“Symbolism; the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities”1, is the definition given in the dictionary. I have chosen to look at how this idea of symbolism is represented within Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter. This is a novel that is brimming with the use of symbols to represent Hawthorne’s ideas and concepts on sin, knowledge and the human condition. The basic story is one of adultery, guilt and redemption. Being set in Puritan New England the severity of the characters emotions are heightened.
Even though set in such a specific period, Hawthorne enables the novel to appeal throughout generations by his use of time within the story. This is evident from the introduction of the novel, ‘the Custom House’, in which we learn that Hester Prynne’s story will be narrated to us twice removed. This theme is reinforced by the split time sequences throughout the novel. It is perhaps this splicing of time that enhances the need for symbols and allegories to bring the form of the novel together and connect the separate time periods.
The first and most relevant symbol throughout the novel is that of the scarlet letter that Hester is condemned to wear for her sins. We are first confronted with the embroidered letter in the introduction, when our narrator, searching through the Custom House comes upon, a “rag of scarlet cloth… on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the Capital letter A” 2. The power of this symbol is immediately established when our narrator places the scarlet letter upon his chest and instantly experiences a sensation of burning.
This hints to the reader of the power that the scarlet letter will have over the story they are about to embark upon. The next most significant symbol appears in the Chapter 1, the rose bush outside of the prison door. This can be seen to show natures own durability to survive man’s challenges to its existence, just as Hester, the Native Americans and America’s landscape will be tested to endure the white mans capability of destruction. This idea of nature’s fight against mankind is continued throughout the novel. In chapter 6, we see the forest of which Hester and her illegitimate daughter, Pearl, live on the edge of.
This forest appears to represent the freedom that can not be gained within the authoritarian Puritan town. This is again seen in chapter 16, when the forest becomes a place unrestricted by any conventions by man and allows a freedom of speech and actions, whilst giving privacy, in comparison to the publicity of town. The forest is a place of meeting for the ‘sin’; it is where Hester and Dimmesdale meet to plan their escape to Europe. It is also where Mistress Hibbens is said to have taken her ‘midnight excursions’.
Even when the towns people try and reclaim some of the English aesthetic style garden, the plants do not take root and are left in a state of decay. Perhaps representing the in ability for ‘old world’ ideas to be relevant in the new Puritan world of America. Bellingham’s inability to maintain his garden is showing his lack of nurturing ability that surely must be needed as governor of a town. The only ornamental plant that has been able to grow in Governor Bellingham’s garden is a rose bush under a window. However, we must not forget that every rose has a thorn.
It is not just objects that are symbolised within The Scarlet Letter; Hawthorne also uses his characters to present his ideas and concepts to his readers. Even Hester is used to represent sin and the scapegoat for every one else’s own sins and guilt. In chapter 3 she is made into a living sermon, from which the towns people are to learn and be warned by. The names Hawthorne chooses for his lead characters shows how he intends their roles in the novel to be perceived. Hester’s bond to the concept of sin can be seen in her name’s connection with the word.
As Prynne, her surname taken by her marriage to ‘Chillingworth’, rhymes with sin, the word she represents to the towns people. The same idea can be seen in both Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. Chillingworth grows increasingly more evil and his character begins a ‘chilling’ journey of revenge upon Hester and Dimmesdale through mental torture, as like a ‘leech’ Chillingworth attaches himself to Dimmesdale. Chillingworth originally appears to us as a symbol of great knowledge, not only scientific or of the Native natural remedies, but also holds knowledge over Hester.
As Chillingworth’s knowledge of Hester’s link with Dimmesdale grows, so to does his increasing representation of evil. This harks back to the Bibles idea of knowledge being evil, seen in Adam and Eves eating from the tree of knowledge resulting in there expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Chillingworth’s sadistic enjoyment of Dimmesdale’s suffering can be seen in Chapter 14, when Hester asks the physician; “Hast thou not tortured him enough… Has he not paid thee all? ” Chillingworth replies with “No! -No! -He has but increased the debt! 3 Both Dimmesdale and Chillingworths’s professions require them to restore people’s well being, Chillingworth through science and Dimmesdale through spirituality. Like Hester represents something larger than her own existence, so to does Dimmesdale.
If he were to confess his sin, it would mean sacrificing the good of the town, as in their eyes Dimmesdale symbolises all that is good and right about humanity. To the readers however, Dimmesdale represents a torturous guilt and a weakness in his inability to confess, or a ‘dimness’ it could be said in his incapacity to stand with Hester as a sinner.
Hester and Dimmesdale’s child, Pearl, is also perceived as a symbol, not only is she a physical symbol of the sin they have committed but she is also her Mothers greatest jewel. Again a biblical reference can be made towards the connotations of Pearls name. One of the parables of Jesus, is that of the pearl of great price, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. “4 Like the pearls in this parable, Hester’s Pearl acts as her salvation.
There are great links between Pearl and her Mothers scarlet letter, both were born out of shame yet both become part of Hesters own personality. Pearl does not only represent a physical portrayal of the Scarlet letter, but also, as her name suggests, holds a knowledgeable insight to the world around her. In chapter 10 we see Pearls cautious attitude towards Chillingworth when she describes him as the ‘black man’ the puritans have grown to fear, and wards her mother away from him, “Come away mother! Come away or yonder old black man will catch you!
5. Pearl is also the only person within the novel that makes the connection between Hester’s scarlet letter and Dimmedale’s touching of his own chest. This comes in chapter 15 when Pearl imitates her Mothers letter A with seaweed and Hester asks her “Dost thou know, child, wherefore thy mother wears this letter? ” to which Pearl replies “Truly I do! … It is the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart! “6. As Pearl is not affected by the society within which she lives, Pearl can also be seen as a symbol of truth.
Pearl’s unease of going to her mother without the scarlet letter on in chapter 18 is perhaps an indicator of Hester’s new connection with the letter she must wear. This change in the meaning of Hester’s scarlet letter is drawn together within the conclusion of the novel when we are told of Hesters’ work within the community and new found respect from her fellow towns people. Although Hester can never truly escape the meaning the scarlet letter gives, it does take on a certain legend status by the end of the novel.
The meaning of the scarlet letter becomes distorted and most people look at it with the idea it resembles authority or ablilty. This idea was pre-empted in chapter 22, where the natives are compelled to think that the overly ornate scarlet letter is some symbol of authority that Hester owns. Hester’s burial shows the inevitable sacrifice that Hester makes from her private contained life to her publicly symbolic role within the community. She is allowed the privilege of being buried within the puritan graveyard but is kept a safe distance from Dimmesdale who is still seen as innocent by the community.
This ability for symbols to have different meanings to different people can also be seen in the meaning behind the meteor within chapter 11. This chapter both brings together Hester and Dimmesdale, and also shows their greatest difference. The ironic contrast between Hester’s public torments and Dimmesdale’s inner suffering are shown as they both stand alone on the scaffold, this time Hester has no public torments to face. When the ‘A’ shaped meteor goes across the sky, Dimmesdale interprets it as a sign that he too should wear his own mark of shame upon his chest.
The town’s people however see it as a symbol of an Angel, representing the ascent to heaven by Governor Winthrop, who passes away the same night. This shows how Puritans used symbols as signs for what ever meaning they wished.. To Puritans symbols, especially natural ones, were very important for explaining actions and the world around them. Within the last few chapters all of the symbolic representations seem to both come together and fall apart, to help conclude the novel.
All of the undetermined matters are brought to a consequence. When Dimmesdale dies, he acts as his own judge and prosecutor, and confesses to his participation in Hester’s sin. With his confession, Chillingworth looses his need for revenge and the control he holds over Hester’s life. Most of the towns people find it hard to accept Dimmesdale’s confession, and believe it was a continuation of his previous sermon, to show that any one can fall into the trap of sin, and to beware of this fact.
Symbolism within The Scarlet Letter is used to emphasize and portray Hawthorne’s views on sin, guilt and humanity that can be seen not only during the strict regimental puritan era but also throughout history. Hawthorne’s use of symbolism stresses the fact that it is not always easy to differentiate between love and hate, identity and symbolism and between sin and virtue. To portray the ideas he thought most important, Hawthorne discards the style of realism for the more powerful and discrete use of symbolism within The Scarlet Letter.