On Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter

By Ann Hunter,2014-09-12 15:20
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On Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter

    On Symbolism in THE SCARLET LETTER

    Abstract: THE SCARLET LETTER is regarded as the first American

    symbolic novel for the vivid using of symbolism in this novel. Hawthorne‘s use of

    symbolism in this novel is one of the most significant contributions to the rise of American Literature. This paper attempts to expound the features of symbolism use in this novel through the analysis of three aspects: the multi-connotational feature, the systematic feature and the metaphorical feature.

    Firstly, the multi-connotational feature is perfectly shown by the scarlet letter ―A‖, which symbolizes ―adultery‖, ―alone‖, ―angle‖ and some other special characteristics. Meanwhile, Pearl and Dimmesdale are the other symbol of multi-connotations. Secondly, from matters, details, characters to backgrounds or even actions, they are all, without any exception, possessed of symbolic meanings, which is the other feature of the symbolism use in this novel i.e. the systematic feature. In addition, Hawthorne broke the rule of traditional symbolism and directly expressed his own subjective feelings, which made this novel metaphorical. In conclusion, the various features of symbolism using in THE SCARLET LETTER

    makes the novel a work of the world.

    Key words: THE SCARLET LETTER, symbolism, multi-connotation,

    systematization, metaphorization



     首先, 多隐含义的特点由红字"A"完全显示, 象征"通奸","单独","角度"和其它特征。同时, 珠儿和梅斯丁代尔牧师是多内涵的另一标志。第二, 从事态、细节、人物、背景及行动方面, 他们是贯穿始终的。拥有象征性意思,和象征主义用途另一特点在这本小说里,即系统的特点。另外,霍桑打破了传统象征主义的特点,直接地表现出他自己的主观感觉, 使这本小说带有隐喻的特点。

     总而言之, 作者在作品中采用的象征手法贯穿始终、无处不在。《红字》使美国作家霍桑誉满全球。




    Abstract---------------------------------------------------------------------------i 摘要------------------------------------------------------------------------------ii Contents---------------------------------------------------------------------------iii Introduction------------------------------------------------------------------------1 1. The Multi-connotation of Symbolism-----------------------------------------1

    1.1 Multi-connotations of the Scarlet Letter ―A‖--------------------------2

    1.2 Multi-connotations of Pearl----------------------------------------------7 1.3 Multi-connotations of Arthur Dimmesdale----------------------------11 2. The Systematization of Symbolism-------------------------------------------12

    2.1 Custom House-----------------------------------------------------------------12 2.2 Prison---------------------------------------------------------------------------13 2.3 Ann Hutchinson & Rosebush -----------------------------------------------14 2.4 Forest--------------------------------------------------------------------------15 2.5 The Small Brook-----------------------------------------------------------18 2.6 Other Characters------------------------------------------------------------18 3. The Metaphorization of Symbolism-------------------------------------20

    Conclusion-------------------------------------------------------------------------21 Bibliography---------------------------------------------------------------------22 Acknowledgements---------------------------------------------------------------23



    Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the greatest romanticism novelists in 19th Century America. Meanwhile, as the founder of American novel, Hawthorne, together with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Washington Irving, were regarded as the three immortal great minds in 19th Century. However, only Hawthorne survived in the storms of transvaluations in 20th Century. To a great extent, the survival of Hawthorne is due to his THE

    SCARLET LETTER. THE SCARLET LETTER is regarded as the most

    outstanding masterpiece of Hawthorne and the most prestigious authoritative work among all the American romanticism novels. There are various artistic features in THE SCARLET LETTER. This novel described the fantastic

    romantic atmospheres as well as the specific mental activities, while the most important feature is the symbolism used in this novel. Therefore, THE

    SCARLET LETTER is regarded as the first American symbolic novel. This kind of artistic form imposed great influence upon the development of American novel. This paper attempts to expound the features of symbolism use in THE SCARLET LETTER.

1. The Multi-connotation of Symbolism

    Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. No matter what characters or places, actions or objects they are, they are all endowed with the meanings which may be


    beyond their own so as to obtain concrete or material forms of those thoughts or emotions of characters and those abstract concepts. ―Hawthorne wanted to

    ‗spiritualize‘ the issue and have his tales say that matter doesn‘t matter, spirit is all, the body is mere clay, and passion is poison. He said that all things have spirits, just like the relation between soul and body. This point of view decided that Hawthorne lay emphasis on using symbols to disclose the obscure meanings behind objective matters rather than relied on the actual descriptions of objective matters when creating his works.‖ There are many

    symbols used in THE SCARLET LETTER, some of which are obvious while

    some others are obscure. Hawthorne endowed almost every character, circumstance, action in THE SCARLET LETTER with certain symbolic

    meanings. Thus the first feature is obvious, that is the multi-connotation of symbolism. There are three symbols throughout the novel. The scarlet letter ―A‖ is a typical symbol, and Pearl and Dimmesdale are the other multi-工业


    1.1 Multi-connotations of the Scarlet Letter “A”

    In this novel, the meanings of the scarlet letter ―A‖ shifts as time passes.

    It shows growth in the characters, and the community in which they live.

    The scarlet letter ―A‖ in this novel begins as a symbol of punishment.

    Hawthorne wrote in his American notebooks in 1845 ―life of a woman, who, by the old colony law, was condemned always to wear the letter A, sewed on her garment, in token of her having committed adultery.‖(Gerber, 1968: 17)


    Hester committed the crime of adultery, so she was punished by the Calvinism in a way of wearing the scarlet ―A‖ (the first letter of the word ―Adultery‖). Hester naturally felt ashamed of the symbol because ―oftentimes, she could scarcely refrain, yet always did refrain from covering the symbol with her hand.‖ (Hawthorne, 2003: 79) She refrained herself because Pearl

    was born out of the sin and it was Pearl, the little life, who revived her meaning of living. It was because of Pearl that Hester chose to be tough and to stay at the place where she had committed her sin. There is an unforgettable scene in this novel: when Hester and Pearl saw the armor in the governor‘s hall, ―Hester looked, by way of humoring the child, and she saw that, owing to the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated feature of her appearance.‖ (Hawthorne, 2003: 97)

    The Puritan society utmostly overstated individual sin and its ponderance so that one‘s soul and character was killed. On this level, the scarlet letter ―A‖ is

    a symbol of punishment. While on the other aspect, it is a way of punishment implemented by the religio-political authorities.

    The scarlet letter ―A‖ is also a symbol of Hester‘s life in New England, which was alone and alienative. After she was released from the prison, she lived in a small thatched cottage ―on the outskirts of the town, within the verge of the peninsula, but not in close vicinity to any other habitation‖ (Hawthorne, 2003: 74) and ―its comparative remoteness put it out of the

    sphere of that social activity which already marked the habits of the


    emigrants.‖ (Hawthorne, 2003: 75) It was in there that Hester with her little infant lived a life by her delicate needlework and it was in there that Pearl grew up.

    The scarlet letter ―A‖ stands for amour, shame and so-called people‘s

    original sin. Hester put it on bravely, which meant that she had committed her guilt. Meanwhile, in the deepest place of those sanctimonious ones‘ hearts hide much more irremissible crimes. Hester had endured all kinds of pressures and insults. She perfected and sublimed herself from a plain woman to a new lady who was able to think, to observe and to resist when fighting with the persecution of Puritanism. In this seven years ever since Pearl was born, Hester lived a pure life. The townspeople who once condemned her began to believe the scarlet letter to stand for her ability to her beautiful needlework and for her unselfish assistance to the poor and sick. ―The letter was the

    symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness is found in her so much power to do and power to sympathizethat many people refuses to interpret the scarlet

    letter ‗A‘ by its original signification.‖(Hawthorne, 2003: 146) At this point, a

    lot of the townspeople realized what a noble character Hester possessed. ―Do

    you see that woman with the embroidered badge? It is our Hester—the town‘s

    own Hesterwho is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comforting to the afflicted!‖(Hawthorne, 2003: 147) The townspeople soon began to

    believe that the badge served to ward off evil, and Hester grew to be quite admirable amongst the people of the town. Hester overcame the shame of her


    sin through the purity and goodness of her soul. Unselfishly offering her time and love to those who needed her most proved that she was not worthy of the fate which had been dealt to her. The scarlet letter ―A‖ became a symbol of

    ―able‖, ―admirable‖, ―affection‖ and ―angel‖.

    The scarlet letter ―A‖ can also be taken as a memorial of Dimmesdale‘s sin. Dimmesdale was a combination of contradictory elements. On the surface, he was regarded as the saint by his followers. However, it was he who was the real sinner. As a minister, he was both the prolocutor of Puritanism and the sufferer of it. He met a dilemma between belief and love. He denied the basic need of human beings and set opposition between humanity and divinity and took his own human behavior as dishonesty to the God. Therefore, he was tormenting himself physically and psychologically all the time: to feel penitent to redeem in his own heart and then to drag out an ignoble existence or, to expose bravely the truth, to respond the misdeed and to set free his incriminatory heart? For example, on an obscure night of early May, Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearl stood all three together on the scaffold of the pillory. Before Dimmesdale had done speaking, a meteor brightened the dark sky, momentarily illuminating their surroundings. When the minister looked upward to the zenith, he saw the appearance of an immense letter, --the letter A, --marked out in lines of dull red light. At the end of this story, after Dimmesdale had finished his sermon, partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one hand of little Pearl‘s, he approached the scaffold and ascended its


    steps. Facing his brethren and the people, he confessed his sin in a high, solemn, and majestic voice. With a convulsive motion, he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast and revealed the scarlet letter. After Pearl kissed his lips, he passed away with his love beside. In this novel, the kiss of Pearl washed away the sin of Dimmesdale before his death.

    The scarlet letter ―A‖ is also a stimulus of Roger Chillingworth‘s revenge. As an adherent of Puritanism and a male chauvinist, Roger Chillingworth thought that marriage was a man‘s thorough possess of a

    woman. Chillingworth, a man already in decay and misshapen from his birth hour, married Hester, a woman with youth and beauty, deluding himself with the idea that intellectual gifts might veil physical deformity in a young girl‘s

    fantasy. He married Hester not because he loved her but he wanted to light a household fire in his lonely and chilly heart. He was a bookworm who spent his best time in libraries, and showed no love to his young wife. It was he that had destroyed Hester's flower-like youth, and indirectly led to Hester‘s

    tragedy. After he discovered that his wife bore another man‘s child, Roger gave up his independence. He used to be a scholar, who dedicated his best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge, but his new allegiance became finding and slowly punishing the man who seduced his wife. He soon involved into his new mission in life, and when he targeted Reverend Dimmesdale as the possible parent, he pretended to be a trust friend of the minister, attaching himself to him as a parishioner. For seven years, he dug


into the minister‘s heart with keen pleasure. ―Then, after long search into the

    minister‘s dim interior, and turning over many precious materials, in the shape of high aspirations for the welfare of his race, warm love of souls, pure sentiments, natural piety, strengthened by thought and study, and illuminated by revelation all of which invaluable gold was perhaps no better than rubbish to the seeker he would turn back, discouraged, and begin his quest towards another point. He groped along as stealthily, with as cautious a tread, and as wary an outlook, as a thief entering a chamber where a man lies only half asleep or, it may be, broad awake with purpose to steal the very treasure

    which this man guards as the apple of his eye.‖ (Hawthorne, 2003: 118) When he finally found the scarlet letter ―A‖ on the bosom of the minister, he busted out a ghastly rapture; when he did these, he was turning from a victim to a sinner because he had lost his human nature and betrayed the divinity. He violated the monition in the Bible i.e. we should turn to God for ―payback‖ against our enemies. Roger Chillingworth had offended the doxy of Christianity he murdered the soul of human nature.

    1.2 Multi-connotations of Pearl

    Pearl, throughout the story, was a source of many different kinds of symbolism. From being a living scarlet letter, the cruelty of Puritanism, to a treasure of Hester, then to the moral in this novel, Pearl was a kind of burden for Hester, however a symbol of hopefulness and the beginning of new life as well.


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