The Scarlet Letter: Symbolism Essay

The Scarlet Letter Symbolism Term paper

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Symbolism, when used by a great writer, can be one of the most powerful tools in literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne relies on symbolism a great deal within The Scarlet Letter in order to relay his ideas to the reader. In very general terms symbolism is a way of showing multiple meanings for something, or letting one object stand for another. The title of the novel itself provides a symbol with which one can identify Hester Prynne's nature and intent. The scarlet letter A takes on many meanings throughout the duration of the story. That letter A that Hester wears proves to be one of the most important pieces of symbolism in the story. Another such symbol are the characters, especially Pearl, who appear almost to be nothing more than a symbol and have no real depth in their development in the duration of the story. A final symbol within the story is the town's scaffold upon which three crucial chapters take place. Hawthorne's use of symbolism proves to be one of the foremost techniques used in the telling of The Scarlet Letter. The letter A that Hester Prynne wears is the most significant and direct use of symbolism in the novel. Hester is forced to wear this scarlet A on her chest because of the adulterous affair she committed with the Reverend Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale. Because of that the easiest interpretation of the letter is for adultery. Most of the townspeople and the readers of the book identify the letter as a symbol for Hester's sin and something that will always remind her of the wrongdoings she committed. This same scarlet letter A is easily applied to Dimmesdale also. During the final chapter it is learned that Dimmesdale may have inflicted a scarlet letter A on his own chest through his own torture for his involvement with Hester. Throughout the novel the letter begins to take on more significant meanings than the rather plain adultery. One other such meaning for the letter is angel. This symbol is first applied in chapter 12 where a red letter A is seen in the sky on the night of Governor Winthrop's death. Chillingworth is talking with Dimmesdale after one of his best sermons he has yet to deliver and the next symbol is learned of. Chillingworth says:"But did your reverence hear of the portent that was seen last night? A great red letter in the sky, --the letter A, --which we interpret to stand for Angel. For, as our good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night, it was doubtless held fit that there should be some notice thereof!" Another such meaning of the letter is able. This is used to describe Hester's great talent of helping others and gains respect for the Puritan people who so meanly criticized her after learning of her great sin. Hester used her great strength and determination to eventually gain back what she had lost from the devout Puritans. Another such symbol in the novel is the characters, which Hawthorne uses in the story. Many of these characters appear to have been invented as just symbols and nothing more. Their symbolism is used to generalize many Puritan ideals and actions, which may or may not be a fair assumption of what all Puritans stood for and believed in. Hawthorne doesn't develop many of the characters much. He presents them by showing their ideas that parallel a larger group or belief. An example of this is Mistress Hibbins. She is really only presented as a witch and nothing more. Every time she speaks or is mentioned it is in connection with the devil or some other form of black magic. An even larger and more symbolic character is Pearl. It seems as if she was created as nothing more than as a symbol for sin. She represents the sin of both Hester and Dimmesdale. She represents all that is wild, mischievous, and inquisitive. Hawthorne shows her as very evil and rebellious through his repeated description of her as the elf-child and even an imp. Pearl is shown to be very interested in the letter on her mother's bosom. Her preoccupation leads her to form a letter of her own out of eelgrass and place it on her own chest. She also tells her mother that the sun runs and hides from something on her chest while they are in the forest. Again in the forest Pearl shows her extreme involvement as a symbol of sin linked to another symbol of her mother's sin. Hawthorne describes how she acts when her mother decides to try to remove on such symbol:   ;"But Pearl, not a whit startled at her mother's threats, any more than mollified by her entreaties, now suddenly burst into a fit of passion, gesticulating violently, and throwing her small figure into the most extravagant contortions. She accompanied this wild outbreak with piercing shrieks, which the woods reverberated on all sides ;so that, alone as she was in her childish and unreasonable wrath, it seemed as if a hidden multitude were lending her their sympathy and encouragement. Seen in the brook, once more, was the shadowy wrath of Pearl's image, crowned and girdled with flowers, but stamping its foot, wildly gesticulating, and, in the midst of all, still pointing its small forefinger at Hester's bosom!" Pearl could not bear to see this change in her mother's appearance and demanded that the letter be replaced on her mother's bosom. Pearl also repeatedly wants Dimmesdale to be seen with them in public and acknowledge their relationship in the eyes of others. She asks her father to walk with them and stand with them for all the people to see. Pearl appears to be almost too intelligent for her age which can only add to her symbolic representation of sin. A final use of symbolism is the three major chapters which all take place upon the scaffold. The scaffold was a place of shame and public humiliation for the Puritan society. The scaffold represents much more than that in the book. The opening action of the book begins on the scaffold where Hester is forced to stand with her infant while being taunted and punished for her adulterous relationship. The scaffold presents itself as a link to the evils of sin and the Puritan code. It is later shown in the story as an acknowledgement of sin for Dimmesdale. He meets with Pearl and Hester there on one night. It is one of the first times he has been able to be alone with his daughter and the woman he so desperately loves. It is the only place where Dimmesdale is able to escape his suppressed feelings. It serves as a haven in the final chapter of the book where he is able to escape the evil Roger Chillingworth and his revengeful intent. It is the only place within the town where he was able to avoid Chillingworth. Chillingworth even admits this in the final chapter where he states, "Hadst thou sought the whole earth over. There was no one place so secret, --no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me, --save on this very scaffold!" The scaffold is almost magical and is the place where the most tense and emotional action takes place. It is almost surrealistic in its importance to the novel and in its aid to sin. Hawthorne's use of symbolism is blatantly used during the telling of his story. He uses it in many ways and not sparingly in the novel. He uses it to help aid him in his description of Hester Prynne and her sin. He uses symbolism to describe many items in his story. One of these is the scarlet letter, which appears in many forms and is arguably the most important symbol in the book. It is where the title is derived from and is certainly the most prevalent symbol. Another symbol he uses is his characters. He introduces very flat characters that show nothing more than generalized interpretations of witchcraft, evil, and sin. Pearl appears as nothing more than the symbol of her mother's sin and the pain and joy which it brings her. A final symbol that is used is the scaffold. The scaffold is used in the most important chapters of the book. It serves as a place where sin can be known and those can repent for their wrongdoings. All this symbolism, and much more, is used by Hawthorne to tell of a woman's passionate sinful deed. This very deed, which could be seen by many as devastation, is seen by Hester Prynne as opportunity. She is able to change things for the better, but not without the help of the author's extensive use of symbolism.

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