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Symbols

Learn about symbols in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter with Course Hero's video study guide.

The Scarlet Letter | Symbols

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The novel is rich with symbols that support central themes and ideas. In The Scarlet Letter, the symbols are mostly visual and thus add to the reader's imagination the sort of pictures that even in a thickly written text such as this one are worth, well, at least a thousand words.

The Prison Door

The novel begins this way: "A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes." As this description shows, the prison door, like the jail itself, symbolizes punishment. The "iron spikes" reinforce the cruel harshness of Puritan punishment. The prison also is the reader's introduction to Puritan society and combines with the "sad-colored garments" to convey a sense of a dour, judgmental community.

The Rose Bush

The rose bush, also introduced in Chapter 1, primarily symbolizes Hester. It shows her beauty and wildness, as well as her ability to survive in even in the harshest circumstances. We see this in the description of the rose bush: "But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems. ... This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history." In addition, the rose bush symbolizes Hawthorne's hope that the reader will find his book pleasing: "we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow." Later, in the episode at the governor's home, the rose bush is associated with Pearl, linking her to its vibrant liveliness.

The Scarlet Letter

At first the letter shows the world that Hester committed adultery, and so it is a mark of her sin and disgrace. By the end of the book, however, the letter comes to stand for able and angel as well as adultery. Thus, the symbol of dishonor becomes a badge of honor. In a larger sense, then, the scarlet letter represents Hester's identity, who she is to herself and to others, which shifts during the course of the book. The symbol is echoed in Pearl (the living embodiment of the A, dressed in one scene to match the letter), the meteor streaking across the sky, the A that Pearl fashions with seaweed and puts on her chest, and finally the A on the gravestone that links Hester's grave and Dimmesdale's.

The last lines of the book describe that slate headstone, engraved with a shield that the narrator describes using the language of heraldry: "ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES." The words sable and gules mean black and red when used to refer to a coat of arms. The symbol that defined Hester in life defines her in death; ironically, the symbol that Dimmesdale concealed in life defines him in death as well.

The Color Red

In the Western cultural tradition, red symbolizes sin, love, passion, and sex. For instance, the scarlet letter is red; people give red roses to their lovers, and red hearts are common on Valentine's Day. Red also symbolizes energy, which is shown in Pearl's "wild" energy and in Chapter 20, when Hester takes the lead in planning their escape from Boston, as Dimmesdale is too weak and indecisive to make decisions. After she declares her decision, she casts off the letter, but then "a crimson flush" glowed on her cheek "that had been long so pale." Relieved of the burden of the letter, Hester comes to life: "Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back."

The Scaffold

The scaffold symbolizes guilt, public confession, and punishment for a crime or a sin. It appears at three carefully balanced places in the book: at the beginning, the exact middle, and at the end. In Chapter 2 the Puritans force Hester to stand on the scaffold and be humiliated by the community. The narrator writes: "In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine. ... The very ideal of ignominy [disgrace] was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature,—whatever be the delinquencies of the individual,—no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do. In Hester Prynne's instance, however, as not infrequently in other cases, her sentence bore, that she should stand a certain time upon the platform."

The second appearance comes in the middle of the book. In Chapter 12 Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold in "this vain show of expiation." He shrieks aloud, but, despite his conviction that someone will awaken and so his confession will finally be made, no one hears him, and his punishment remains private rather than public. This event, of course, comes at night, linking the scaffold to the symbols of sunlight and shadow or night.

The third appearance of the scaffold is in Chapter 23, when Dimmesdale, joined by Hester and Pearl, finally makes his public confession. This confession comes in the light of day and before the whole town, finally releasing Dimmesdale's guilt just before he dies.

Sunlight and Shadow

Sunlight and shadow are two important symbols in the book as a whole; the shadow symbol is sometimes linked to night. In Chapter 8, for instance, Dimmesdale stands in the shadow in the governor's garden when the question of Pearl's custody is discussed, as he conceals his sin. Hester stands in the sunlight, having revealed her sin to the public. By taking Dimmesdale's hand, Pearl is symbolically recognizing that he is her father. Dimmesdale, however, is far from ready to admit that he was Hester's lover and Pearl is their daughter. The sunlight shines on Hester and Dimmesdale in the forest when they agree to flee to England, as though the decision is blessed. Therefore, sunlight stands for God's grace and love; the shadows represent secrecy, absence of love, and lack of truth.

Physical Appearance

In several instances a character's physical appearance becomes an outward manifestation of his or her inner life. Hester is beautiful and vibrant early in the book when she is being defiant. As time passes she dampens her spirit, becoming a little more accommodating, and in the process loses some of her beauty. Only in the scene with Dimmesdale in the forest, when she feels the promise of hope, is she described as beautiful again. Dimmesdale, wracked by guilt, wastes and sickens. Chillingworth's misshapen body symbolizes his twisted soul, the outer shell representing the inner corruption.

Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale

In their love and its wrenching outcome, Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne can be seen as Adam and Eve. Their love affair, their sin, results in their being thrown out of the community: Hester in a literal sense (as she is shunned and isolated), Dimmesdale in a symbolic sense (as he tortures himself over his weakness and hypocrisy). Their love also results in knowledge—what it means to reject the teachings of their church. This symbolism reflects a central belief among Puritans, the original sin of Adam and Eve.

The Characters' Names

Pearl

Pearl is an allusion to the parable of the pearl found in Matthew 13:45–46: "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." The parable is generally interpreted to suggest the great value of heaven. Hawthorne uses the parable in two ways. First, it symbolizes the great price that Hester paid for her affair—the loss of respect, leading to isolation and loneliness. Pearl is uncontrollable, subject to wild mood swings. Her behavior is both a reflection of Hester's passion and a reaction to the extreme loneliness and isolation they endure. Second, Pearl herself is beyond value because she is Hester's child and nothing is more valuable to a parent than a child. That value is enhanced in Pearl's case as she is virtually Hester's only companion.

Chillingworth

Chillingworth's name suggests the icy core at the center of his being. Driven by revenge, he loses his humanity and becomes frozen out of humanity. His chill extends to others as well, as the revenge he enacts on Dimmesdale helps to destroy the minister. Ultimately, because Chillingworth is unable to love, he becomes the Black Man, Satan.

Dimmesdale

Dimmesdale's name suggests the fate that he will experience, a terrible sickening and decline brought on by guilt, a dimming of his vitality and spirit. As dale refers to a meadow, with associations of fresh, green nature, his name also suggests a dimming of nature through his Puritan sense of guilt.

The Black Man

The Black Man is a symbol for Satan, pure evil. The symbol primarily stands for Chillingworth. When Hester first sees her husband in Chapter 4, she says, "Why dost thou smile so at me? ... Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the forest round about us? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?" Indeed Chillingworth tries, forcing Hester to promise not to reveal his identity so he can probe the minister's soul to discover if his suspicions that Dimmesdale is Hester's lover are true. Chillingworth can be seen as the devil because he uses his intelligence to help destroy Dimmesdale. In so doing he comes to look like the devil as well as act like him.

Years later Pearl asks her mother for a story about the Black Man. Hester replies, "Once in my life I met the Black Man! ... This scarlet letter is his mark." The devil has left his mark in the form of her sin, the scarlet letter. This idea is echoed when Pearl asks Hester about Dimmesdale and the Black Man: "And, mother, he has his hand over his heart! Is it because, when the minister wrote his name in the book, the Black Man set his mark in that place? But why does he not wear it outside his bosom, as thou dost, mother?" Guilt and concealment have left their mark on Dimmesdale as well. Dimmesdale's inability to reveal the truth shows that evil has affected him.

The Forest

The forest has two opposite meanings: a moral wilderness and the loving embrace of nature. To the Puritans the forest was a terrifying place, filled with wild animals, Native Americans, and, at night, Satan and witches. Thus, Hawthorne links Hester's shame and her exile to the terrifying forest: "She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate, and shadowy as the untamed forest." However, the forest also welcomes Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale: it is the setting for the only time in the book that Hester and Dimmesdale have the opportunity to talk to each other alone and when they plan for better days to come.

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