Symbolism in the Scarlett Letter

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Set in 17th century Puritan Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, tells the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an adulterous affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. Hawthorne’s novel is filled with much symbolism. In chapter 5, Hawthorne uses her clothing to reveal Hester’s self-perception as self-loathing, to depict society against her, and to explore the nature of her daughter’s conception.

Hawthorne uses Hester’s needlework to portray her self-perception. “Her own dress was of the coarsest materials and the most sombre hue” (p.56). Hawthorne employs irony to give emphasis to Hester’s situation. Despite the beautiful garments she made, she still chose to dress in the most simple materials. Hester was self-loathing at this point and was doing this as an act of penance, sacrificing her joy as punishment for her sins. To further show her remorse she continued to wear ornate Scarlett letter A on the breast of her attire, because despite the simplicity of the rest of her dress, it represented her crime adultery and wore it as a sign of shame.

Hawthorne’s description of Pearl’s attire displays the nature of her conception and growth. “The child’s attire, on the other hand, was distinguished by a fanciful, or, may we rather say, a fantastic ingenuity, which served, indeed to heighten the airy charm that early began to develop itself in the little girl...” (p. 56). Hawthorne’s formal diction makes for word choice that places Pearl as a more eloquent and deserving person than her mother. Pearl’s description makes it clear to see Hester felt that Pearl was her blessing since her birth. Ironically, although she later begins to torment Hester, always stubborn, whimsical, and hard to control, as punishment for her adultery Hawthorne’s tone of the passage is elegant as he describes Pearl hinting at her potential to become a wonderful daughter.

Hester’s neighbor’s view of her was reflected through their...
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