Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the most prolific symbolists in American literature, and a study of his symbols is necessary to understanding his novels. Generally speaking, a symbol is something used to stand for something else. In literature, a symbol is most often a concrete object used to represent an idea more abstract and broader in scope and meaning — often a moral, religious, or philosophical concept or value. Symbols can range from the most obvious substitution of one thing for another, to creations as massive, complex, and perplexing as Melville's white whale in Moby Dick.
An allegory in literature is a story where characters, objects, and events have a hidden meaning and are used to present some universal lesson. Hawthorne has a perfect atmosphere for the symbols in The Scarlet Letter because the Puritans saw the world through allegory. For them, simple patterns, like the meteor streaking through the sky, became religious or moral interpretations for human events. Objects, such as the scaffold, were ritualistic symbols for such concepts as sin and penitence.
Whereas the Puritans translated such rituals into moral and repressive exercises, Hawthorne turns their interpretations around in The Scarlet Letter. The Puritan community sees Hester as a fallen woman, Dimmesdale as a saint, and would have seen the disguised Chillingworth as a victim — a husband betrayed. Instead, Hawthorne ultimately presents Hester as a woman who represents a sensitive human being with a heart and emotions; Dimmesdale as a minister who is not very saint-like in private but, instead, morally weak and unable to confess his hidden sin; and Chillingworth as a husband who is the worst possible offender of humanity and single-mindedly pursuing an evil goal.
Hawthorne's embodiment of these characters is denied by the Puritan mentality: At the end of the novel, even watching and hearing Dimmesdale's confession, many members of the Puritan community still deny what they saw. Thus, using his characters as symbols, Hawthorne discloses the grim underside of Puritanism that lurks beneath the public piety.
Some of Hawthorne's symbols change their meaning, depending on the context, and some are static. Examples of static symbols are the Reverend Mr. Wilson, who represents the Church, or Governor Bellingham, who represents the State. But many of Hawthorne's symbols change — particularly his characters — depending on their treatment by the community and their reactions to their sins. His characters, the scarlet A, light and darkness, color imagery, and the settings of forest and village serve symbolic purposes.
Hester is the public sinner who demonstrates the effect of punishment on sensitivity and human nature. She is seen as a fallen woman, a culprit who deserves the ignominy of her immoral choice. She struggles with her recognition of the letter's symbolism just as people struggle with their moral choices. The paradox is that the Puritans stigmatize her with the mark of sin and, in so doing, reduce her to a dull, lifeless woman whose characteristic color is gray and whose vitality and femininity are suppressed.
Over the seven years of her punishment, Hester's inner struggle changes from a victim of Puritan branding to a decisive woman in tune with human nature. When she meets Dimmesdale in the forest in Chapter 18, Hawthorne says, "The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread."
In time, even the Puritan community sees the letter as meaning "Able" or "Angel." Her sensitivity with society's victims turns her symbolic meaning from a person whose life was originally twisted and repressed to a strong and sensitive woman with respect for the humanity of others. In her final years, "the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence, too." Since her character is strongly tied to the scarlet letter, Hester represents the public sinner who changes and learns from her own sorrow to understand the humanity of others. Often human beings who suffer great loss and life-changing experiences become survivors with an increased understanding and sympathy for the human losses of others. Hester is such a symbol.
Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is the secret sinner whose public and private faces are opposites. Even as the beadle — an obvious symbol of the righteous Colony of Massachusetts — proclaims that the settlement is a place where "iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine," the colony, along with the Reverend Mr. Wilson, is in awe of Dimmesdale's goodness and sanctity. Inside the good minister, however, is a storm raging between holiness and self-torture. He is unable to reveal his sin.
At worst, Dimmesdale is a symbol of hypocrisy and self-centered intellectualism; he knows what is right but has not the courage to make himself do the public act. When Hester tells him that the ship for Europe leaves in four days, he is delighted with the timing. He will be able to give his Election Sermon and "fulfill his public duties" before escaping. At best, his public piety is a disdainful act when he worries that his congregation will see his features in Pearl's face.
Dimmesdale's inner struggle is intense, and he struggles to do the right thing. He realizes the scaffold is the place to confess and also his shelter from his tormenter, Chillingworth. Yet, the very thing that makes Dimmesdale a symbol of the secret sinner is also what redeems him. Sin and its acknowledgment humanize Dimmesdale. When he leaves the forest and realizes the extent of the devil's grip on his soul, he passionately writes his sermon and makes his decision to confess. As a symbol, he represents the secret sinner who fights the good fight in his soul and eventually wins.
Pearl is the strongest of these allegorical images because she is nearly all symbol, little reality. Dimmesdale sees Pearl as the "freedom of a broken law"; Hester sees her as "the living hieroglyphic" of their sin; and the community sees her as the result of the devil's work. She is the scarlet letter in the flesh, a reminder of Hester's sin. As Hester tells the pious community leaders in Chapter 8, ". . . she is my happiness! — she is my torture . . . See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a million-fold the power of retribution for my sin?"
Pearl is also the imagination of the artist, an idea so powerful that the Puritans could not even conceive of it, let alone understand it, except in terms of transgression. She is natural law unleashed, the freedom of the unrestrained wilderness, the result of repressed passion. When Hester meets Dimmesdale in the forest, Pearl is reluctant to come across the brook to see them because they represent the Puritan society in which she has no happy role. Here in the forest, she is free and in harmony with nature. Her image in the brook is a common symbol of Hawthorne's. He often uses a mirror to symbolize the imagination of the artist; Pearl is a product of that imagination. When Dimmesdale confesses his sin in the light of the sun, Pearl is free to become a human being. All along, Hester felt there was this redeemable nature in her daughter, and here she sees her faith rewarded. Pearl can now feel human grief and sorrow, as Hester can, and she becomes a sin redeemed.
Chillingworth is consistently a symbol of cold reason and intellect unencumbered by human compassion. While Dimmesdale has intellect but lacks will, Chillingworth has both. He is fiendish, evil, and intent on revenge. In his first appearance in the novel, he is compared to a snake, an obvious allusion to the Garden of Eden. Chillingworth becomes the essence of evil when he sees the scarlet letter on Dimmesdale's breast in Chapter 10, where there is "no need to ask how Satan comports himself when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won into his kingdom."
Eventually, his evil is so pervasive that Chillingworth awakens the distrust of the Puritan community and the recognition of Pearl. As time goes by and Dimmesdale becomes more frail under the constant torture of Chillingworth, the community worries that their minister is losing a battle with the devil himself. Even Pearl recognizes that Chillingworth is a creature of the Black Man and warns her mother to stay away from him. Chillingworth loses his reason to live when Dimmesdale eludes him at the scaffold in the final scenes of the novel. "All his strength and energy — all his vital and intellectual force — seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shrivelled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight." As a symbol, Chillingworth's job is done.
The Scarlet A
Besides the characters, the most obvious symbol is the scarlet letter itself, which has various meanings depending on its context. It is a sign of adultery, penance, and penitence. It brings about Hester's suffering and loneliness and also provides her rejuvenation. In the book, it first appears as an actual material object in The Custom House preface. Then it becomes an elaborately gold-embroidered A over Hester's heart and is magnified in the armor breast-plate at Governor Bellingham's mansion. Here Hester is hidden by the gigantic, magnified symbol just as her life and feelings are hidden behind the sign of her sin.
Still later, the letter is an immense red A in the sky, a green A of eel-grass arranged by Pearl, the A on Hester's dress decorated by Pearl with prickly burrs, an A on Dimmesdale's chest seen by some spectators at the Election Day procession, and, finally, represented by the epitaph "On a field, sable, the letter A, gules" (gules being the heraldic term for "red") on the tombstone Hester and Dimmesdale share.
In all these examples, the meaning of the symbol depends on the context and sometimes the interpreter. For example, in the second scaffold scene, the community sees the scarlet A in the sky as a sign that the dying Governor Winthrop has become an angel; Dimmesdale, however, sees it as a sign of his own secret sin. The community initially sees the letter on Hester's bosom as a mark of just punishment and a symbol to deter others from sin. Hester is a Fallen Woman with a symbol of her guilt. Later, when she becomes a frequent visitor in homes of pain and sorrow, the A is seen to represent "Able" or "Angel." It has rejuvenated Hester and changed her meaning in the eyes of the community.
Light and Color
Light and darkness, sunshine and shadows, noon and midnight, are all manifestations of the same images. Likewise, colors — such as red, gray, and black — play a role in the symbolic nature of the background and scenery. But, similar to the characters, the context determines what role the light or colors play. The Scarlet Letter's first chapter ends with an admonition to "relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow" with "some sweet moral blossom." These opposites are found throughout the novel and often set the tone and define which side of good and evil envelop the characters.
In Chapter 16, Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest with a "gray expanse of cloud" and a narrow path hemmed in by the black and dense forest. The feelings of the lovers, weighed down by guilt, are reflected in the darkness of nature. Every so often, sunshine flickers on the setting. But Pearl reminds her mother that the sun will not shine on the sinful Hester; it does shine, however, when Hester passionately lets down her hair. The sun is the symbol of untroubled, guilt-free happiness, or perhaps the approval of God and nature. It also seems to be, at times, the light of truth and grace.
Darkness is always associated with Chillingworth. It is also part of the description of the jail in Chapter 1, the scene of sin and punishment. The Puritans in that scene wear gray hats, and the darkness of the jail is relieved by the sunshine of the outside. When Hester comes into the sunshine from the darkness, she must squint at the light of day, and her iniquity is placed for all to see. Noon is the time of Dimmesdale's confession, and daylight is the symbol of exposure. Nighttime, however, is the symbol of concealment, and Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold at midnight, concealing his confession from the community. In the end, even the grave of Dimmesdale and Hester is in darkness. "So sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow . . ." The light, of course, is the scarlet letter, shining out of the darkness of the Puritanic gloom.
Colors play a similar role to light and darkness. One of the predominant colors is red, seen in the roses, the letter, Pearl's clothing, the "scarlet woman," Chillingworth's eyes, and the streak of the meteor. At night and always with the physician, the letter is associated with darkness and evil; in the other associations, it is a part of nature, passion, lawlessness, and imagination. The context determines the meaning. Black and gray are colors associated with the Puritans, gloom, death, sin, and the narrow path of righteousness through the forest of sin. Three chapters that contain a multitude of color images are Chapters 5, 11, and 12.
Even Hawthorne's settings are symbolic. The Puritan village with its marketplace and scaffold is a place of rigid rules, concern with sin and punishment, and self-examination. Public humiliation and penance are symbolized by the scaffold, the only place where Dimmesdale can go to atone for his guilt and escape his tormentor's clutches. The collective community that watches, at beginning and end, is a symbol of the rigid Puritan point of view with unquestioning obedience to the law. The Church and State are ubiquitous forces to contend with in this colony, as Hester finds out to her dismay. They see Dimmesdale as a figure of public approval, Chillingworth, at least initially, as a man of learning to be revered, and Hester as the outcast. Predominant colors are black and gray, and the gloom of the community is omnipresent.
However, nearby is the forest, home of the Black Man but also a place of freedom. Here the sun shines on Pearl, and she absorbs and keeps it. The forest represents a natural world, governed by natural laws, as opposed to the artificial, Puritan community with its man-made laws. In this world, Hester can take off her cap, let down her hair, and discuss plans with Dimmesdale to be together away from the rigid laws of the Puritans. As part of this forest, the brook provides "a boundary between two worlds." Pearl refuses to cross this boundary into the Puritan world when Hester beckons to her. However, the forest is also a moral wilderness that Hester finds herself in once she is forced to wear the sign of her guilt.
The forest is also a symbolic place where witches gather, souls are signed away to the devil, and Dimmesdale can "yield himself with deliberate choice . . . to what he knew was deadly sin." In these instances, the forest is a symbol of the world of darkness and evil. Mistress Hibbins knows on sight those who would wander "in the forest" or, in other words, secretly do Satan's work. When Dimmesdale leaves the forest with his escape plan in mind, he is tempted to sin on numerous occasions during his journey back to the village. The forest, then, is a symbol of man's temptation.
Every chapter in The Scarlet Letter has symbols displayed through characterization, setting, colors, and light. Perhaps the most dramatic chapters using these techniques are the chapters comprising the three scaffold scenes and the meeting in the forest between Hester and Dimmesdale. Hawthorne's ability to introduce these symbols and change them through the context of his story is but one of the reasons The Scarlet Letter is considered his masterpiece and a peerless example of the romance novel.