Hawthorn’s Characters and Symbolism of "The Scarlet Letter"


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The main aim of this essay is to show how Hawthorn uses the Jungian archetype of shadows to portray his characters in “The Scarlet Letter”, how his characters have created masks for themselves and have let them influence their actions and relationships throughout the novel. They have used them as means of deception towards the other characters, but also towards themselves.

 Jung argues the problem in the individual’s need of a created persona, a mask of the actor, in order to avoid the consequences of his true self while also hiding it from the society. He insists on the problems created by these masks as they become part of one’s personality and even eventually change it, but fail to solve the real struggles behind them. He believes that “one must learn to know oneself in order to know who one is” and therefore he uses the metaphor of the mirror of the water that shows one’s own inner persona, without any filters as a means of a first confrontation between one’s shadow and true self. (pg 81)

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Hawthorn shows the picture of a seventeenth century puritan society in Boston where the main character, Hester Prynne is seen as an outcast and a sinner because she has committed adultery. She is the example of the fallen woman in the society and is forced to wear the letter “A” on her chest and to live under the consequences of this stigma. The other two main characters, Roger Chillingworth and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, but also her daughter, Pearl, are related to and influenced by this stigma. T. W. Herbert argues that “The Puritan community is guilty of enforcing the wrongful standard” and that if she were to live in a more liberal, loosen society, she would not get her stigma, but all of it would be regarded as a series of youthful mistakes. She made the mistake of getting married, of assuming her husband’s death prematurely while having the affair with the minister.

However, Hester embroils the letter “A” with red velvet and golden thread, but wears it with dignity, never hides it and sees it as a reminder of her love for the minister and of her former life, but also of her sin and punishment. Since that moment her entire sense of identity is changed and her character’s development throughout the novel is directly influenced by it.

“ so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time,—was that Scarlet Letter, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself “At first, the letter “A” is a symbolism of isolation from society and each time someone looks at her, she feels the “red-hot brand” burning her. In the end, when even her own daughter did not recognize her without it, she believed that the stigma under which she had to live her entire life turned her from a beautiful, passionate woman into “a bare and harsh” outline of her former self.

Even if she is isolated from the society, Hester lives through her work. This is a reason why the members of her community start to change their view of her. Through her embroidery, as she creates clothes for all them, she takes part in all social events except marriage ceremonies because the future brides believed they would not have a fortunate marriage if they wore something made by the hand of an adulteress. Hester is self-aware and she pays for her sins with her talent as she also makes clothes for the poor and does heartfelt gestures in her community. Through her skills, she overcomes her stigma and the scarlet letter receives a new meaning in the eyes of the society: “A’ stands for “able” instead of “adultery”. They even consider taking of her badge, but she believes that the scarlet letter cannot be removed by human authority and that only Divinity will make it fall when it’s time.“The Scarlet Letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too”, “Individuals had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty, more they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, no of that one sin, for which she had borne so long and dreary penance, but of her many good deeds since”

Hester is a very simple woman who dresses plainly and lives a modest life, the only exception being the way she dresses her daughter, Pearl, in extravagant clothes, often red dresses which resemble her scarlet letter. She sees her daughter as a fortune, but also as s punishment for her sins through her sometimes bad behaviour. “But she named the infant ‘Pearl,’ as being of great price-purchased with all she had-her mother’s only”. Hester never hides the truth behind her stigma from her Pearl as she believes it is a way she can teach her about life. “this badge hath taught me,—it daily teaches me,—it is teaching me at this moment,—lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better, albeit they can profit nothing to myself”. Arthur Dimmesdale wears the mask of the reverend while being a hidden sinner. He is seen as a dignified religious leader, but in secret he is Hester’s lover and Pearl’s father. He feels threatened by his actions, but does not confess them in public until the end of the novel. He tries to pursue Hester to reveal who the father is in order to reveal his secret. As his preaches become more powerful, he is overwhelmed and tormented by his guilt.

“While thus suffering under bodily disease, and gnawed and tortured by some black trouble of the soul, and given over to the machinations of his deadliest enemy, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale had achieved a brilliant popularity in his sacred office. He won it, indeed, in great part, by his sorrows. His intellectual gifts, his moral perceptions, his power of experiencing and communicating emotion, were kept in a state of preternatural activity by the prick and anguish of his daily life.” Dimmesdale is the example of the failure of overcoming his shadows. His need of confession consumes him as he struggles to keep his religious persona. Unlike Hester, who learns to live, accept and evolve through her stigma, the reverend is more and more affected by his sin. His sorrows are visible, as he becomes ill because of his guilt and loses his true self in it. He confesses to Hester that: “whatever of good capacity there originally was in me, all of God’s gifts that were the choicest have become the ministers of spiritual torment. Hester, I am most miserable”.

He also has a strong connection to the letter “A”, but unlike Hester, who has to embroil it on her clothes and publicly wear it and suffer its consequences, the reverend wears it hidden, under his shirt as it has somehow appeared on his chest as a reminder of his sins. He also sees it on the sky in the night he goes scaffold. The hidden mark is sensed by Pearl and she associates it with the mark of devil and wonders whether he is the “Black Man”. She does not trust him as he refused to publicly go on the scaffold with her and her mother.After the reverend decides to run away with Hester and her daughter, he has his final sermon where he has his most powerful speech as he confesses his deeds, show his mark to the public and afterwards dies. However, he does not lose his mask as no one sees him as a sinner even after he reveals his secret.

Roger Chillingworth wears the mask of “the leech”. A leech is a parasite which usually lives in water and which attaches itself to other creatures and sucks their blood. As they were used by doctors, they have gained their name. This represents Chillingworth public persona as he is Hester’s former husband, but only she knows his true identity because he portrays himself as a doctor. The other meaning of the term “leech” is a person who takes the profit from somebody else’s work. He uses his persona to seek his revenge, to deceive, find out his secret and torture Dimmesdale.

He deceives the community into seeing him as a physician and a solution to Dimmensdale illness, therefore the two end up living together. In this way, he is closer to his subject and begins his physical and psychological torment on him. He discovers his secret, the letter “A” engraved on his chest and understands who he really is. “ He had begun an investigation, as he imagined, with the severe and equal integrity of a judge, desirous only of truth…. He now dug into the poor clergyman’s heart, like a miner searching for gold; or, rather, like a sexton delving into a grave, possibly in quest of a jewel that had been buried on the dead man’s bosom, but likely to find nothing save mortality and corruption. Alas for his own soul, if these were what he sought!”Chillingworth is self-aware of his plans and transformation and when he confronts Hester, he makes her promise not to reveal his identity. Pearl is the only one who sees his purpose behind his mask and tells her mother that he is “The Black Man”.

In the end, Hester’s husband in conquered by his created persona, even if he is in aware of his evil transformation and even admits it to his former wife: “A mortal man, once with a human heart, has become a fiend for his especial torment!” Hester cannot recognize her former husband behind the shadows of this new character as his thirst of revenge changes him both psychologically, but also his exterior features.His shadow and revengeful soul became his entire goal in life, therefore when Dimmensdale dies, he remains purposeless and dies. “Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed.”

In conclusion, all Hawthorn’s characters undergo a confrontation between their inner self and the way they or the members of the society portray themselves. They are examples of the importance of self-knowledge and self-awareness in life. In the end, the essence of Dimmensdale’s affirmation that“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” is illustrated throughout the novel and may be regarded even as a true life lesson for the reader.




  1. Nathaniel Hawthorn, “The Scarlet Letter” – Dover Thrift Editions (
  2. Richard H. Millington, “The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorn”
  3. R. Surdulescu & B. Stefanescu, Contemporary Critical Theories, A reader.
  5. Abigail Side, Samarah Cook, Jack Brewster, Jen Esslinger, Phillip Sumberaz, “Archetypes, Myths, Symbols, and Allegories in The Scarlet Letter”


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