Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter


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Secrets no matter how small, can have a drastic effect on others view. The Scarlet Letter is a great example on no matter how small the secret is there will always be retribution. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter uses symbolism in the representation of heart problems present in the character Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected reverend who allows the readers to deduce his possible secrets that are withheld later revealed. The Dark Romantic novel also reveals the Pain and Destruction- sometimes self-destruction- caused by these suppressed sins. The puritan religion is based on the belief of humans total depravity and therefore unholy creatures unworthy of God and is based on fear, so, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s previous knowledge with family involvement allowed him to further create his complex characters that struggle with puritanism. The many characters such as Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Roger Chillingworth were ultimately led to their downfall through tribulations due to their beliefs. There is a prominent internal and physical struggle with the Reverend Dimmesdale in withholding the truth as he is a devoted follower of Puritanism. The main characters are used as a vehicle to portray the pressures of a 19th century Puritan society by even making a reverend doubt his own religion and beliefs and change a once normal individual into a Satanic like creature hell-bent on exposing the reverends secrets and these are cynical needs of man.

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In the beginning of the novel the readers are introduced by a gothic imagery of a medieval architecture it is studded with iron spikes and sad, the “virgin soil”(35) is used “as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”(35) This narrator is already detailing that Man who is corrupt is ruining truly pure nature and is spoiling the beauty, puritanism is being diminished because it has destroyed nature and also symbolizing how his own characters were changed. Characters such as Roger Chillingworth a respected Doctor who does not reveal his secret of his arrival to find his wife’s lover in anonymity, he tells Hester he will find the “scarlet letter on his heart”(57) to show how secrets will always come out in time. Chillingworth becomes more self-destructive in an attempt to find the adulterer and his actions become more wicked. There is a progression in the character of Chillingworth as he started off as a “young scholar” into a “Black Man” who is often characterized as Satan, which foreshadows his retaliatory personality seeming to be desperate to find the truth but is now interested in revenge.

Hester Prynne a character whose secrets were exposed to society has to bear the burden of her truth by the means of a scarlet letter, the motif of secrets revealed vs secrets concealed is ever present between Hester, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale. Hester has to bear her secret in public in the form of Pearl and her scarlet letter while Dimmesdale’s pain is within himself and he keeps a scarlet letter in his heart. Hester Prynne’s suppression of truth led to her public destruction and her banishment from society. She learns to accept her scarlet letter even rejecting the removal because she doesn’t want others to make the same mistake as she did. Her pain and destruction became her strength and rebuilt her. Pearl is quite blind to the subject of her mother but was told by an old lady that her scarlet letter came from the “black man” who is Satan, Hester keeps her secret and denies any wrongdoing but she keeps her eyes on her daughter as she is the offspring of her wrongdoing and will posses ugly traits. Pearl is an ironic character because from a wrongdoing something beautiful can come out which was not expected. She is a type of chiaroscuro because from something dark, light can come. Hester Prynne is at fault for her secret a little more than Dimmesdale, she keeps his secret to protect his reputation and does not give Chillingworth his name to protect his identity and she also promises to not reveal Chillingworth’s identity so he may find Dimmesdale. Hester allows this and causes the death of Dimmesdale not only but keeping his secret but allowing Chillingworth to go after him. If she did not allow Chillingworth to keep his secret, his sanity would’ve been saved and if she revealed Dimmesdale’s secrets his problems with guilt would’ve been lifted but Dimmesdale and Hester were too focused on his reputation too see what was truly happening deep down. The cynical views of man who only want the comfort of peace, his puritan ideals later come for him and cause him to become overwhelmed with his secrets. 

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