The Scarlett Letter
The Novel The Scarlet Letter by the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne is based around the idea of Puritanism and he uses this to depict the human soul and the idea of morality. Symbolism in this novel is prevalent and it is through the use of symbolism that Hawthorne highlights key issues to the reader. The novel tells the story of a young girl, Hester Prynne who was living in Boston waiting for her husband, Roger Chillingworth to come meet her after he finished up business in Europe. Hester falls for the handsome Arthur Dimmesdale and she falls pregnant. She names the love child Pearl coming from the biblical term pearl of great price. When Hesters husband arrives in Boston and hears what has happened he pressurizes Hester not to give his identity away as he swears revenge on her unknown lover.
For committing such a crime Hester is sentenced to a scarlet letter A of red and gold embroidery to wear across her chest and thus remind her of her sin. The letter initially stands for Adultery but as one reads on it becomes clear that the letter can be interpreted in many different ways. The Scarlet Letter is undoubtedly the most prevalent symbol used in this novel. The Puritan community ostracize Hester. The scarlet letter is a symbol of shame, sin and it is a constant reminder of her past. What the Puritans dont seem to realize though is that she already has a keepsake from her lust, that keepsake being Pearl, the fruit of her sin. Pearl in one context is the living version of the scarlet letter, just like the letter no one in society wants to be associated with her, even Dimmesdale, her own father ignores her. Pearl is depicted a menacing child and amongst her fellow puritans and they see her as some form of changeling or an imp of evil and product of sin. Hawthorne questions morality and ethics through Pearl and in a sense makes Pearl a symbol for this. When it is under debate whether Pearl should live with her mother or not Dimmesdale speaks up and reminds the other governors that Pearl was sent from God as both a blessing and a curse. Pearl subconsciously takes rather well to Dimmesdale and puts his hand to her face. Dimmesdale, knowing that he is this child's father is overcome with guilt and it continues to fester inside him. This simplistic gesture triggers the emotion he gnawing at his conscience. It raises the issue of whether Dimmesdale should confess for the greater good of his soul.
Dimmesdale lives his life in a mind thwarting skirmish with his conscience. Hawthorne uses evocative names for many of the characters and with regard to Dimmesdale; it suggests dim like the gloomy clandestine he carries around with him. As he is a minister his name could also symbolize the darkness of the Puritanists where they have a tendency to dress in black and are hostile towards social pleasures. Remorse and guilt frustrate Dimmesdale and brings insanity upon him. This is only exacerbated by the vengeful Chillingworth where even his name reminds the reader of coldness and wariness in another sense. Chillingworth teases Dimmesdale when he seeks medical help from him and soon realizes that he has a dark secret which his distressing him mentally and now it would seem physically as well. Chillingworth sneaks into Dimmesdales room whilst he is sleeping and is shocked to see a scarlet letter A banded on his chest. Hawthorne chooses to make the letter scarlet as red can symbolise passion, which suggests the love affair at hand. It symbolises danger and warning, they knew the act was wrong and both parties would be punished. Hester is punished publicly but Dimmesdales conscience punishes him and Chillingworth seeks to reprimand him also. Chillingworth becomes known around the village as some sort of Black man but it is unknown what the cause of his evil is. The most likely cause would be his wifes adultery, Hester symbolises a fallen woman in society with no one to turn to only the basis of her sin, Pearl. However, Chillingworth is obviously affected by the act; he becomes a malevolent character hungry for revenge. Hawthorne could have portrayed Chillingworth this way to symbolise a man torn apart by his wifes infidelity. Having been once a benevolent scholar, he feels foolish to even think that he could keep such a beautiful woman waiting for him in Boston.
Dimmesdale inspires the people by conducting some of his most inspiring sermons to date and the townspeople see him as a respectful charismatic man. Dimmesdale knows that if he confesses his sin the people will become uninspired. In one way he doesnt confess to save the townspeople from disappointment and through this disappoint they might turn away from god. The symbolism used in this novel is to argue the greater good and moral right of the Puritanism community. Puritanists share the belief that no sin can be counteracted by good deeds. Even when Hester does a gratuitous amount of charity work the poor even scorn her. Hester is familiar with this since she stood on the town scaffold for three hours whilst the people abused her. This scaffold symbolises shame and a place of public humiliation. Dimmesdale climbs onto the scaffold late at night and meets Hester and Pearl coming from Winthrops deathbed. A meteor brightens the sky, they al l look up and see a dull red resembling the letter A. Dimmesdale takes this to be a message from god to remind him of his adultery. The townspeople on the other hand make no connection with the matter and interpret the symbol to mean angel. Symbolism can be interpreted in so many different ways as Hawthorne has highlighted on numerous occasions in this novel. On that very same night the minister left his glove on the scaffold and when it was found they do not make the obvious assumption that Dimmesdale might have been there but presume that it is the devil himself causing mischief. Again one could consider that it was part of the devils work that made Dimmesdale leave it there; the meteor in the sky could also be a terrifying reminder of Dimmesdale of his sin.
Symbolism functions in the novel to question ethics and what is right or wrong. As Hester continues to do charity work the townspeople begin to change their view of her. They begin to view the scarlet letter as a symbol for Able. Hawthorne conveys symbolism in such a way that it is clear to the reader that these symbols can be misinterpreted or change their meaning as the novel goes on. When Hester is told that she does not have to wear the scarlet letter anymore she refuses to remove it. She claims that the letter is now a part of her and she can not hide her sin or shy away from her past. People begin to admire Hester for this reason, even though the Puritanism attitude is of the opinion that sin can not be overlooked no matter how many good deeds a person does. However, morality and ethics finally take place and people begin to act a little more sincere. When Dimmesdale publically confesses on the scaffold, he dies shortly after. This again could be Hawthorne suggesting that we should not keep such secrets gnawing at our souls for so long. It could be taken as a warning and advice for an individuals own life.
Name: Christine Killen
Student ID: 08316589