Nathaniel Hawthorne uses symbols and metaphors to represent major themes in the story, and the cultural issues of his time in his work, The Scarlet Letter. For example, the most important symbol in the entire book is the scandalous scarlet letter, “A” on Hester Prynne’s breast. It represents the moral and spiritual impact that adultery had on the hearts and minds of a Puritan town. He was able to portray the authoritarian Puritan setting and the human spirit under extreme pressure.
Hawthorne spoke specifically to American issues like gender inequality, but avoids the traditional aesthetically pleasing storyline. In the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, the letter is a daily reminder of the shame that Hester brought into the community. “It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony (Hawthorne, 80-81).” The irony is presented in the elaborate needlework of the scarlet letter, it is beyond the town’s laws that call for somber, unadorned attire.
It was at this moment that Hester took control of her own punishment. When she approached the scaffold with Pearl in her arms, she held her head high “marked with natural dignity…force of character…free will (Hawthorne, 80)” and not letting the townspeople see the distress she felt on the inside. I think Hester was aware that the scaffold was for her to repent to God, not the townspeople. So, when they badgered her with questions about Pearl’s father throughout the entire story, she deemed it unnecessary to reveal the truth to them when God already knew.
Qualities, like resilience and independence set her apart creating a powerful symbol of identity for herself. “She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness (Hawthorne, 299).”Hawthorne introduced the primary characters in the scaffold scene tearing apart the whole social structure in a Puritan town.
He used Hester to represent sin and the tragic incidence that can occur even after penitence. He exposed that freedom from your sins cannot be given by other humans, but rather God. The black (evil) and white (good) life Puritans believed in was not realistic. He pointed out the acts of injustice that punished women who committed adultery and asked are those beliefs/ punishments justifiable? He introduced feminism as an actual thing in such an early time.
He brought recognition to the fact that women during his time were more than powerless housewives and child-bearers meant to serve their husband, church and children. But they were the ones who kept things in order and went unappreciated. Hawthorne was telling his readers that women are not meant to be born and raised to only reach certain levels of life. While men, who were the head of households received less severe punishments and were quick to give blame to the women had the world at their fingertips.
If Reverend Dimmesdale had been revealed as Pearl’s father in the beginning, I doubt he would have received any punishment. Supporting the theory that Hester is innocent, and the real sinners are Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. Hawthorne’s next important character is a man who has high authority in the Puritan structure and had to deal with mixed emotions in his head all the time.
Arthur Dimmesdale is supposed to be the moral center of the Puritan community. He attempts to show fear and vulnerability during his sermons, speaking directly from the heart, but the congregation praises him even more, instead of punishing him. Forcing him to experience his own personal hell in private, he begins experiencing psychological torture of hallucinations to more complex physical health problems. “There was his body, moving onward, and with an unaccustomed force. But where was his mind? Far and deep in its own region, busying itself, with preternatural activity, to marshal a procession of stately thoughts that were soon to issue thence; and so, he saw nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing of what was around him; but the spiritual element took up the feeble frame and carried it along, unconscious of the burden, and converting it to spirit like itself (Hawthorne, 357).
” To relieve his guilt, he takes matters into his own hands by punishing himself in several ways. He fasts for several days, goes without sleep for several days, whipped himself, and returned to the same scaffold Hester stood on in the night time hoping to receive peace, but none of those punishments were enough. He finally confessed his sin to his congregation in the daytime, dying in Hester’s arms. Then Dimmesdale was finally free, “to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! (Hawthorne, 383).
” Hawthorne demonstrated guilt versus redemption through Arthur, even though both Arthur and Hester were both found guilty of their sin. They both coped differently, Hester tried to earn forgiveness through acts of service, not feeling shame for her action because she transformed the symbol and Dimmesdale let his guilt build up to the point of death. He didn’t earn his redemption until the end when he realize that God is the only being that matters, not the opinions of the townspeople. Hawthorne used Dimmesdale to symbolize the different struggles hidden guilt has on an individual even though others may not see it. He challenged the belief that Puritans were able to get away from the “Old” excess and create something “New” for the individuals that wanted to stay close to God. If we are all born sinners on an equal playing field, then how does the chosen governor or priest earn the right to choose an individual’s fate when they commit a sin like adultery.
Hawthorne wanted to know how do we atone for our past sins? Roger Chillingworth’s character symbolizes evil and intentional sin. After being held captive, I’m sure Chillingworth was expecting a warm and loving homecoming. Instead, he was met with the scene of seeing his wife, Hester suffering public shame for adultery. At that moment, his new goal was revenge, taking on the identity of a “leech” or doctor.
He created a diabolical plan to psychologically torture Dimmesdale for almost a decade. “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true (Hawthorne, 322).” Hawthorne hints at the world of black magic through Chillingworth, because of his experience with herbs and and being captured by the Natives and, also his affiliation with Mistress Hibbins. Hester had even approached him, “You search his thoughts. You burrow and rankle in his heart! Your clutch is on his life, and you cause him to die daily a living death, and still he knows you not (Hawthorne, 256).
” He had no compassion, what started out as revenge to expose Dimmesdale as Pearl’s father turned into an experiment for Chillingworth to observe how Dimmesdale would react to his torture. Near the end when Dimmesdale approached the scaffold confessing his sin then dying, Chillingworth’s sense of purpose was lost. He loses the power he had over Dimmesdale and Hester, and in the end, he loses his own desire to live, passing away not much later. It’s ironic that Hawthorne gives Chillingworth the title of a “leech,” and he ends up being like a parasite sucking the life out of his host, Dimmesdale. Hawthorne presented an example of who could qualify as a “real” sinner deserving severe punishments like public shame. Unlike Hester and Dimmesdale’s sins, Chillingworth’s sins are intentional.
His only reason to live being Dimmesdale’s mental torture. Hawthorne brought Chillingworth’s character in quietly and allowed him to redefine himself as a doctor in a Puritan town. He had control of his identity unlike the rest of the characters. He lied about his real last name, his marriage to Hester and his occupation.
I think Hawthorne is warning his readers that if you let outside forces like other’s actions and opinions define who you are it may lead to your own demise. Chillingworth’s character was an example of a person that may have penetrated the “good” Puritan town, but doesn’t deserve to be there. I don’t think Hawthorne’s goal was to warn the Puritan town of people like Chillingworth and influence them to become sterner but rather expose their existence and once again demonstrating that the Puritan beliefs and lifestyle were not achievable.
The last important character is Pearl, “the scarlet letter endowed with life (Hawthorne, 152).” She does not fit in the mold that the other Puritan children fit into, so she doesn’t interact with them. She was a pure, wild child, that could detect lies and deceit from strangers. She symbolizes something for each of the characters mentioned above.
For her mother Hester, she is her source of strength, reminding her of her identity, and a companion to love. “But she named the infant ‘Pearl’, as being of great price—purchased with all she had—her mother’s only treasure (Hawthorne, 133)!” She may have been a constant reminder of the sin Dimmesdale committed, but she motivated him to confess earning him his peace. “The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it (Hawthorne, 382).” And if earning peace was at all possible for Chillingworth before he died, then it was through his will when he left his properties to Pearl.
Hawthorne doesn’t only use Pearl as a character to develop the plot of the story, but she’s a symbol of ambiguity, nature, ‘guilt and sin’ among other themes. Pearl sees past the ambiguity, unlike the other characters that have tunnel vision. Because of the superior intuition she has, she doesn’t fall for the tricks that Chillingworth tries to play, and she doesn’t give up when someone won’t tell her an answer like why Dimmesdale keeps grabbing his chest every time she sees him. Pearl is underestimated because she was labelled as a “nymph child”, but she is the only character that expresses what everyone else may be thinking no matter if it’s appropriate or not. Hawthorne created Pearl to show a free-spirited character that doesn’t follow the rules of society or even her mother. She has no reason to comply to the rules because she doesn’t follow the Puritan beliefs, so fear of going to hell isn’t even a thought in her mind.
Pearl spends most of her time in the forest, a place seen as lawless and flexible unlike the Puritan society that is ruthless and inflexible. Because she is in the forest most of the time, she is not exposed to the repressive Puritan society and her superior intuition allows her to see past the façade that the townspeople put up. Pearl was an independent and outspoken character who just wanted the world to be truthful. Hawthorne introduced an early feminist through Pearl’s character—she may not have understood every aspect of life at seven years old but she was able to identify that people treated her differently and expected certain behavior from her.
A behavior she didn’t care to be a part of. She gave purpose to her mother’s isolated life and didn’t let the external forces in life change who she was. Hawthorne’s final objective through Pearl was to show the concrete and the intangible parts of life to add dimension to it. The purpose of The Scarlet Letter for Hawthorne was teaching society mercy and forgiveness. He wanted to exposed the Puritan beliefs that he was affiliated with through having an ancestor who served as a judge for the Salem witch trials.
He objected strongly against Puritanism, as the system would absurdly persecute and punish people on occasion, forcing them to undergo unnecessary and extreme suffering. And if Puritans believed that God would punish accordingly then why did they deem it necessary to punish individuals so harshly and who gave them the right to do so ? The Puritans seemed to follow this “rule” of judging first and eliminating later, never leaving room for explanations but just wanting to get rid of the “bad” in the community. Hawthorne’s characters give a realistic perspective of what life was like in that society. What seemed like a simple way of living was actually filled with eyes watching you at all times ready to tell if you made any mistake. Hawthorne used the theme of sin to point out that it’s apart of everyday life, not something you can avoid and it effects your mind, body and soul like with Dimmesdale. Women in that era, were expected to be subordinate to their counterparts, but Hester took responsibility for everything protecting the man she loved for seven years.
And he attacked their belief in fate and free will with Chillingworth controlling Dimmesdale instead of letting God control the outcome of his own fate. Once again reminding us that there are far too many complexities in life for us to be put in boxes of “good” or “evil.” And no one has the power to detect evil in another person’s soul. So I suppose the best way to describe what Hawthorne was trying to tell his community was that we are all coins.
One side is good, and the other side is bad, but we do not let either side change our value.