Symbols and Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne uses diction and symbolism to show the negative effects of stifling conformity verses the positive empowerment found in embarrassing one’s own truth. He tries to impress upon his readers that an outsider, whether from another physical location, or simply someone who thinks and acts outside that society’s definition of acceptable behavior can in fact facilitate positive change within that society. The secret in this novel most likely represents an idea, privacy, or even social censure.

The Mary-like character Hester Prynne represents feminism, as the female-heroine, and truth, as she is unwavering in her stand against the wishes of the state, church, family and community with regard to her own truth. As represented by The Scarlet Letter, “Do you not think it is better for your little ones temporal and eternal welfare that she be taken out of your charge and clad soberly and disciplined strictly and instructed in the truths of heaven and earth? What can you do for the child?

I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this, laying her finger on the red token. Woman it is thy badge of shame. Nevertheless, this badge taught me… it teaches me daily lessons by reasons of which my child may be better and wiser. ” Prynne is aware of how her truth can set her free. Later in the novel it states “… people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel. ” This shows how Prynne’s stand for the truth has eventually affected the entire community in a very positive manner, changing its perspective on social norms.

Yet the character Dimmesdale, the co-adulterer, was said to be liken with “unutterable torment. ” Hawthorne was showing that Dimmesdale’s silence about the truth and his love was worse than any judgment that would have been bestowed on him by his community or maker. Later Prynee offers to save Dimmesdale from his jail (guilt) and jailer (Chillingworth, the devil-like character). He refuses and eventually dies of shame and guilt at the end of this romantic tale of the love between two people.

Pearl, the bastard-daughter character, represents the world of nature (truth), a nature-friendly pre-Christian time in mankind’s history and the struggle between the town (societal taboos) and the simpler way of forest (respect for the truth). Her name is extremely symbolic. It was stated in the novel that she was “purchased at a great price. ” This shows the suffering experienced by the characters and society at large when truth and understanding are stifled within a society. She also represents purity of children (artists) that are eventually turned into conformists by the adults (society and religion).

In the forest scenes, the witches and devil never materialize, as they are only aberrations as presented only through the dialogue and in the minds of the characters in this novel. This represents that superstition is consistent throughtout the history of mankind and that modern society was not immune. We have not evolved as far as we would like to think we have. Conformity, represented by the scary witches and monsters are real if societal pressures prevail. The disastrous affects of the telling the truth are only in the human mind.

In conclusion, the characters represented church, government, society at large, truth and feminism. The scarlet letter “A” itself originally represented guilt or shame, then destiny or understanding, and eventually angel or able. Hawthorne believed Puritanism, which represents an unbending society of judgmental people, debilitates that society and breeds hypocrisy. In short, what we say and do are worlds apart in a society with great restriction on behavior and belief. Embracing society’s diversity will benefit the entire society.

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