Honor’s Assignment/American Literature
November 12, 2013
Hawthorne’s Works of Many Colors
One of the most beautiful, if not the most stunning aspects of literature is symbolism. Whether it is the use of metaphor, simile, allegory, or myth, using contextual or cultural symbols is of the utmost importance to an author attempting to get his or her point across. The act of taking something abstract- emotion, character trait, intention, or value- and explaining them with something concrete- shape, color, sounds, animal, person-can be an author’s most helpful tool. However, out of the vast plethora of possible symbols, how does an author decide which one to use? Symbolist Nathaniel Hawthorne, most recognized for authoring The Scarlet Letter, uses heavy symbolism in all of his works. He focuses, though, primarily on the use of color symbolism to explain his characters or themes. Let’s explore some of the colors he uses in works such as The Scarlet Letter, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and “Young Goodman Brown” and his plausible reasons for choosing these colors.
First, The Scarlet Letter, which is probably Hawthorne’s most widely known work of literature, uses the color scarlet, a shade of red. The leading female character in the story is Hester Prynne. She is seen by her Puritan culture as a fallen woman with weak morals; however, because she is able to confess her sins, Hawthorne portrays her as a redeemed member of society. She wears a red “A” on her breast to rid herself of the guilt accompanied by her adulterous affair. Despite having to be so openly humiliated and shamed, Hester often holds her head up high and smiles. While standing on the scaffold, Hester “took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbors” (Hawthorne 50). The elegantly sewn patch of red appears to make Hester beam as she stands before her town.
Red is stereotypically used in stories to signify love or passion; Hawthorne, however, uses color to explain context. The red roses outside of the prison that are seen in chapter one can be symbolic of hope and new life. When the color is seen again in a meteor passing over Hester and Dimmesdale as they stand together at the scaffold, it is interpreted in different ways among the characters. Dimmesdale sees it as a flash of anger from God; but the townsfolk see it as a sign of their angelic (“A” for angel) governor who passed on. Another thing Hawthorne is known for and excels at is leaving the reader to interpret his or her findings on their own. Of course, we have the red “A” so proudly displayed on Hester’s chest throughout the novel. Is the red symbolic of the love and passion she has for Dimmesdale? Is it a bold, haughty statement on her pride? Or, like the roses, is it a sign of hope for new life? My own humble interpretation, being the romantic I am, is the first option. The more pragmatic readers may say otherwise.
While Hawthorne uses red in more unique ways in The Scarlet Letter, he stays true to cultural norms in “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Black usually represents an evil or malicious dealing. In the story, we are presented with a seemingly ordinary minister who has an odd sense of fashion when he starts donning a black veil on his face. On an ordinary Sunday, Parson Hooper enters his sanctuary with the veil on his face, causing quite a stir among the congregation. Some chalked it up to pure mystery, others speculated that the minister’s eyes were weak, and even more said that he was waiting for the funeral to come later that day. At the funeral of a young lady, Parson Hooper is seen again, still wearing his veil. Wearing a mourning veil to a funeral is surely not an odd thing; what does cause an eyebrow raise is his wearing of the veil to a wedding later that day. Guests were shocked and were certain that the veil “could portend nothing but evil to the wedding” (Hawthorne 101). His fiancé was unamused by the display and asked him to at least let her see his eyes. When he refused, she excused herself from his presence. What good cause would he have to wear a veil that made him lose his love and all but lose his mind?
As I said, black is often symbolic of evil and sins. It is revealed to readers at the funeral that perhaps the minister and the young deceased woman had once been lovers. Perhaps, like Hester’s embroidered “A”, the minister was using the black veil to announce his own sins; or, perhaps it is a deeper symbol of the sin of the congregation. Announcing one’s sins, according to Hawthorne, is the only way to make a person feel free and redeemed. If that’s so, unannounced sins must be the demise of a person, making them feel ashamed uncomfortable. Many members of the congregation complained that the minister’s veil caused them to feel uneasy. It was stated, “[N]o individual among his parishioners chose to make the black veil a subject of friendly remonstrance. There was a feeling of dread, neither plainly confessed nor carefully concealed, which caused each to shift the responsibility upon another…” (Hawthorne 101). The hardest thing to do is admit to yourself that you are wrong or have done wrong to someone. Perhaps that is why the townspeople could scarcely look upon the minister. His veil reminded them all too much of their own sins.
Last on the list is Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” which is full of color symbolism. First, we see our joyful main character leaving his young wife to go on a journey. Obviously, Goodman Brown is symbolic of the color brown (more on that in a bit), and his wife, Faith-how appropriate-is wearing a pink ribbon in her hair when he leaves her. When he leaves her, “he looked back and saw the head of Faith still peeping after him with a melancholy air, in spite of her pink ribbons” (Hawthorne 65). Once on his journey into the forest, Brown meets a man carrying a black staff. They converse and a few signs of witchcraft are prevalent. Deep in the forest, the witchcraft signs come full circle as it seems Brown has found himself in the middle of a meeting with the devil. When he realizes that almost everyone he held high up on the religious totem pole-the minister, Faith, his father and grandfather, Deacon Gookin- are in comradeship with the devil, he has no reason not to join them. However, as soon as his decision is made, he wakes up in the forest, no trace of the meeting left behind. Goodman Brown is never the same after this occurrence and is constantly second guessing the every move of those in the town he once held so revered.
As previously discussed, Goodman Brown himself is a color symbol. His name, Brown, is a color that combines a dark shade with a light color. This shows the inner battle in himself of evil and good. He was a respected Puritan man, but perhaps held onto the faith of those surrounding him too much and was thus so easily convinced to give in to the dark. The main holder of his faith is his wife, Faith. She is first seen with a pink ribbon in her hair. Pink is a color often associated with innocence (a little girl’s room, a ballerina dress). Perhaps this was Hawthorne’s way of showing us that Brown was about see faith-Faith-and innocence for the last time. Lastly, we have the stranger in the forest with the black staff. The black staff later turned into a black snake; and the stranger later became the devil. Not much is left to the imagination on that color symbol.
While no one will ever know the exact reasons Nathaniel Hawthorne had for choosing his colors, it’s fun to speculate. His vagueness is one of the most daunting, if not frustrating, things about his works. These elements are what keep readers coming back to Hawthorne even though his stories were written many years ago. Mystery, symbolism, and reader interpretation are for what he is best known. Nothing is explained in black and white. It’s shown in brown, pink, red, black, gray, purple, etc. and the explanation is left up to you.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales. Ed. James McIntosh. New York: Norton, 1987. 97-107. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales. Ed. James McIntosh. New York: Norton, 1987. 65-75. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bantam. 1986. Print.