You are on page 1of 5

Nicoară Maria-Magdalena, 3A

The Language of Symbols in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
“The Puritan heritage of emblems dominates Hawthorne’s fiction”

Throughout his novel The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne provides an accurate description of
the Puritan society, emphasizing the consequences that its harsh rules have upon his characters.
The author portrays the rigidity of the Puritan society by using several representative symbols:
the scarlet letter, the scaffold and the prison, the forest. Symbolism can also be found in
Hawthorne’s major characters, among which Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. The aim of
this essay is to discuss each of the symbols listed above, focusing on the scarlet letter and the
major characters’ view of it. (Hadjira 32-40)
The title of the book anticipates, from the very beginning, the most relevant symbol of
this work: the scarlet letter which Hester Prynne is forced to wear on her bosom for the rest of
her life. Although the significance of the letter seems, at first sight, easy to decipher (it denotes
Hester’s adultery), as the action of the novel unfolds, it gains many other meanings both for the
reader and the characters themselves. (Imene 55, 59)
Hester wears the scarlet letter for the first time when she is on the scaffold. This scene is
anticipated by the women’s gossip in the market-place who consider her punishment
inappropriate, as, according to them “―This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to
die. Is there no law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book.” (Hawthorne
79) This statement emphasizes both the community’s belief in religious principles and the close
relationship between law and religion. The people in the marketplace forget about Hester’s
identity and see her as the mere embodiment of sin. According to their belief, Hester is a sinner
with no possibility of redemption. (Imene 64-65)
For Hester, the moment in which she begins to wear the letter is also the moment in
which she is expelled from the society. From now on she is an outcast. But despite all the
sufferings that the letter causes to Hester, it offers her the opportunity to attain a certain freedom
of thought (Imene 64-65): “She assumed a freedom of speculation […] which our forefathers,
had they known it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet
letter. In her lonesome cottage, by the seashore, thoughts visited her such as dared to enter no
other dwelling in New England;” (Hawthorne 247)

his readers are provided with an insight into the rules and conventions of the Puritan society. he develops a gesture.Nicoară Maria-Magdalena. which are “almost identical [to them]” (Hawthorne 76). people’s opinion on Hester begins to change. 3A Another character influenced by the scarlet letter is Arthur Dimmesdale. and inexhaustible by the largest. The people gathered in the marketplace relate both the prison and the scaffold to religion (Hester cheats on her husband. p. the scarlet letter is enriched with other several meanings. unfailing to every real demand. They said that it meant Able. She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy (. 59). 2011-2012. However.) many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. Arthur’s letter may be “H”. Another remarkable difference between the two characters is that.. Whenever he sees the letter. Her breast. Professor August J. Perl is the only one who realizes that the reverend’s gesture is related to her mother’s letter. Nigro proposes that the letter may symbolize Hester’s Art of sewing. they associated the letter with Hester’s ability of helping them (Imene 58-59): Hester’s nature showed itself warm and rich—a well-spring of human tenderness. (Hawthorne 242-243) The scarlet letter contains many layers of meaning. In the first chapters of his novel. Hawthorne introduces two of the most notable symbols of his book: the scaffold and the prison. his deed becomes more painful for him and he thinks that a similar sign will appear on his chest. (Imene 67) At the same time. and. the reverend’s letter is hidden behind his garments and he is highly appreciated by the town’s people. the reverend is deeply concerned with his reputation. her Atonement and the Affection by virtue of which she is able to support those around her (as cited in Imene. with a woman’s strength. Through their portrayal. with its badge of shame. Thus. the “A” Hester wears may come from “Arthur”. the two characters are treated differently and adopt distinct attitudes towards their deed. conversely. the name of her lover. In his book The Diagonal Line: Separation and Reparation in American Literature. while Hester chooses to hide the identity of her lover in order to protect him and proves to be a good mother for Pearl.. She always proves to be merciful with those in need and. the initial of his lover’s name. In his desire to hide it from the members of the Puritan society. breaking the 7th commandment) and law (she has to pay for her sin). (Imene 65-67) Even though Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale are taint by the same sin. While Hester is forced to expose her sin and to endure public opprobrium. was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one. As the action of the novel unfolds. so strong was Hester Prynne. consequently. .

(Hadjira 39) At the same time. but also the characters. For the Puritans. had returned upon him. Arthur Dimmesdale is representative for human weakness. in order to protect his reputation. mystery and decay. as she acknowledges her deed. they are associated with her humiliation. especially the scaffold. (Imene 45-45) Not only do the objects in “The Scarlet Letter” achieve a symbolic value. he finally manages to confess his sin on the same scaffold. which indicates that Hester associates them unconsciously (the letter stands for her . loosens her hair and acknowledges her love for Arthur Dimmesdale (Hadjira 35-37). nor later at Pearl’s urge (Hadjira 39): ‘‘<Wilt thou stand here with mother and me. for Hester. happiness and beauty. all the dread of public exposure. Hester becomes a mother figure for the members of the community. (Hadjira 38-39) Towards the end of the novel. Her mother chooses for Pearl’s clothes the color of the letter. it stands for the world of the unknown. the forest is a place of freedom. my little Pearl. the significance of the forest gains a positive connotation. whether general or of individuals. carries out her punishment and raises her daughter alone. 3A However. is another evidence of her strength.Nicoară Maria-Magdalena. However. Dimmesdale’s preoccupation with his reputation prevents him from taking responsibility for his deed. even though she has been initially rejected by them (Eeckman 41-43): “None so self-devoted as Hester when pestilence stalked through the town. Hester becomes a negative example for those Puritans who might deviate from their law. for Hester. with the new energy of the moment. In all seasons of calamity. as the laws of their society cannot be applied here. Her choice to keep the name of her lover secret. as he does not have the courage to join Hester on the platform neither in the day of her public exposure.” (Hawthorne 241-242) In opposition to Hester. However. Hester Prynne. for. as having a moralizing function: through her public exposure. as this is the place where she removes for the first time the scarlet letter. Pearl is perceived both by her mother and the town’s people as “the personification of the scarlet letter” (Imene 69). the reverend suffers profoundly and. seven years later. not so. the outcast of society at once found her place. for Hester Prynne. is the embodiment of strength.> answered the minister. “ (Hawthorne 230). the significance of the two settings is not the same for all the members of the community: while. due to her kindness. that had so long been the anguish of his life. the heroine of the novel. tomorrow noontide?> inquired Pearl. the other members of the community perceive them. shame and sinful deed. indeed. <Nay. Thus. (Eeckman 9-10) Another important setting with symbolic value is the forest.

(Imene 62) Another character endowed with symbolic meaning is Roger Chillingworth. reveal his critical attitude toward the harshness of the Puritan laws. Pearl was the one as well as the other. becoming an avenger and avengers usually make a pact with Satan in order to carry out their plan. many of them having a positive connotation. The multiple meanings he gives to the scarlet letter. Thus. The author emphasizes the inner turmoil of his characters rather than their morality (Imene 38).” (Hawthorne 152) Pearl is also representative for truth as she is the only one who understands that the reverend covers his heart with his hand from the same reason that her mother wears the letter. . Nonetheless. as he takes the law in his own hands. He arrives in Boston in the day of her public exposure and decides to find his wife’s lover and to take revenge on him. and continues to ask her the same question. 3A adultery and Pearl is the result of it): “It was the scarlet letter in another form: the scarlet letter endowed with life! The mother herself (…) had carefully wrought out the similitude.Nicoară Maria-Magdalena. noticing their consequences upon his major characters. whose health condition becomes increasingly precarious because of his tormented consciousness and of his doctor’s manipulation. But. Later on. who try to establish their own identities. he manages to interpret the rules of the community with detachment. in truth. Chillingworth symbolizes the devil. Pearl is not satisfied with it. as she knows that her mother is not telling the truth. Even though Hester provides her with an explanation. Hester’s husband. lavishing many hours of morbid ingenuity to create an analogy between the object of her affection and the emblem of her guilt and torture. he pretends to be a physician and moves in the same house with the reverend Dimmesdale. (Hadjira 39-40) To sum it up. Hawthorne uses many symbols to create a vivid image of the Puritan society. she asks her mother which is the meaning of it. When Pearl grows up.

pdf>  Nigro. Nathaniel. 2008. 2015. Kasdi Merbah University – Ouargla. 2011-2012. Ghent University.planetpublish. Mohamed Khider University. p. <http://www. Puritanical Dimensions in The Scarlet Letter. July. August: The Diagonal Line: Separation And Reparation In American Literature (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press. Puritanical Dimensions in the Scarlet Letter: Moral Demands versus Individual Needs. Web.univbiskra. 2015. . 22 Dec. Kahhoul. 3A Work cited: Primary Source:  Hawthorne.Nicoară Maria-Magdalena. Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850).ugent. <http://bu. The Scarlet Letter. 1984): 74. 22 Nov.<http://thesis.univ-ouargla. 2015. Planet PDF. 60. < 2012-2013. Women in the Scarlet Letter. 22 etter. Quoted in Kahhoul Imene.pdf> Secondary Source:  Eeckman.pdf?idmemoire=280>  Imene. Rahal. Web. Web. Sylvia. J.pdf>  T. 21 Nov 2015.