the village is a reassuring place of morals. This book explores the sin and passion in life that stands toe to toe with the adversity of a religious society. Two people who are very spiritual find themselves

overtaken by a sin of the flesh. Faced with the punishment, one open and one self inflicted, their shame placed on display in the village.

In closing, the two settings of choice in Hawthorne s novels give way to keen development of the stories and a cornucopia of symbolism. The market place restrains a person, a vision planted in our minds with the use of Hawthorn s most prominent symbol and setting, the scaffold. The forest, another setting that clearly conveys an image, is used as a place of abundant

unrestraint where the reader can learn about the heart.


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