Scarlet Letter's Use of Symbolism to Show Psychological Effects of Sin

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"The act…gross and brief, and brings loathing after it." This was

said by St. Augustine, regarding immorality. This is discovered to be very

true by the main characters in The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's

story of a woman (Hester) who lives with the Puritans and commits adultery

with the local minister (Dimmesdale). In his novel, Hawthorne shows that

sin, known or unknown to the community, isolates a person from their

community and from God. He shows us this by symbols in nature around

the town, natural symbols in the heavens, and nature in the forest.

First we see two symbols in the town that show how sin isolates people.

In the first chapter we see a plant which stands out, "But on one side of the

portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rosebush, covered…

with its delicate gems" (Hawthorne, 46). This rosebush is like Hester, for it

too stands out as wild and different. She wears her scarlet letter among the

solemnly dressed Puritans as this rosebush wears its scarlet blossoms

amidst a small plot of grass and weeds. They both stand separate from their

surroundings. Later in the book we hear a conversation between

Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth (Hester's unknown husband). They are

discussing the origin of a strange dark plant that Chillingworth discovered. "I

found them growing on a grave which bore no tombstone, nor other memorial

of the dead man, save these ugly weeds that have taken upon themselves to

keep him in remembrance. They grew out of his heart, and typify…some

hideous secret that was buried with him…" (Hawthorne, 127). Here we have

a special case of one who was not discovered by men to have sinned during

their lifetime. However, having avoided punishment in life, this person has

been isolated in death. This person tried to keep wrongdoing a secret, hiding

it within himself. Yet the sins committed could not be kept secret,

evidenced by their final disclosure shortly after death. There remains nothing

honorable to show where this person lies, but rather mutant weeds that grew

out of the blackness of the person's heart. The final resting place of the

wrongdoer has now been separated from other graves as the sins are

manifested by natural powers.

The next area is symbols in the skies. Our first instance occurs during

the second famous scaffold scene. Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl are atop

the scaffold when, "a light gleamed far and wide over all the muffled sky. It

was doubtless caused by one of those meteors…the minister, looking

upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter-the

letter 'A'-marked out in lines of dull red light" (Hawthorn, 150, 152). This is

God's condemnation of the two sinners, most especially Dimmesdale.

Hester has already been discovered and is receiving her punishment by

wearing the scarlet letter branding her as an adulteress and keeping her

socially isolated. Dimmesdale, however, hides his sin from people.

Because of this, heaven here openly condemns him with natural phenomena,

and shows that he is no longer welcome in heaven. Another symbol from

above shows Hester estranged from society. " 'Mother,' said little Pearl, 'the

sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is

afraid of something on your bosom…Stand you here, and let me run and

catch it'…Pearl…did actually catch the sunshine, and stood laughing in the

midst of it…until her mother had drawn almost nigh enough to step into the

magic circle too …As she attempted to do so, the sunshine vanished"

(Hawthorne, 180). This too is a heavenly sign from God. Although Hester is

undergoing punishment, she has never repented (we see this when she later

attempts to get Dimmesdale to run away with her). Because of this, God

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