You are on page 1of 4

c cc

Josh Rogan

Mr. Evans

English Honors

25 January 2010

Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterful use of symbolism is employed many times throughout

The Scarlet Letter. We are quickly introduced to Hawthorne's symbolism in the very first

chapter, with both the prison door and the rosebush. In chapter two we are introduced to,

arguably the two most important symbols in this novel, the scarlet letter and the scaffold. These

two symbols appear over and over throughout the novel, and continue to advance the plot along

with creating deeper conflicts throughout the novel. The scarlet letter's meaning changes

throughout the novel from adulterer to awe with different meanings in between. The scaffold's

meaning also changes throughout the novel from isolation and humiliation to Dimmesdale's

feeling of nearcomfort. Pearl also becomes a symbol herself in the novel by becoming a living

embodiment of her mother's scarlet letter. The meteor the Dimmesdale sees when he is standing

upon the meteor also is a symbol that has dual meanings because Dimmesdale interprets in his

own way that differs from the rest of the community. Throughout the novel Hawthorne continues

to shows his skill with his use of symbolism.

In Chapter One of the Scarlet letter we are introduced to Hawthorne's use of symbolism.

Hawthorne in chapter one states "The [prison] door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and

studded with iron spikes"(54). The prison door is a symbol of puritan punishment and authority

which is evident in Hawthorne's description, which included heavy timber and iron spikes. It also

symbolizes loneliness and detachment from the rest of the world which is clear in Hawthorne's
c cc

description "black flower of civilized society"(55). The rosebush also makes its first appearance

in the novel in chapter one. It is surviving next to the prison which shows that beauty is able to

survive despite the worst conditions that man creates. It also takes pity on the prisoners entering

and exiting the jail. Hawthorne uses this rosebush in the novel so the reader could take a moral

lesson from the novel so that it may have many different interpretations. Hawthorne states that

"It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom,"(55) which is evidence to

support that fact that he wanted his readers to draw their own moral lesson from his novel.

Chapter two may be one of the most important chapters in the novel, in terms of

symbolisms. Two of the most important symbols in the novel appear in this chapter, the scaffold

and the scarlet letter.Both the scaffold and the scarlet letter change during the novel. The

scaffold's originalsymbolsare shame, humiliation, and isolation in the beginning when just Hester

and Pearl were on it for punishment so that others would not follow their path, "This scaffold

constituted a portion of a penal machine«in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the

guillotine among the terrorists of France"(63). But each scaffold scene adds another human being

and it changes for different people. When Dimmesdale was on it he perceived it as a safe haven

and would eventually feel comfortable enough to repent, confess his sins and admit to being the

father of Pearl.

The scarlet letter changes even more dramatically than the scaffold. Hester is forced to

wear the scarlet "A" because Puritans thought that their misdeeds should be shown to everyone

to create fear, "Blessing on the righteous Colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged

out into the sunshine!" (62).At first, the scarlet letter symbolizes adulterer for Hester's

punishment and is meant to create shame and humiliation for the rest of her life. To some of the

people of the town, especially the older, less attractive women, the symbol of the letter was
c cc

jealousy. One women said, ³if we stripped Madam Hester¶s rich gown off her dainty shoulders;

and as for the red letter, which she hath stitched so curiously"(61).This is evidence that they were

jealous. Several years later the meaning begins to change. She brings food to the doors of the

poor, nurses the sick, and provides help in times of need. These actions begin to change the

public opinion of the letter "A" and now believe it symbolizes "able" because of the strength that

it took to make it through the humiliation It is clear that this is the first change of the meaning

when Hawthorne states, "Such helpfulness was found in her«that many people refused to

interpret the scarlet "A" by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was

Hester Prynne, with a woman¶s strength" (177).The symbol changes again at the end to mean

"Awe" and most people now consider it to be a legend " 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, and yet with reverence, too"(289). The symbol to Dimmesdale

is completely different. It portrays the guilt in Dimmesdale because he went unpunished and this

guilt makes him weaker throughout the novel, "Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great

horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over

his heart" (163).

Hester's illegitimate child, Pearl is another symbol throughout the novel. To Hester she is

the living embodiment of the scarlet letter and continually reminds her of the sin she had

committed. Even her name is a symbol that means that she came at a great price. Hester even

dresses pearl like the scarlet letter with bright beautiful colors against the puritan tradition. She is

both a blessing and a curse to Hester, because even though she is the reason that she has to go

through torture she represents the spirit and passion that came from the sin and gives Hester a

reason to live. Pearl is also a symbol for Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale sees Pearl also as a constant
c cc

reminder of his sin and this brings him deeper into his own guilt. Dimmesdale knows that Pearl

will not accept him until he publicly admits his sin and when he does Pearl kisses him and he

feels great joy and Pearl now gains a sense of human identity, Hawthorne says, "Pearl kissed his

lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had

developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge

that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be

a woman in it"(282). Her sense of humanity is a symbol that confession and admittance

In chapter twelve, after Dimmesdale said to pearl that he will not stand with them until

judgment day, a meteor illuminates the sky and the surroundings. Dimmesdale believes that he

sees an "A" in the sky that stood for adultery. He believed that since both Hester and Pearl have

to suffer through the pain of the sin he should too. Hawthorne states" with an awfulness that

admonished Hester Prynne and the clergyman of the day of judgment," which clearly shows that

he felt that he should have to live with the same misery as Hester had gone through. While the

rest of the community believed it has nothing to do with Hester or Dimmesdale, but that it stands

for "Angel" and it means that Governor Winthrop is in Heaven.

Throughout the novel Hawthorn shows his excellent use of symbols. Some symbols are

dynamic and have multiple meanings, such as the scarlet letter, while others remained static and

had only one meaning throughout the novel. The symbols in the novel allow the reader to get

more from reading it and allow each individual reader to take their own personal moral lesson

from the story.

Related Interests