Symbolism when used by a great writer can be one of the most powerful
"Has been a lifesaver so many times!"
- Catherine Rampell, student @ University of Washington
"Exactly the help I needed."
- Jennifer Hawes, student @ San Jose State
"The best place for brainstorming ideas."
- Michael Majchrowicz, student @ University of Kentucky
Symbolism, when used by a great writer, can be one of the most powerful tools in literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne relies on symbolism a great deal within The Scarlet Letter in order to relay his ideas to the reader. In very general terms symbolism is a way of showing multiple meanings for something, or letting one object stand for another. The title of the novel itself provides a symbol with which one can identify Hester Prynne's nature and intent. The scarlet letter A takes on many meanings throughout the duration of the story. That letter A that Hester wears proves to be one of the most important pieces of symbolism in the story. Another such symbol are the characters, especially Pearl, who appear almost to be nothing more than a symbol and have no real depth in their development in the duration of the story. A final symbol within the story is the town's scaffold upon which three crucial chapters take place. Hawthorne's use of symbolism proves to be one of the foremost techniques used in the telling of The Scarlet Letter.
The letter A that Hester Prynne wears is the most significant and direct use of symbolism in the novel. Hester is forced to wear this scarlet A on her chest because of the adulterous affair she committed with the Reverend Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale. Because of that the easiest interpretation of the letter is for adultery. Most of the townspeople and the readers of the book identify the letter as a symbol for Hester's sin and something that will always remind her of the wrongdoings she committed. This same scarlet letter A is easily applied to Dimmesdale also. During the final chapter it is learned that Dimmesdale may have inflicted a scarlet letter A on his own chest through his own torture for his involvement with Hester. Throughout the novel the letter begins to take on more significant meanings than the rather plain adultery. One other such meaning for the letter is angel. This symbol is first applied in chapter 12 where a red letter A is seen in the sky on the night of Governor Winthrop's death. Chillingworth is talking with Dimmesdale after one of his best sermons he has yet to deliver and the next symbol is learned of. Chillingworth says:
"But did your reverence hear of the portent that was seen last night? A great red letter in the sky, --the letter A, --which we interpret to stand for Angel. For, as our good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night, it was doubtless held fit that there should be some notice thereof!"
Another such meaning of the letter is able. This is used to describe Hester's great talent of helping others and gains respect for the Puritan people who so meanly criticized her after learning of her great sin. Hester used her great strength and determination to eventually gain back what she had lost from the devout Puritans.
Another such symbol in the novel is the characters, which Hawthorne uses in the story. Many of these characters appear to have been invented as just symbols and nothing more. Their symbolism is used to generalize many Puritan ideals and actions, which may or may not be a fair assumption of what all Puritans stood for and believed in. Hawthorne doesn't develop many of the characters much. He presents them by showing their ideas that parallel a larger group or belief. An example of this is Mistress Hibbins. She is really only presented as a witch and nothing more. Every time she speaks or is mentioned it is in connection with the devil or some other form of black magic. An even larger and more symbolic character is Pearl. It seems as if she was created as nothing more than as a symbol for sin. She represents the sin of both Hester and Dimmesdale. She represents all that is wild, mischievous, and inquisitive. Hawthorne shows her as very evil and rebellious through his repeated description of her as the elf-child and even an imp. Pearl is shown to be very interested in the letter on her mother's bosom. Her preoccupation leads her to form a letter of her own out of eelgrass and place it on her own chest. She also tells her
View Full Essay