Hawthornes Use of Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter
In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne masterfully weaves many themes and character development to format the plot of this novel. The themes of The Scarlet Letter are carried out through symbolism and the four main characters: Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, and Pearl. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne hoped to show that although Hester and Dimmesdale sinned, they achieved the wisdom of self knowledge and inner growth through their suffering.
Before the novel actually begins, there is a section of the book entitled “The Custom House”. While this is not an essential part of the novel, it provides insight into Nathaniel Hawthorne and the story itself. Here the reader learns that Hawthornes ancestors were strict Puritans. One of his ancestors, Judge Hawthorne, was an actual judge during the Salem Witch Trials. Although Hawthorne did not actually live during the Puritan era, he still felt guilty of his ancestors actions. He was angered by the hypocrisy of the Puritan government and the Puritan church which condemned sins, yet committed them. This becomes apparent to the reader throughout the course of the novel.
Hawthorne himself believed that “The Custom House” essay was primarily liable for the books popularity. “The Custom House,” meeting the publics stipulations for sunshine and substantiality, was, among other things, his way of making up for the unadorned dimness and ambiguity of his mythical and symbolic vision in the novel itself (Crowley 20).Hawthorne seems to have desired to accomplish something more than a frame or penned in tale with the use of “The Custom House” in The Scarlet Letter (Tharpe 63). Every character re-enacts the “Custom House” scene in which Hawthorne himself contemplated the letter, so that the entire “romance” becomes a kind of exposition of the nature of symbolic perception (Kaul 67).
A large fraction of the opening chapter is appointed to the rosebush and to some weeds that grow next to the prison. Hawthorne assumes that a wild rose beside the prison door may help to symbolize some fresh virtuous blossom, that may be found along the path, or relieve the drowning ending of an account of human fragility and anguish (Waggoner 119).
In the opening chapters the scarlet “A” upon Hester Prynnes bosom is the object of the entire community. The minds of the general public are confirmed in the mold of Puritan thought, and the real Hester for them is the adulteress. As the years pass, the symbol has a dominant and bizarre effect upon her being (Kaul 67). The world consecrated her a Sister of Mercy; to the world the A might stand for “Able” or, quite possibly, “Angel” (Martin 122).
Hester Prynnes development symbolizes strength and sympathy to the weaknesses of others through the recognition of ones own faults. The letter upon her bosom is a mental punishment which will last for her entire lifetime. Chillingworth thought it was a wise sentence, and that she would be a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter was engraved upon her tombstone. She, in part of a punishment imposed on herself, helps the poor. Ironically, the same person who was shunned by a town in receiving the scarlet letter was later praised by it — the presumed most vile person was really the most sincere and compassionate of the entire town.
While Hester has made her peace, Reverend Dimmesdale is consumed with guilt of his double life. Dimmesdale symbolizes guilt, deception, and secrecy. Throughout the whole novel, Dimmesdales character can be seen going through many different changes. Dimmesdale is literally killed because of his guilt and remorse of the knowledge that eats away at his heart — that the right thing to do is confess his sin openly and to stop hiding behind his high place in the community and church. Dimmesdale is constantly shown with his hand over his heart as if he, too, had a scarlet letter. When Dimmesdale meets Hester in the woods, there was a carelessness in his stride, as if he saw no reason for taking another step. Dimmesdales nightmares are of the diabolic shapes that mock him, his mother turning her face away at him, and of Hester walking with Pearl.
Dimmesdale obviously writhes from a surplus of subliminal self. His fragility and anguish throughout most of the novel have tended to smudge for some readers the actuality of his pride, which, like his scarlet letter, lies within and gives distinct form to his disguise of devoutness. Self-denunciation, self-abjuration, and self-loathing are the stimulants of Dimmesdales psychic life (Martin 124).
Dimmesdales problem is not simply an element of virtue or of psychology. It is a matter of history. He is a youthful man in a world dictated by elderly men. The trepidation of Dimmesdales dilemma is that there is no progress (Bell 144).
Old Roger Chillingworth, lacking the genuine purpose and vitality of human moral principles, frames formal virtue which has become a mode of annihilation rather than deliverance. He symbolizes the manipulation of moral precepts, which were initially intended to permit men to exist harmoniously in society, so stripped of their residing compassion that they become a constraint of havoc, of detachment to the mortal soul (Hall 172). Chillingworth is an unreal thing, a knave. He is one man playing with another, hideously, in a conformity that subsequently has become a science (Kaul 134).
Roger Chillingworth, as shown through his name, symbolizes revenge and hatred. When he is first mentioned in The Scarlet Letter, he is but a mere observer of Hesters punishment. It is soon evident that he is Hesters husband. From very early on, the reader can soon see that Chillingworth is a very evil person whose goal in life is to destroy Hesters lover. Since first seeing Hester on the scaffold, Chillingworths face had evil reflected on it. The hatred on Chillingworths face is seen by many. They affirmed that his aspect had undergone a remarkable change– especially since he resided with Dimmesdale. Chillingworth did all in his power to torture the minister. Pearl, who throughout the novel shows a strange insight into people, calls Chillingworth the “Black Man.”
Pearl is a symbol of Hesters and Dimmesdales sin. Pearl is the living symbol of adultery. She is the living embodiment of the scarlet A symbol of passion. Hester recognized this and as a result dressed Pearl in the same way her scarlet letter is adorned. She dresses Pearl in crimson velvet abundantly embroidered with flourishes of gold thread. Pearl is also the symbol of the illicit union between Hester and Dimmesdale. In the second scaffold scene she is the link between the two.
In The Scarlet Letter, there is one symbol which is never allegorized or explained, and that is the most original of Hawthornes creations, little Pearl. The only father of whom she has ever been told is her heavenly one. The elfish nature of the quaint child rejoices in the mystery of her paternity. The secret link between Hester and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl is also the only human link between her mother and the world (Burdett 10).
Hester regarded Pearl as the sole treasure which kept her soul alive. Between Pearl and the scarlet letter there is a subtle connection which is suggested by the resemblance of Pearls dress to the embroidered token. The display of the letter stands for the open acknowledgment of sinfulness by Hester, and her attachment to Pearl signifies her acceptance of the consequences of her sin, her ethical obligation. Similarly the childs freakish insistence on the letter may be said to represent Hesters moral responsibility requiring the forthright recognition of her guilt as one of the inevitable consequences of wrongdoing (Hall 170). Pearl is life itself, and offers, in mysterious and oblique ways, the perpetual criticism of the spirit upon the letter, of humanity upon its institutions, of imagination upon reason, of life upon law (Burdett 10).
Nathaniel Hawthorne creates an interesting tangle of themes played out through character development and symbolism. He marks the plot through the four main characters in conflict with each other and themselves. The many interpretations of the novel and the rich symbolism in The Scarlet Letter have made it a classic and will continue to fascinate both the serious literary student and the casual reader alike.