The Scarlet Letter

Satisfactory Essays
Symbols in The Scarlet Letter

Symbolism plays an important role in many novels. Held with the distinction of implying important themes, symbols add depth to a story. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter takes place in Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1640’s. Embellished with symbols and hidden themes, the novel tells "a tale of human frailty and sorrow" (Hawthorne 46). In addition to human flaw and sadness, the novel reveals inhumane punishment and torture from the government and citizens of Puritan society. All of these subjects are given a deeper meaning through symbols. These symbols help manifest the undertones of man vs. nature. The rose bush, prison, scaffold and brook represent complex and essential symbols in The Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne first introduces two symbols, the rose bush and the prison, to the reader. According to Bloom, "the rosebush stands for the spontaneous and irrepressible life of nature and instinct, while the prison door stands for the harsh limitations that must be imposed on nature to maintain order in human societies" (13). Since the rose bush lies so close to the prison, one could interpret the co-existence as a sort of yin and yang. This also implies that where evil and corruption reside, purity and native morality will follow. Representing all things good-natured, the rose bush appears “to symbolize some sweet moral blossom . . . or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow” (Hawthorne 46). On the other hand, the prison is described as “the black flower of civilized society” (46), revealed soon after the innocent rose bush. Hawthorne also describes the prison as ‘worn,’ but the Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony only fifteen years ago, which implies a sense of irony. The fact that the prison appears so antique derives directly from the incessant use it experiences. These contrasting elements symbolize the struggle between nature and civilization and represent the conflict throughout the story. In other words, “These two symbols may be said to represent the two great impersonal forces that come into conflict in the novel” (Bloom 13).

The scaffold symbolizes the isolation of the condemned. Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale, sinners, and Pearl, the product of their sin, find themselves atop the scaffold often throughout the novel. Hawthorne informs the reader that the scaffold “could have beckoned nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit” (47).
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