Elements of Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter

Elements of Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter

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Elements of Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter


200 Words of Teacher’s Praise and Comments      Nathaniel Hawthorne uses several literary devices to give his novel The Scarlet Letter depth. One of these devices is symbolism. Hawthorne utilizes symbolism to convey certain points or themes to the reader by using ordinary objects. Three of the elements he uses as symbols are the settings of the Puritan town and the forest and weather.


             The first of the two main settings is the Puritan town that includes the prison and the scaffold. The Puritan law is based on their religion. The town maintains a sense of strict moral values and disciplinary measures in accordance with the Puritan religion. Therefore, the town stands for lawfulness and purity. It serves as a contrast to Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter. The prison that the city was built around serves as a symbol as well. It represents guilt and the human tendency to sin, and it also symbolizes penance. Hester is forced to spend time in jail for committing the sin of adultery, and it is the starting point of Hester’s trek of shame to the scaffold in the market place. The scaffold itself is another symbol Hawthorne uses. Like the prison, it also symbolizes sin and guilt. “The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron” (60). It provides the setting of several important scenes in the novel. It is where Hester is forced to stand for three hours as punishment, where Dimmesdale, Pearl, and Hester stand in the night, and where Dimmesdale reveals himself and dies. It is also a symbol of truth because Dimmesdale’s great revelation occurred there.


            The second setting is the forest just outside of the town. It proves to be a kind of dramatic foil to the idealistic Puritan society. The Puritans maintain a community that thrives on purity and lack of sin. The forest, on the other hand, is a symbol of lawlessness and desecration. It is shrouded in mystery and retains a dark and foreboding air. The Puritans abhor the forest because it stands as a perfect example of evil. However, the witches that live in the town view it very differently. They appreciate the anonymity the forest provides them. Thus they are free to pay homage to the Black Man in secret. Their presence reiterates the fact that the forest is a symbol of darkness.

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Ironically, even though the forest is also a symbol of the unknown, it is there that Hester reveals to Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is indeed her husband. Thus, in some instances, the forest is a symbol of revelation or truth.


            The weather in the novel also serves as a prominent symbol. The atmospheric conditions have an uncanny way of conforming to the mood of the novel. The first reference to weather in the novel occurs when the grim beadle is shouting at the crowd to make way so Hester can progress to the scaffold. “A blessing on the righteous Colony of Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine” (59). Here the sunshine is being referred to as a symbol of revelation. The sin is being displayed plainly in the light of the sun so that all may be aware of it. The sunshine is also symbolic of happiness. Pearl first tries to catch sunlight at the Governor’s Hall where it is bouncing brilliantly off the stucco. She turns to Hester and demands that some be caught for her. Hester replies by telling Pearl that she has to catch her own sunlight because she has none to give her. This illustrates the obvious lack of happiness in Hester’s life and her inability to make her child happy. The most profound use of weather as symbolism occurs in the forest. When Hester and Pearl first enter the woods, the sky is overcast and dark save for sporadic gleams of light that shine through the clouds when the wind blows. These beams of light withdraw themselves when they come near Hester and Pearl. Pearl takes notice of this and reasons that the sunlight is afraid of Hester. This is symbolic of the unwillingness of joy to come to Hester. Later on when the two are separated, the beams flock to Pearl, but whenever Hester comes near they vanish. When Arthur Dimmesdale also appears in the forest, he and Hester converse for a time and then ultimately decide to leave Boston. Overwhelmed with joy at the prospect of leaving with Arthur, Hester casts aside her cap and the scarlet letter. The sun then floods her with light. This signifies a rebirth. It also reiterates the symbol of happiness.


            Nathaniel Hawthorne uses setting and weather as conveyors of symbolism throughout his novel. Generally, the setting stands for the contrast or similarity of the Puritan ideal. It also frequently represents guilt and sin. The settings of the scaffold and prison are such symbols. The weather usually signifies some sort of emotion. However, in some parts of the novel it indicates a change of heart or rebirth in a character. These symbols, along with other literary elements, make The Scarlet Letter a very effective piece of literature.


1.      You have a beautiful thesis statement!

2.      Your paper is very strong.  You have a good introduction with a great thesis statement.  You stick to your thesis statement in an organized fashion and you conclude your paper well by reiterating your points. 

3.      When quoting someone’s speech it is okay to use just the quotation marks.  “A blessing on the righteous Colony of Massachusetts.” Use the commas if you are quoting the text as well as speech.  “Cried he, ‘a blessing on the righteous Colony of Massachusetts.’  A lane was forthwith opened.”  If the speech begins or ends the quote then wherever quotations are used, the commas are not needed.  “A blessing on the righteous Colony of Massachusetts.’  A land was forthwith opened.”

4.      Your paper would be even stronger if you supported each point that you make with proof from the text.  You use only two quotes in your paper, one for the weather symbolism and one for the scaffold symbolism.  If you had proven your ideas about the symbolism of the town, the prison, the forest and each point about the weather with quotes from the text you could have left out needless summary and concentrated more on the analysis.

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