Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter uses many different types of symbols throughout his book to portray the feelings and emotions of the characters. Hester, the main character of the book, is filled with many feelings, including pride and acceptance, surrounding her sin of adultery. Many of the people around Hester also reflect similar emotions and feelings and are reflected by the author through the use of colours. Nathanial Hawthorne employs many symbols throughout his book, as he uses the colours red, black, and white to represent the emotions of Hester and those around her.
The most frequently used colour symbol in The Scarlet Letter is red. Red most noticeably represents the sin committed by Hester, as shown by the scarlet “A” she is forced to wear on her bosom. The scarlet letter, like her sin, is something that she will never be able to forget and is something she can never escape from. The colour red is also used to represent the result of the sin, as Pearl is usually dressed in red clothing. Pearl is called a wide variety of names pertaining to the colour red in the book such as “Ruby”, “Coral”, “Red Rose”, and “a little bird of scarlet plumage.” Red is also used by Hawthorne to represent the passion and sensuality of the other characters in the book. Red is used to represent the sin further with the red “A” formed from meteors and the “A” appearing on Dimmesdale’s chest. The wild red rose bush that formed outside of the prison where Hester was being held represented Hester’s place in a Puritan society that would no longer accept her for who she was. Hawthorne states that “This rosebush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history…It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track.” The meaning of this quote shows how powerful colours can be to show the true emotions of the characters and the setting around them.
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Another frequently used colour used by Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter is black. Black is mainly used to represent the darkness and evil that is living throughout this book. Very early in the book, Hawthorne refers to the prison as the “black flower of civilized society,” meaning it as a place representing evil and darkness. Darkness is occasionally turned to light within the book, suggesting that darkness represents a place of hiding, where true emotions are not shown and characters hide from their problems. Another example of the use of the colour black in the book is when Pearl’s eyes are referred to as “small black mirrors,” meaning they are empty and filled with evilness and sin. The Puritans refer to Satan and evil beings as the “Black Man” in the forest, as he represents darkness and all that is evil about society. Black is used as a tool to show the evilest part of a person or object, as it can only be countered by the colour of white.
White is used by Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter to represent light and change. White is the colour employed by Hawthorne to oppose black and darkness as a method of self-containment. Pearl, who has never committed a sin herself, is almost always portrayed with a light shining upon her, symbolizing the good, her existence, coming out of the bad, her conception through adultery. Hester, who is looked down upon by the entire town throughout the book, removed her letter and faced her sin and pride, causing the sunlight to shine upon her for the very first time. “All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood onto the obscure forest…” shows the way that coming out of the darkness of hiding her emotions, let loose the powerful force of sunshine, as Hester was able to relieve her feelings of guilt and sorrow, which she had carried for such a long time. White was the symbol that offset all of the negative effects of the story and showed the characters for what they truly were.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter uses many forms to display the emotions and feelings of the characters, especially through the colours of red, black, and white. Red was used to display the sin committed by Hester, as well as representing the passion and sensuality of the characters, relating to the scarlet letter. Black was used as a symbol of darkness and evil, as all of the negative events within the book were described using the colour of black. White was used to countering the use of black, as it symbolized the opposition to darkness and the purity of many of the character’s true feelings. The colour symbols used in The Scarlet Letter help the reader to transform various themes and ideas to be easily recognized to make the book get to the heart of the real human feelings and emotions.
Symbolism is the applied use of any iconic representations, which carry particular conventional meanings. Within The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne incorporates symbolism to expose a deeper meaning in the story. The first and most obvious symbol that Hawthorne displays is the embroidery of the letter “A” given to Hester to wear as a reminder to the town of her adultery. The second symbol is revealed in Chapter XII when a meteor in the form of a letter “A” lights up the night sky. Finally, Hawthorne reveals symbolism in the scaffold, where many of the important plot points take place.
The Letter “A” is a major form of symbolism within The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne establishes that Hester, the main character within the play, receives an embroidery of the letter “A” to mark her as an adulterer. The letter’s meaning shifts as time passes. At first, the “A” is a symbol of shame, but as the story progresses, the shameful “A” becomes her powerful identity. The community started to form a different meaning for the scarlet letter: ability. In the thirteenth chapter, Hawthorne comes out in the third person and states, “The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her, so much power to do, and power to sympathize, that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength. (134)” The letter’s meaning clearly changes when the Native Americans come to watch the Election Day pageant, and think the “A” marks Hester as a person of importance. The scarlet letter, in conclusion, was ineffective and “had not done its office. (137)”
While Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl in Chapter XII, a meteor outlines the letter “A” in the night sky. In response to the meteor sighting, “There stands the minister, with his hand over his heart; and Hester Prynne, with the embroidered letter glimmering on her bosom; and little Pearl, herself as a symbol, and the connecting link between those two. (127)” Dimmesdale believes that the “A” in the sky is a message from God telling him to wear a mark of shame just as Hester does. This revelation causes Dimmesdale to place his hand firmly over his heart. The meteor is interpreted differently by the townspeople of the Salem community. The community feels that the “A” in the sky stands for “Angel,” and marks Governor Winthrop’s entry into heaven.
The scaffold is a platform where criminals are punished before all the townspeople. In this case, the criminal is Hester Prynne and the crowd has gathered to witness her shame. The first scene at the ominous platform is Hester’s first public appearance with the child and the scarlet letter. Hawthorne implies to the reader that the scaffold symbolizes punishment and public humiliation. The scaffold and scarlet letter’s meanings coincide. The scaffold also outlines Hester’s strength. In the first scaffold scene, Hester “lifts her eyes towards the balcony (56)” and “grows pale and trembles. (56)” When the reader sees Hester at the third scaffold scene, she is much more comfortable and less ashamed of the “A” on her chest. Finally, the scaffold proves ineffective in its purpose to punish and publicly humiliate Hester.
Hawthorne’s use of symbolism within The Scarlet Letter adds abstract ideas or concepts to seemingly meaningless objects that are found within the story. The scarlet letter A, the first symbol within the story, is classified by the community as a sign of adultery. As time passes, the community forms a different meaning for the letter: ability. Hawthorne establishes a second symbol within the meteor that formed the letter A in the sky. Dimmesdale interpreted that he must wear the A for shame, but the community interpreted the “A” for “Angel.” Finally, Hawthorne reveals the scaffold as a symbol of punishment and public humiliation, which coincides with the scarlet letter.
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