Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter

The novel The Scarlet Letter, involves the sin of a woman and her struggle to live her life after her child is born. Nathaniel Hawthorne writes the novel in such a way, that the readers opinions of the characters are influenced. One method by which he does this is through the use of motifs. Several can be seen, a few being how the "A" is perceived, the use of light versus dark, and the use of iron.

First the "A" is meant to be a symbol of sin, and the damnation the wearer will have to face after death, however, as time progresses, it is seen as having other meanings.

Early in the novel Hester Prynne has to take her daughter Pearl to the Governer's house for an interview to determine her worthiness as a mother. The bondservant who answers the door shows great respect to Hester, because of the elaborate "A" she wears on her chest. The symbol that should have caused the scorn of the servant instead commanded respect. Later in the novel, Pearl has made a "A" in hopes her mother will tell her the significance of the one she bears upon her chest. Hester asks her what she thinks it to be, and pearl replies "It is the great letter "A." Thou hast taught it to me in the horn-book." Pearl sees the "A" as a symbol of greatness, being at eht beginning of the alphabet. Once again the letter is seen in a much more positive way than it is meant to be. In speaking of Hester, to the townfolk who know her, the "A" comes to mean able, because she is always helping people and makes beautiful embroidery to make money. She is always willing to lend her services where called, thus the people cannot perceive her as evil, selfish woman they had punished so long ago. Time took away the full impact of what the "A" was meant to mean, instead it is now seen in a more positive way.

A second motif used is that of the contrast of light and dark. Dark is used to mean the covering up of, or the actual sin, while the light is revelation, or purity of sin. Pearl, a very perceptive child, notices that when her mother steps into the sunlight it disappears. She comments on one occasion by saying, "the sunshine does not love you. It runs and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom." The sin of Hester causes the light to leave; she is unworthy of any. In reference to dimmesdale being the fater of Perl, it is said "….then at some inevitable moment, will the soul of the sufferer be dissolved, and flow forth in a dark but transparent stream, bringing all its mysteries into daylight." The sin is in a dark stream and the truth will all come out into view for all to see. The offense once again is campared to darkness and the truth is revealed. One day in the meadow Pearl asks Hester to catch some light for her, Hester only replies by saying "Thou must gather thine own sunshine. I have none to give to thee" Pearl, in her youth, is without sin therefore, she can run in the light. Hester, however, has a sin to bear, so she cannot experience it. Light and dark while a physical aspect, hold the meaning of sin and truth as well.

Further, the use of iron to represent the strength of the binding of the sin a person commits. In chapter five it is said, "The chain that bound her was of iron links, and falling to her inmost south, but could never be broken." After her sin, Hester would have to face it for as long as she lives. Pearl is the binding link between Dimmesdale and Hester, "Here was the link of mutual crime, which neither he nor she oculd break." (Ch. 13) The "black-man" is the devil who recruits sinners in the forest at night. Those who have done wrong have to sign their names into his book. The pen they write their name with is of iron, and the clasp that holds the book closed is as well. The iron holds the people in, and it is once again binding them to their choice. The use of a strong metal such as iron, shows how unbreakable it is to escape from one's wrongdoing, which is found often in the novel.

The use of iron, light vs. dark, and the different perceptions of the "A", adds dimension to each character and the predicaments they face. One is able to see how serious Hester's crimes are, and realize the significance of the "A" in more then just the obvious "adulteress" it was meant to mean. The motifs are a way to understand the idea the author is trying to convey, without having to directly state it.

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