Home » The Symbolic Nature of the Scarlet Letter

The Symbolic Nature of the Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter introduces themes within the story that recur in several settings and serve as metaphors for the underlying conflicts. The trouble in interpreting The Scarlet Letter is the fact that the story is packed full of symbolism that can be either overlooked, or misinterpreted. From the actual letter A’, down to the use of colors, Hawthorne wrote his story with the intention of making the reader work harder and read deeper into the characters and actual meaning of the story.

As the book opens, the first scene the readers are introduced to is the bleak image of a throng of people surrounding a prison door. To create the mood of gloom and sadness Hawthorne uses words such as “sad colored” and “gray, steeple crowned hats,” to describe the clothing of the towns people. The prison stands for sin and an authority that does not condone the deviance from the Puritanical severity of law, and next to the prison door grows a wild rose bush. The single red rose that grows from it serves as a symbol of passion and the two combined, indicate that the prisoner has been incarcerated as a result of the sin from passion.

Also, Ann Hutchinson, who disagreed with the severity of Puritanical teachings and was imprisoned, plays a small part when Hawthorne references her name by mentioning it was possible the beautiful rosebush sprang from her steps. This is an implication of the rigidness of Puritanical authoritarianism and ties the beliefs of the prisoner to those of Ann Hutchinson. The rosebush is also link to the forest and it is mentioned that the rosebush could be a remnant of the former wilderness which once covered the area.

The forest surrounding the town is the only place in which Puritanical laws are not abided, and the fact that the wild rose bush and the forest are connected gives the audience the idea that the two were somehow combined. The rosebush symbolizes Hester Prynne and the fact that it is a remnant of the wilderness foreshadows much of Hester’s character and behavior. Last, the rose bush is in full bloom which indicates that Hester is in the prime of passion. The result of this passion is the birth of a child.

The child can also be compared to the blossoms and serve as a “moral blossom”, making her a key player in the actual moral of the story. Next, Hester Prynne steps out of the prison and is introduced as an adulterer. On her chest is the letter A’ which is placed strategically for all to see and serves solely in the purpose of humiliation. In the beginning of the story it was superficially meant to stand for Adulterer’, but as the story goes on, the scarlet letter evolves into a great many things. After Hester was released from prison, the scarlet letter set her physically and morally apart, yet there were those that sympathized.

But sometimes, once in many days, or perchance in many months, she felt an eye-a human eye-upon the ignominious brand, that seemed to give a momentary relief, as if half her agony were shared”(Hawthorne,1433). The letter starts to represent the hidden shame of the entire community and only Hester is witness to this. She feels their sympathy, and not only carries her shame, but everyone else’s as well. The scarlet letter then takes on a new meaning as Hester dedicates herself to those who are poverty stricken in her community. “Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one.

She was a self-ordained Sister of Mercythe letter was a symbol of her calling” (Hawthorne, 1472). The grateful people she helped turned their back on the letter’s original meaning and viewed it as Able’, meaning, Hester’s strength as a woman. From there, Hawthorne went as far to compare Hester to a nun, which could have easily been considered blasphemous. “The scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom” (Hawthorne, 1473). A woman who was clearly caught in her sin, is being compared to a woman of God in her virtuetransforming the meaning, once again, into Angel’.

The scarlet letter becomes a part of Hester and all she can do is adapt. She decorates the letter with thread and makes it beautiful, much in the same way she dresses her daughter in extravagant clothes. Hester’s daughter, Pearl, can now be seen as an extension of the letter, both being a direct result of adultery. “The child’s whole appearancereminded the beholder of the token which Hester Prynne was doomed to wear upon her bosom. It was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life! “(Hawthorne, 1441). Pearl is the living symbol of the scarlet letter and has unique traits that make her sometimes appear as a demon.

Her love for nature and freedom, her spirit, her wildness, her loneliness and separation from the world, her curiosity, and her innocent but symbolic comments, reveal her distinct personality. Pearl senses and knows things she should not, making her a very important metaphor for the actions of Hester and Dimmesdale. Pearl’s name alone is symbolic. Pearls come from the ugly shells of oysters, making their appearance deceiving. Before she can even speak, Pearl seems to be drawn to her mother’s shame and is constantly reminding her mother of its presence by throwing flowers and continually grabbing at it.

It is Pearl who will not let her mother forget what is sewn to her breast. In each way Hester is reminded by her daughter, it is done innocently, in play. While in the governor’s hall, Pearl catches the magnified letter, twice its normal size, in a suit of arms. It is also during this time, that she demands a red rose from the garden. She is also compared to a rose by the minister, “Pearl? -Ruby rather! -or Coral! -or Red Rose, at the very least, judging from thy hue! “(Hawthorne,1445).

Also, when asked where she came from she answers, “that she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses, that grew by the prison-door”(Hawthorne,1446). This statement at such a young age reflects that not only does she recognize herself as an evil outcast from the Christians but also somewhat of a heretical statement. These two different conflicting groups of symbols are more than likely nothing more than a resentment of Hawthorn’s Puritan upbringing, but do say a lot about Puritan society. This contrast of two almost opposite worlds show a great deal of hypocrisy among the Puritans.

The natural world symbols show Pearl as a normal good-hearted child, while the religious symbols show her as not only a horrible mistake, but as a child that almost teeters on the brink of being possessed or demonic in some way. This brings us back to the beginning of the story where both Pearl and the roses are connected in a moral tone. She is not given a rose, and this tells us that the moral of the story is not yet ready to be applied. This is also where they are connected physically, in Pearl’s demand of one, for the first time. Chillingsworth is introduced as a dark character, the absent husband of Hester Prynne.

He is referred to as both the devil and a leech. His representation of the devil occurs throughout his attendance in the story. While out in the woods, Pearl sees him and refers to the “Black Man” having a hold over Dimmesdale. Earlier on, amongst their gossip, the townspeople’s respectable opinions turn sour when the rumor is spread that Chillingworth is “haunted either by Satan himself, or Satan’s emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth”(Hawthorne, 1455). The term leech has a couple different undertones. One, Chillingsworth is posing as a doctor, and it was common practice to use leeches in the blood letting of a patient.

While it was a common regime, used in everyday practice, Hawthorne obviously means it to take on a negative connotation, comparing him to a parasite that sucks the strength from others. In essence, that is exactly Chillingworth’s purpose in the story. He sucks the life out of Dimmesdale, just as a leech would. The location of Hester Prynne’s house is also very symbolic, because it gives more insight into the main character. Her house is in the forest, which to her, the wilderness stands for warmth and embracement. It’s a place where passion is evoked and is the only place she knows where the puritanical tyrants can’t enforce their laws.

To the puritans, the forest is where wicked tricks of the devil are provoked and most of the land goes unexplored. The wilderness starts out as a symbolic representation of Hester, but slowly, Hester changes in character and is able to represent the warmth she finds in the woods. The forest, being on the outside of town, is like Hester, belonging outside her community and representing everything that is sinful within her societal structure. At the same time, she is not completely confined to the woods and continues an existence that keeps her tottering in and out of both places.

She had wandered without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to decide their fate. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woodsThe scarlet letter had been her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,-stern and wild ones,-and they made her strong”(Hawthorne,1492).

Through Hester’s tenderness and strength towards the end of the story, she displays qualities of herself that other’s in the community try to suppress by humiliation, and it’s her isolation on the brink of the forest, or the other world it represents, that enables her to break free from the scrutiny of the community. Hawthorne also uses the images of roads and paths in the story to illustrate the limited freedom one has in a Puritanical society. The most important path described is in A Forest Walk’ and describes the road on which Hester, Pearl and Dimmesdale are walking.

It struggled onward into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and disclosed such imperfect glimpses of the sky above, that, to Hester’s mind,it imaged not amiss the ,moral wilderness in which she had so been wandering”(Hawthorne,1484). The road, used to dictate direction, is a metaphor for the structure of Puritanism, which has a strict code of law that must be followed. The way the road is described and the fact that it was ever even created, shows that it was inevitably meant to be deviated from.

The ideas of uniformity in Hester’s community are identical to the connotations of the road or path that winds around the town. A road, just like the Puritan society, is uniform; it’s distinguishable, planed out, paved, easy to follow, and it doesn’t change. Another main idea within the Puritan community was the disallowance of toleration. They did not condone any behavior outside their ideals and laws because it broke the uniformity of the religion. Again, Hawthorne uses the metaphor of a road to portray this idea within the Puritan society. He suggests the idea that everything outside the path is evil and should not be tolerated.

For a road is meant to be followed, and whatever lies outside the established boundaries of a road is irrelevant to one’s destination. Also, the forest is used to depict the things that Puritans are meant to avoid and that are forbidden; things that will make them sinful or turn them to outlaws. In the beginning of the passage, Hawthorne describes the “mystery of the primeval forest”(1484). He states that the forest is a “mystery”, which contradicts what the Puritans want in their society -uniformity. Hawthorne’s use of “imperfect” sky and sun depict the weakness of sunshine.

The gleam of flickering sunshine might now and then be seen at its solitary play along the paththe sportive sunlight- feebly sportive, at best, in the predominant pensiveness of the day and scene-withdrew itself as they came nigh, and left the spots where it had danced the drearier , because they hoped to find them bright”(Hawthorne, 1448). Thus he has not only made the view of the sky, that is, the presence of light, momentary, he has further diminished it’s usefulness by saying that the momentary light is of poor quality, thus making the path even harder to follow.

He creates another metaphor using the idea of the forest, which is what lies outside the path, to describe the tempting alternative to following this difficult path. Hawthorne’s purpose in this passage is to illuminate the flaws in the Puritan path that make deviancy, like the act committed by Hester Prynne, almost unavoidable. He stresses the difficulties in the actual construction of the path, as well as the temptations that lie just outside its narrow boundaries, in order to make his statement on the flaws of the Puritan religion.

During the final scaffold scene, when Hester and Dimmesdale acknowledge publicly their sinfreeing them spiritually from their punishment, Hester and Pearl leave the colony for many years. Hester returns on her own accord and takes up again the scarlet letter. In doing so, Hester gains authority over her own life and the letter becomes more a symbol that equated her with a “destined prophetess” than a sinner: “The scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too”(Hawthorne,1523).

The Scarlet Letter, containing some of the most important metaphors and symbols pertaining to human nature, does not grab the reader’s attention with high impact drama, but instead, with the narrator’s uniquely penetrating descriptions of his characters’ thoughts, feelings and relationships. The plot is constantly interrupted with Hawthorne’s own thoughts, or other’s points of view. It’s tragically, yet realistically romantic, because it delves deep into the human heart and explores the character’s dedication to religion, one’s self and to others.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Leave a Comment