Symbolism refers to symbols writers use to convey specific meanings. Different symbols refer to different things depending on the readers’ circumstances. Writers use symbols to convey different meanings to their readers in their literary pieces. Nathaniel Hawthorne has also used various symbols in The Scarlet Letter, his phenomenal novel written about shaming and social stigmatizing during the early Puritanism. Some of the major symbols used in this novel have been discussed below.
Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter
In this novel, the prison door’s description captures the reader’s attention immediately when he or she starts reading it. The prison door is a symbol of punishment given to the culprits and jail inmates for their crimes. Different parts of the prison door such as iron spikes and bars remind the cruel methods used by the Puritanical magistrates to punish criminals and the innocent people as well. The prison door, thus, reminds that punishment given to Hester Prynne but was later released to be ostracized to live in the forest.
The Rose Bush
The rose bush is a bush of wild roses, which also appears in the first chapter. Exactly like a rose bush, Hester Prynne also can look beautiful as well as wild in her nature, and even survive against all the odds. However, as it appears in two different places, it could mean two different things. In the first, it perhaps symbolizes Hester Prynne, and later when it appears in the house of the governor, it symbolizes Pearl and her vibrant life.
The letter of “A” written in scarlet color and placed around the neck of Hester becomes a symbol of sin, especially adultery. However, it is fascinating to note that the same letter becomes a symbol of innocence, penance and angelic character of Hester by the end of the story. This symbol also shows how objects transform their symbolic meanings based on lifestyle, circumstances, and choices.
Although red color is, mostly, associated with sex, infatuation, passion, violence, and life of sin, it is also associated with true love and purity of heart. In the novel, this color is associated with red roses which means energy, while at one place, it also shows lost passion and sincere love, as the scarlet letter and crimson color of cheeks show love and passion.
The scaffold has been used at three places in the novel. Once, it is used in the second chapter where Hester is made to stand and humiliated for her sin of adultery. Here, it is a symbol of sin and crime. It is again used in the twelfth chapter where it is shown as a symbol of confession and hope, but nobody hears Dimmesdale’s confession. It again appears in the 23rd chapter where it is a symbol of freedom from long-lasting guilt and secret, as Dimmesdale confesses everything before dying.
Shadow and Light
Two significant seasonal phenomena appear intermittently in the novel. They are sunlight and shadow. For instance, when the question of Pearl’s future appears before the jury, Dimmesdale is in the shadow of the garden. It means it is a symbol of cover. However, when the novel nears its end, there is sunlight on Hester and Dimmesdale, which represents their true love and peace. It also shows the love, forgiveness, and grace of God upon them.
Symbolically, a forest has two contradictory meanings. It means natural love as well as wilderness. As far as its use in the novel is concerned, the forest is a terrifying place, an abode of Satan, as is considered during the Puritanism, and Hester is left in the forest. However, by the end of the novel, it proves a place where a person becomes mature and also does his penance to shed off his sinful past. For example, when Hester and Dimmesdale meet by the end to plan their escape, they meet at the forest. At this stage, it becomes a place of refuge for them. In fact, the forest has also changed its symbolical meanings with time.
The Character of Pearl
Pearl’s character is very interesting in the novel as it represents a child’s innocence and also the dual behavior inherited by her father, Dimmesdale, and mother, Hester Prynne. Her wild nature represents the wild and passionate nature of her mother. She is also a symbol of the price Hester has paid for her passionate love affair. Her worth as the only child and the sole solace of Hester increases, which shows why she has been named as Pearl in the story.
Dimmesdale and Chillingworth
Dimmesdale’s name suggests that he will have to face the decline or bad luck in his career. He is, in fact, a symbol of a person doomed to fail. The same is the case of Chillingworth. Chilling means icy cold. When he sees Hester Prynne facing the jury of the governor and the pastor at the beginning of the novel, he doesn’t show compassion. Instead of helping his wife, he turns cold-hearted and abandons her. He tries to find out the birth father of Pearl and continues to ploy against Dimmesdale. His name is a symbol of a loveless person.
The Black Man
A Black Man appears twice in the storyline of this novel. It happens in the fourth chapter first when Hester sees Chillingworth who is smiling at her. She compares him to the Black Man who haunts the forest. By this, she means the Satan or evil that always keep chasing people to coax them to do sinful acts. Chillingworth suspects that Pearl’s father is Dimmesdale, and warns Hester that he will find the truth. Although it happens again when Pearl has a conversation with her mother about the identity of the Black Man and the relationship with the Scarlet Letter, she does not reveal details to Pearl. However, it is clear that this Black Man is Chillingworth, who indirectly tortures, Dimmesdale, forcing him to accept his identity as Pearl’s father.