On the Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter
Written by: Li Yanwei
Supervised by: Zheng Gaohong
College of Adult Education
Anhui Normal University
I would like to express my appreciation for my classmates, my teacher and my Lecturer Zheng .With their help, I achieved this essay. Thanks to my classmates who give encouragement and reference books for me. I also acknowledge my comprehensive English teacher who gives me available information and advices .And I want give my special gratefulness to Mr. Zheng, he provides a lot of effective suggestions for my thesis ,and suggests me how to perfect my essay. Finally, I genuinely offer my acknowledgement to them.
As a famous writer of romanticism, Nathaniel Hawthorne is skillful at the using of symbolism in his works.
The various usage of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter makes the novel as a work of the world. The novel revolves around one major symbol: the Scarlet Letter. Besides, the four major characters: Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth and Pearl have their symbolic meanings, Moreover, some other objects that are described in the novel also have their symbolic meanings . In a word, The Scarlet Letter is a novel of much symbolism.
Key words: the Scarlet Letter, symbolic, scaffold
The Scarlet Letter: Much Symbolism The Scarlet Letter is a book of much symbolism. 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. In the following essay, I will explore some of the symbolism which Pearl came to represent throughout the novel. In The ...
On the Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter
Chapter 1 Introduction
1. Literature review
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, the descendent of a long line of Puritan ancestors, including John Hawthorne, a presiding magistrate in the Salem witch trials. After his father lost at sea when he was only four years old, his mother became overly protective and pushed him toward more isolated pursuits. Hawthorne’s childhood left him overly shy and bookish, and molded his life as a writer. The Scarlet Letter which makes him known all around the world is one of his most famous works. The novel published in 1850s, which is notable for its allegory and symbolism and is regarded as the first symbolic novel in American literature. The Scarlet Letter recounts the story of Hester Prynne who is a young, recently married woman. She is sent to start a new life in America while her husband remains in England. In America she falls into love with another man and gives birth to a baby. This behavior is against for the puritan law, so she has been caught and asked to tell the truth. However, she does not reveal the name of her lover after a public trial, and she is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” which is marking her as an adulteress. Unknown to her or her lover, her husband stands among the crowd who condemns her. Hester’s husband a cold-hearted man who decides to find the father of the baby, and takes actions of his plan to revenge. When finding the truth, he begins to torment Dimmesdale. In this situation, he has to agree with Hester’s escape plan. But it fails. Finally, Dimmesdale, with Hester and Pearl, go to the scaffold. He admits that he is the father of the Pearl and dies. Later, Chinngworth also passes away. While Hester is acknowledged through her intergrity and attic faith of the life.
2. The significance
As a great romantic novelist in America in 19th century, Hawthorne is outstanding in handling the application of symbolism. The Scarlet Letter is Hawthorne’s the most important symbolic novel, which stands as the best work of Hawthorne and one of the indubitable masterpieces of American literature. This essay aims at the exploration of the usage of the symbolism in the novel. It mainly discusses the deep symbolic significance of the scarlet letter “A”, the four major characters, and the objects. The scarlet letter is the central symbol of the novel. It is symbolic meaning changes from “adultery” to “able”, even “angel” in the novel. It also examines the symbolic meanings of little Pearl and some typical natural surroundings such as the jail, the forest, the scaffold and so on. This novel has a very important symbolic significance.
Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne The evils and goods of mankind are illustrated in the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter. The author was assured that every human being is mainly composed by good or evil and by the opposite in part. The novel depicts the lives of four persons who live in a small Puritan town. The main heroes of The Scarlet Letter were Pearl, Hester Prynne, Robert ...
Meanwhile, the Scarlet Letter depicts three kinds of criminals in the puritan society; they are Hester who makes a sin of adultery, Dimmesdale who makes a sin of cheating, and Chillingworth who makes a sin of vengeance. It probes deeply into the essence of the puritan community, reveals the cruelty of law in the Capitalist society, the religious cheating and hypocritical morality.
Chapter2 The Symbolism of the Letter “A”
2.1 “A” for “Adultery ” “shame ” and “human nature”
The novel opens with Hester being led to the scaffold. The letter “A” which is worn in Hester’s chest is a symbol of her adultery against Roger Chillingworth. As a puritan punishment way of the adultery, it is her punishment to wear the letter “A”. And she is forced to wear the scarlet letter on her bosom all the time. And the purpose of this letter is a shame to wear for Hester, and makes her unset. “Here, she said to herself, has been the scene of her guilt there should be a scene of her earthly punishment……. “. Hester is ashamed at her sin, but she chooses not to display it. She admits this crime in the heart of passion and fully recognizes. Though she feels compunction, she also accepts her most valuable treasure—Pearl. With this situation, many people will leave Boston to find a place where is remote and no one knows her sin, and hide her character and identity under a new exterior, or she can emerge into another state where she could aloof from the law that condemns her. However, Hester chooses to stay which indicates that she has a lot of strength and integrity. What’s more, the letter “A” is natural rather than being exotic and lurid as the community sees, and those things associated with them—passion and sexuality in particular —are natural to human nature. if we see the letter “A” as a symbol of human nature, then Hester sees the letter “A” as punishment and shame , the community shows it as human nature especially passion ,to be devilish.
... daughter, Pearl. Hester takes up the occupation of seamstress, a job that, as shown by the golden embroidery around the scarlet letter, ... Hester's public scaffold punishment is over, Hawthorne changes the roles of the towns' people and Hester, making Hester the only one who is not sinning ... on the scaffold with everyone in town ridiculing her until she confesses who her partner was in the sin, but ...
2.2 “A” for “Able” “Angel” “Arthur”
Then, The letter” A” stands for Able, Angel, and Arthur. The villagers now change their minds to believe that the scarlet letter stands for Hester’s ability and her beautiful needlework. “The letter was a symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness is found in her so much power to do and power to sympathize —that many people refused to interpret the scarlet letter “A”.” (P148).
So there are many people realized that Hester has a noble character .then the letter “A” symbolizes angel rather than adultery. Hester provides time and love for the person who needs her most, which proves that she has not defeated when she encounters many suffers. In Hester’s eyes, the letter “A” also represents her lover “Arthur”. So the scarlet letter can be regarded as the badge of the ardent love between Hester and Arthur. This is shown by Hester’s appearance at the scaffold with a proud smile at the beginning of the story. Hester does not feel shamed for the letter but thinks of it as a symbol of their great love.
These changes in scarlet letter are very significant .They show her sin, her ability and her beauty. Hester is a powerful woman who is more admirable to go through the emotional torture, as most people go through life.
Chapter3 The expression of symbolism in the character
3.1 Pearl: A living scarlet letter
Pearl is one of the most complex and misunderstood symbols in the novel. She is the daughter of Hester and Arthur. Pearl was a source of many different kinds of symbolism.
... and Dimmesdales secret, his ... Dimmesdales church robe and saw the scarlet letter on the chest before him, hence ending Chillingworths search for the father of Pearl. Now that Chillingworth knew Hester ...
The most significant symbolic meaning of Pearl in the novel is her association with the scarlet letter” A “. When Hester realizes this in the first scaffold scene, she resists the temptation to hold Pearl in front of the scarlet letter “A “, “and indeed, of the child‘s whole appearance, that it irresistibly reminded the beholder of the token which Hester Prynne was doomed to wear upon her bosom”. (P93) Pearl really is the scarlet letter which is in another form and endows the scarlet letter with life.
As a symbol, Pearl always keeps Hester aware of her sin. Pearl always keeps Hester aware that there is no escape from her passionate nature. The puritans would call that natural “sinful”, In chapter 6, Hawthorne employs an often-used technique for that passion .Hawthorne handles mirror images, Hester looks into ” the black mirror of Pearl’s eyes” and she sees ” a face ,fiend-like , full of smiling malice ,yet bearing the semblance of features that she had known full well ,though seldom with a smile ,and never with malice in them” , Is this her own face ,never with malice ,but is contorted by evil ? If so, Pearl is the embodiment of that passion.
Moreover ,Pearl is the person who eventually makes Dimmesdale admit his crime, she constantly asks why the minister keeps putting his hand over his heart and figures out it is the same reason that her mother wears the scarlet letter , Her role as a living scarlet letter is to announce to the whole world who the guilt parents are ,when Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold where Hester suffered her public humiliation several years before, he meets Hester and Pearl who have been at Governor Winthrop’s deathbed, taking a measurements for a roe . He invites them to join him on the stand. Then when they later meet in the forest, Hester says to Pearl, “He loves thee, my little Pearl, and loves thy mother too. Wilt thou love him?” Pearl says, “Doth he love us?” then asks, “wilt he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?” The answer is “not now”. So when Dimmesdale impresses a kiss on her brow before they leave the forest, “Pearl broke away from her mother, and, running to the brook, stooped over it, and bathed her forehead, until the unwelcome kiss was quite washed off…” (P194) At this time, Pearl does not accept this father. At the end of the novel, when the minister climbs up the scaffold with the help of Hester and Pearl and confesses his sin to his followers, Pearl kisses his lips. She accepts her father finally. So Pearl’s role as the living Scarlet Letter is over, and eventually Dimmesdale takes responsibility for his sin.
... with Pearl, her daughter. Chillingworth finds and attaches himself to the Reverend Dimmesdale, the man who committed adultery with Hester. He reads Dimmesdale's soul ... town of Boston. He had a few run-ins with Pearl and Hester and ministered at the bedside of the dying Governor Winthrop. ... idea throughout the novel. One such motif is the forest. The forest is used to symbolize evil, as the home of ...
2. Hester Prynne : A symbol of strength and independence
What most remarkable about Hester Prynne is her strength and independence of character. While Hawthorne does not give a great deal of information about her life before the book opens, he does show her remarkable character, reveals them through her public humiliation and subsequent isolated life in Puritan society. Her inner strength, her defiance of convention, her honesty, and her compassion may have been in her character all along.
Nathaniel Hawthorne describes her in Chapter Two like this: “The young woman was tall, a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale, she had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes…”(P50)The people first meets the incredibly strong woman on the scaffold with Pearl in her arms to begin her punishment. On the scaffold, she displays a sense of irony and contempt. The irony is presented in the elaborate needlework of the scarlet letter. there are ” fantastic flourishes of gold – thread” and the letter is ornately decorative , significantly beyond the colony’s laws that call for somber and unadorned attire .while she might be feeling agony as if “her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon” , “her face reveals no thought ,and her demeanor is described as ‘haughty'”, she displays a dignity and grace that reveals a deep trust in herself when Dimmesdale implores her to name the father of the baby and tells her that penance may be lightened. Hester says : “Never！”, when asked again, she says, “I will not speak!” It shows Hester’s self-reliance and inner strength which are further revealed in her defiance of the law and in her confrontation with the governor of the colony.
CHARACTERS ROGER CHILLINGWORTH - In chapters ten through twelve, Roger Chillingworth's devilish ways and soul match his hideous and horrible physique. He projects his evil nature and is at his peak of revenge towards the reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. He satisfies his sinful yearnings to diminish Dimmesdale physically and emotionally by drowning him in his own sin. ARTHUR DIMMESDALE - It is obvious ...
Hester’s strength and independence is evident in her dealing with both her husband and her lover. Hester defies chillingworth when he demands to know the name of her lover. In the forests scene, Dimmesdale ever acknowledges that she has the strength that he lacks. The minister calls on her to give him strength to overcome his indecisiveness twice in the forest and again when he faces his confession on Election Day. What’s more, during these years, Hester refuses to speak out his lover and overcomes all the punishment by herself. She proves her worth with her uncommon sewing skills and provides community services. Finally, Hester becomes an angel of mercy who eventually lives out her life as a figure of compassion in the community. She becomes known for her charity. In the end, Hester’s strength, honesty, and compassion carry her through a life she had never imagined. While Dimmesdale dies after his public confession and Chillingworth dies by his own hatred and revenge, Hester lives on quietly, and becomes something of a legend in the colony of Boston. The scarlet letter makes her what she becomes, and in the end, she grows stronger and more peaceful through her rest life
3. Roger Chillingworth, a symbol of revenge
Roger Chillingworth’s character is not like Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s character. He is complex and difficult to see though. While he changes from a kind scholar into an obsessed fiend, he is less of a character and more of a symbol that doing the devil’s bidding. Once he comes to Boston, we see him only in the situation that involves his obsession with vengeance where we learn a great deal about him. The words “chilling” and “worth” compose the surname Chillingworth. Chilling comes from the word “Chilly”, which means this man is a merciless avenger. Hawthorne begins building this symbol of evil vengeance with Chillingworth’s first appearance in the novel by associating him with deformity, wildness and mysterious power. We feel a bit sorry for Roger Chillingworth during the first scaffold scene when he arrives in Massachusetts Bay colony and finds his wife suffering public punishment for an adulterous act. At that time, he chooses revenge. Chillingworth is a “man of science”. His love of learning and intellectual pursuit attracts Dimmesdale. In the New World, A learned man is rare. This love of wisdom is what will draw the two men go together, It also facilitates Chillingworth’s plans. When Chillingworth decides to trace Hester’s lover and enact revenge. He pursues this purpose with the technique and motives. As a scientific investigator, his cold-hearted and intellectual knowledge give him a lot of help. Hawthorne says, “Few secret can escape an investigator, who has opportunity and license to under take such a quest and skill to follow it up”.
When Chillingworth begins his investigation, he does so as a scientist. He uses his cold-hearted and intellectual to revenge the minister.This is what makes Chillingworth diabolical in the end. He violates Dimmesdale’s heart and soul to see how he will react. Eventually when Hester talks with him about whether Dimmesdale’s debt has been paid. Chillingworth says that it would have been better endure seven years of vengeance. In seeking vengeance, he has taken on the devil’s Job. His obsession with revenge is what makes him in Hawthorne’s eyes—the worst sinner, and therefore, he is a pawn of the evil .When he finally found the scarlet letter “A” on the bosom of the minister, he busted out a ghastly rapture. He is turning from a victim to a sinner. When he finds his wife betrays him, He delicates all his time to seek revenge. He gives up his identity. Living with the minister and being by his side all day, every day, Chillingworth forgets that he still has a change to lead a life of his own. After Dimmedale climbs the scaffold to reveal him secret to the world, CHillingworth knows the minister is about to escape him. Chillingworth dies less a year later because his purpose to make minister encounter mental torture is his only reason for living, when his object is completed, Chillingworth does indeed cease to exist. In the conclusion, Chillingworth is also means that the avenger’s life is worthless.
4. Arthur Dimmesdale: A symbol of hypocrisy
Arthur Dimmesdale, the personification of “human frailty and sorrow “, is young, pale, and physically delicate man. He has melancholy eyes and a tremulous mouth. It shows us that he is a sensitive man. As an ordained Puritan minister, he is well educated, and he has a philosophical turn of mind. There is no doubt that he is devoted to God, passionate in his religion, and effective in the pulpit. Of the four major characters in this novel, who investigates the nature of evil and sin and is a criticism of Puritan rigidity and intolerance, Dimmesdale is the only Puritan. In Puritan terms, Dimmesdale’s predicament is that he is unsure of his soul’s status: He is exemplary in performing his duties as a Puritan minister and an indicator. However, he knows he has sinned and considers himself as a hypocrite. As a minister, Dimmesdale has a voice that consoles and an ability to sway audiences. His followers adore him and his parishioners seek his advice. As a minister, Dimmesdale must be above reproach, and there is no question that he excels at his profession and enjoys a reputation among his congregation and other ministers. Aside his soul, he does do good works. His ministry aims people at leading good lives. If he publicly confesses, he would lose his ability and reputation. So he hesitates to confess his sin. Dimmesdale’s struggle is dark and his penance is horrifying as he tries to unravel his mystery. In Chapter 11, Dimmesdale struggles with his knowledge of his sin, his inability to disclose it to Puritan society, and his desire for penance. As a sinner, he is weakened to temptation. As demonstrated later, his weakened condition makes it easier for him to associate himself with the Black Man in the forest. His congregation expects him to be above other mortals, and his life and thoughts must exist on a higher spiritual plane than others.
In the forest scene, Dimmesdale evidently realizes that he is human and should ask forgiveness and do penance openly. Dimmesdale’s confession in the third scaffold scene and the climax of the story is the action that ensures his salvation. The reader senses that whether chosen or earned, Dimmesdale’s salvation is a reality. Having had several opportunities to confess, it is without success until this scene, because he asks God’s forgiveness not only for himself, but also for Chillingworth. At the end of the story, the writer puts the moral which presses upon the reader from the poor minister’s miserable experience into one sentence, “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst many be inferred! “
Chapter4.The symbolism of the other objects which are described in the novel
4.1 The forest and the river
The forest in this novel symbolizes much more, for some people the forest may be a place of sinister thoughts and wrong doing, but for others it is a place of freedom and happiness.
The first encounter with the forest have symbolized that lingers within the darkness of the forest .As Hester and Pearl leave governor Bellingham’s estate, they are confronted by mistress Hibbins who explains that the witches are meeting in the forest ,and she then invites Hester to become more deeply involved with her evil ways. “Wilt thou go with us tonight” asked mistress Hibbins, yet Hester refuses to sign her name in the black man’s book on that night .She explains that the only reason she does not sign is because Pearl is still in her life . At this time the forest itself is an open door to another world, a wicked world that would take her away from her resent situation, but that is not the only door that the forest holds.
The forest is an open door to love and freedom for Hester and Dimmesdale .It is a place where the letter “A” on their chest can no longer have an effect on them if they choose .In pearl’s mind, the forest is her best friend .It treats her as if she were one part of the forest. The forest is the symbols of nature governed by nature laws, as opposed to artificial puritan community with it man made laws. In the forest, they feel freedom.
The river, Prynne and Dimmesdale gather beside, the river, Pearl is in the other side of. However, Prynne calls Pearl, but Pearl is unwilling to cross the river. Then, the sensitive pastor said: “This stream is the dividing line between two worlds ……” River is the Symbol of line between evil and pure. In the forest, river means clear. What’s more, it seems to Symbolize Pearl, who owns pure and simple. And the lively facial of flowing in the shadows would mean that Pearl’s unknown life experience.
4.2 The Prison
The Prison represents different Symbols. Firstly, it is a symbol for the Puritanical severity of law. The prison is cold, rested and strong with an” iron—clamped oaken door”. This represents the rigorous enforcement of laws and the inability to break free of them. “But on one side of the portal and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bash, covered, in this month of Tune, with it’s delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as the came forth to his doom in token that the deep heart if Nature could pity and be kind to him” (P46).
It indicates that Puritanical authoritarianism may be too rigid, which will obliterate things of beauty.
In this novel, scaffold appears three times, the beginning, middle and end. It is a very important clue of the entire novel. The first time “scaffold” appears in the second chapter, Hester wears the scarlet letter “A” for three hours in the front of the crowd. The novel has just kicked off at that time. It is the starting date that Hester is punished by the religious precepts. The second appearance of the scaffold is in the chapter ten. As a much-admired brilliant young clergyman, Dimmesdale hides the feeling of sin, which makes him very painful. Then his face is in pale, and his body begins to shrink. Therefore, he goes to the scaffold and confesses his sin in a dark night. Although there is no public punishment by the religious precepts, Dimmesdale quietly accepts the punishment on his soul. The third appearance of scaffold is at the end of the novel, when New England is being held a grand celebration. After making the last sermon, Dimmesdale goes onto the scaffold to confess his sin, and ultimately he is punished. The scaffold can be said to constitute the framework for the whole novel, and from another perspective, it hints a “Crime and Punishment” theme.
Chapter 5 Conclusion
The Scarlet Letter is one of the novels in which there are as many interpretations as there are readers. In an effort to better understand the novel, this easy has explored the use of symbolism in the novel from three aspects: the scarlet letter “A”, the four characters, and the objects that described in the novel. The dominating theme of The Scarlet Letter is about sin and its consequences. And the moods are about despair, sorrow and repentance.
The writer uses flexibly the symbolism to deepen the connotation of the novel. The whole novel takes the Scarlet Letter as the clue, and the meaning of the Scarlet Letter has changed with the development of plots. In another word, the whole life of Hester actually is to dispel the negative meaning of the Scarlet Letter and give a new meaning for it.
In short, The Scarlet Letter makes the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne famous all around the world. Nathaniel Hawthorne uses symbolism in the novel which shows his great writing skills in the fictional field. These are reasons why Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is American literature’s famous symbolic novel. Hawthorne use symbolism so skillful that it enhances the artistic effects of his work greatly.
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