Symbolism exists from the beginning of writing and it was appreciated in literary works alongside the history blended with other different literary genres like romanticism, realism and others. A belletristic work can be considered a whole world that has some features more highlighted than others and an example of this kind of work is the Hawthorne’s piece of art ‘The Scarlet Letter’ in which either historical elements, romantic ones and symbols exist together, but the last are those that emerge even from the title. So, when we talk about ‘The Scarlet Letter’ we refer to it as a world in which symbols dominate, whereas the main feature of it is the romantic symbols, that define the Puritan society in the America of the seventeenth century and without which this book would not have become an emblem of that time. With the help of symbols, the author builds the world of the 1600s revealing the society without its clothes, being naked in the eyes of the reader, the one that eventually sees the reality as Hawthorne did.
Hawthorne is one of those authors that made ‘symbolic worlds of symbolic elements’ and has ‘shaped our vision of reality’ (T.W.Y.
, The Literary Symbol, pg. 3). First of all, I would like to explain what symbols are and how they exist in the discussed book. Symbols in literature are the part of the figurative language used by author to express ideas, different and various significations to words, events, and actions of literary figures depending on context.
‘The Scarlet Letter’ has a symbol in the title itself which I think any reader tried to puzzle it out without actually read the book. Without the context, the symbol of the letter would be in a fog and it did happen to me, thinking that the title may refer to a murder because of the word ‘scarlet’. But there is symbolism not only in objects, but also in characters which lead us to allegory of the book: the proper story with its characters, their emotions, actions and events (the literal meaning of symbols), and on the other side is the meaning of all these (the symbolic meaning), with their many interpretations that we find out from context and of a cultural knowledge of american seventeenth century, leading us to morality of the book. I will begin by presenting some of the symbols that I have noticed during my reading, and then they are going to pass through the process of analyzing to see where these are leading us. Talking about New World, the beginning of the plot shows how fast Massachusetts Bay Colony has developed severe religious laws of society.
I am talking about the door through we find out the prison in which Hester Prynne committing a sin, violating a religious law. This prison is the symbol of a young society noticing ‘that some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front, the Puritan one’, people that do not distinguish the punishments allowed by governmental laws and those by the divinity. One of a woman from the crowd may be representative for puritans saying: This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die; Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statutebook. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray (N.H., pg.
57) We can notice the author ironically criticizes these people: The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. (N. H., pg.
51) Near this symbol that ‘looked more antique than anything else in the New World’, is a rosebush. This beautiful plant near a prison is in contradiction with the harsh view of the building. I can imagine myself standing in front of this door like townspeople and suddenly I see this rosebush that gives me a more peaceful mind, forgetting about the punishment of a human. Maybe this plant wants to tell us we should see also the beautiful side of a human being, not to be rude and too severe when we judge a sinner. I can deduce this symbol of rosebush represents the forgiveness people should allow to their fellows, especially puritans that would better see the sinner dead than forgiven.
The author himself also gives a meaning to this symbol by saying: It may serve, let us hope, to symbolise some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow. (N.H., pg. 53) When Hester is on the pillory, her sin is revealed to everyone on her bosom by an embroidered letter ‘A’. When you see a woman punished with a child in her arms without her man, it is obvious the sin that begins with the letter ‘a’ is adultery. Puritans thought they control her punishment, but doing herself this sign and accepting her fate, she controls her own punishment:In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. (N.
H., pg. 58) During the reading until the end, this letter transforms itself from the sign of sin to a sign of respect, giving the letter another meaning.
This may be the transformation of society too: from people that symbolically construe all thing, to people that stopped judge and saw the good in the human being. Pearl, Hester’s daughter is the symbol of her sin, but also a representative for her period as a rebel of society controlled by laws, the begin of a non-puritan America. Her name is symbolic, referring to her value seen by her mother, i.
e. ‘as being of great price—purchased with all she had—her mother’s only treasure!’ She may be so valuable not only because Hester gave up to her reputation to have her, but also, because of this sacrifice, her daughter will be her redeem from sin because she gives her the strength to live and keep her away from other sins: Even thus early had the child saved her from Satan’s snare. (N.H., pg. 141) God gave me the child!’ cried she. ‘He gave her in requital of all things else which ye had taken from me. She is my happiness—she is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me, too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a millionfold the power of retribution for my sin? (N.
H., pg. 134) Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale was the symbol of the sainted man, the model of Puritanism in the eyes of the folk, but he lives secrets and lies, sinning till the end of the story and becoming the symbol of hypocrisy. Even if he did not reveal his sin as Hester did, the sign of adultery still appears on his chest, but as a constant one that cannot be set aside. He appears in contrast with Hester: he keeps his sin secret, Hester revealed it; he punishes himself without reaching salvation, Hester let herself be punished, being redeemed for her honesty: Confession is a duty we owe to God, and a means, not of restoring us to our self-complacency, but of restoring us to the favor of God, and reestablishing us in his friendship. (T. A., pg.
166) The meteor was an interesting thing seen that time, that also had, without doubt, symbolic connotation, considering it came from the sky where God exists. Any events that were different than usual, did puritans consider them as supernatural, as in case of the meteor as the narrator says:Nothing was more common, in those days, than to interpret all meteoric appearances, and other natural phenomena that occured with less regularity than the rise and set of sun and moon, as so many revelations from a supernatural source. (N. H., pg. 187) But what about the meteor that comes with an ‘a’ on him exactly when Dimmesdale and Hester with Pearl meet during the night? It is clearly a message from God; the meteor is the symbol, meaning that God knows everything, even the deepest secrets of a heart that should be revealed in front of people for repentance of the soul: Such is the case with the meteoric exhalations that harrow Dimmesdale with the thought that knowledge of his hidden guilt is spread over the whole broad heavens … (Matthiessen F.
O., pg. 212) The meteor has but other interpretation for ordinary people, thinking of ‘a’ is from the word ‘angel, because it emerges after Governor’s death. Surely is that this symbol is a message from God and a message from narrator to reader: symbols may be deceptive and rather subjective. Let’s not forget about one of the most important figure of the plot, Hester Prynne, that I consider a symbol of independence: she tries to survive by herself and raises his child as single mother.
She does not stay at the mercy of townspeople, but she works hard sewing. In the beginning, it was a way to forget about her punishment, but as time goes by she is better known by people, gaining the esteem of the merciless puritans: But it may turn into an inward escape from confinement or source of self-esteem, as it does for Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, whose needlework gains her respect in town (T. W. Y., pg. 190) The last but not least symbol of this book is a romantic one, the forest.
In my opinion, it is not to be avoided, because nature has two meaning: one for Hester and Dimmesdale and other for townspeople. The forest for the two lovers is the place of peace that helps them to hide from the colony, to taste the freedom and nature does not deny them, but shows mercy to them. For townspeople, the forest is the house of Black Man (the devil) and of the unknown; in other words, everything that is bad, rejected by puritans. In the end, after I put on paper some of the most important symbols, we deduce that Puritans have a language of their own, inherited along history: the language of symbols that, as we saw, dominated Hawthorne’s fiction alongside other historical and romantic elements.