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SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS / IMAGERY / SYMBOLS
The Scarlet Letter abounds with symbolism, which Hawthorne uses to unify the novel and add a deeper level of meaning to the story.
The Scarlet Letter "A"
The chief symbol in the novel is the scarlet letter "A", which openly symbolizes Hester's adultery. For Dimmesdale and Hester, the scarlet letter stands for agony, which Hester displays in her isolated life and which Dimmesdale displays in his deteriorating health. By the end of the novel, the townspeople think that Hester's scarlet "A" stands for Ability, for she has become a generous helper for the poor and downtrodden and a wise counselor for their problems.
This gesture of Dimmesdale's placing his hand over his heart is also symbolic. It is the minister's attempt to cover his mark of sinfulness and prevent his exposure. It also suggests his nervous condition and reflects his grieved state.
The scaffold is a symbol of penitence and God's platform on the Day of Judgment. It is a reflection of appearing before the Almighty in one's weakness. Because of the comparison, Dimmesdale has great difficulty in standing on the platform and confessing his sins. He first does it under the cover of darkness for no one to see him, as if he were trying to hide from God himself. In the end, however, he bravely stands on the scaffold and confesses his sin in the light of day and before a crowd of people. The confession finally gives him a sense of peace.
The prison, presented in the opening chapter of the novel, is a symbol of isolation and alienation, foreshadowing the life that Hester will lead even after she leaves its confines. While Hester lives in the prison of alienation, Dimmesdale lives in the prison of his unconfessed guilt, and Chillingworth is imprisoned by his vengeance. Pearl, alone, remains free.
The Rose Bush
The rose bush growing across from the prison respresents a constant reminder of salvation and hope to all the prisoners. Later in the book Pearl states that she was plucked from the rosebush and was born. This symbolizes that Pearl is the key to not only Hester's salvation, but to Dimmesdale and indirectly to Chillingsworth. Pearl was born into a world of sin and for her to be saved, everyone must find their salvation through her. It represents a light in the darkness of Hester's sin.
The forest is symbolic of Nature, both in its darker and lighter aspects. When the rays of sunshine fall on Pearl but do not reach Hester, they symbolize her inability to find happiness or warmth. The pervading darkness is suggestive of the dull gloom in her life. That darkness is dispelled when she meets with Dimmesdale and plans to flee from Boston with him. As a symbol of her freedom, she throws away the scarlet letter and undoes her hair. Appropriately, a flood of sunshine illuminates the forest, dispelling the darkness.
Hawthorne also gives symbolic meanings to the colors that he employs in the novel. The dark, sober, sable garments that Hester wears represent her dull and gloomy life filled with grief, guilt, and sorrow.
In contrast, she dresses Pearl in bright colors, especially crimson, in defiance of the scarlet letter and as a symbol of the child's free spirit. The color of the letter carries special significance. It is red because that is the color associated with the devil, and the Puritans believed that Hester's sin was a mark of Satan.
Ironically, the innocent Pearl fashions a letter "A" to wear herself, but she makes it out of seaweed that is bright green, the color of life itself. Black is also used in the novel. Mistress Hibbins practices black magic throughout the book, and many suspect Chillingworth of doing the same.
An understanding of the symbolic level of meaning in the novel is essential for a better comprehension of the book as a whole. The discerning reader will find the repeated use of symbolism throughout The Scarlet Letter.