Symbols and Symbolism in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter

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Nathaniel Hawthorne. The name strikes fear in the hearts of high school students everywhere because Hawthorne's 'wordy' novels, especially his 1849 The Scarlet Letter, have been at the top of English classes' required reading lists for years and will continue to be for years to come. In general, students have grown accustomed to superficial analyses of books, which encompasses reading and regurgitating 'literary facts' on multiple choice tests. However, when reading engaging, well-written, stylistic and ambiguous novels, such as The Scarlet Letter, one must go deeper and actually examine the novel and the elements that the author so effectively uses. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses a wide range of symbols, such as: aspects of nature, for example the forest, sunshine and water; things, like the scarlet letter itself and places like the scaffold.

One of the most integral parts of the book, when Hester Prynne speaks to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale about their predicament, takes place in the forest. When reading the novel, it becomes increasingly apparent that there is a contrast between the forest and the town, as settings. The forest symbolizes a dark and mysterious place where impulses and urges reign and also where the goings-on are to be kept a secret. The forest is described as dismal, gloomy and full of shadows with an imposing, cloudy sky that is filled with threatening storms (p. 181). When Dimmesdale and Hester first see each other, Hawthorne describes them as being "in the world beyond the grave, of two spirits who had intimately connected in their former life, but now stood coldly shuddering, in mutual dead" (p. 181). Also in the forest, Hester undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves....[and] took off the formal cap that confined her hair (p. 192).

During the Puritan times, a woman letting her hair down would never happen in town--it would be blasphemous, only in the woods would it happen. At the holiday, Pearl asks about Dimmesdale, Hester hushes her because those are only things that happen in the forest and they are not to be spoken about in the town (p. 215). Also, Hawthorne uses the sunshine to signify warmth, love and acceptance. "'Mother,' said little Pearl, 'the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on you bosom" (p.

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175). As Pearl observes, the sun will not touch Hester, just as warmth and companionship will not because of the letter. Hawthorne uses water, as a component of nature, to symbolize the spirit of both Hester and of Pearl. The sea for Hester:

But the sea in those days heaved, swelled and foamed, very much at its own will, or subject only to the tempestuous wind, with hardly any attempts at regulation by human law (p. 219).

And a brook for Pearl: "Continually, indeed, as it stole onward, the streamlet kept up a babble, kind, quiet, soothing but melancholy" (p. 178). To sum up, one of the categories of symbols that Hawthorne uses is nature; three examples of this are the forest, sunshine and water.

The scarlet letter is obviously symbolic of Hester's sin but also of both her and Dimmesdale's pain. Because of the letter, she becomes isolated and alienated from the entire town and its people.

Here, she said to herself, has been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame....[children], discerning the scarlet letter on her breast, would scamper off with a strange, contagious fear (p. 84-85).

She develops this masochistic ideal that she needs to stay and weather the ridicule of the townspeople because she deserves it because she committed this great sin. Dimmesdale shows his pain through his failing health. "...the health of Mr. Dimmesdale had evidently begun to fail....emaciated... melancholy prophecy of decay" (p. 119), this was his way to show his pain that was caused by his unconfessed sin and his own figurative (and perhaps physical) scarlet letter. Clearly, the scarlet letter symbolizes pain for both Hester and Dimmesdale.

Finally, the scaffold is symbolic of redemption and judgment. The entirety of Chapter 3, 'The Recognition,' illustrates the symbolism of the scaffold. Hester is sentenced to stand atop the scaffold for three hours to stand before God to receive their just judgment; "'she will be a living sermon against sin'" (p.69). At the end, Dimmesdale is able to gain the strength and courage to finally confess his sin to the masses. "'Stand any here that question God's judgement on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!'" (p. 238). In 'The Minister's Vigil,' when all three of them, Hester, Pearl and Dimmesdale, were standing there atop the scaffold, Pearl asks Dimmesdale when they will stand there together and he replies that they will on the day of judgement (p. 149), thus they will all be judged when they stand on the scaffold together.

In conclusion, in Hawthorne's 1849 novel The Scarlet Letter, he uses three main categories of symbols: natural ones such as the forest, sunshine and water; things like the scarlet letter itself and finally, places like the scaffold. The effect of this is a more unified story, when the reader analysis the work and finds that there is corresponding symbolism throughout; the reader gets a sense that the story is a whole since the symbols are universal throughout the novel.

Another effect is that the reader gets a sense that there is a deeper meaning. When going through and reading, one begins to look for symbolism and begins to 'see' the underlying ideas in his work. When the reader reads a passage about the sea, for example, he or she begins to 'see' that the sea is also symbolic of Hesters spirit. Symbolism is all over in The Scarlet Letter; nearly everything, every action, saying, gesture, et cetera, has a symbolic meaning to it.

39/40 in AP English.


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