The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850 by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is about a Puritan society in Massachusetts. The theme of this novel is largely sin, and how the guilty parties were not equally treated for the same sin or exposed for the wrong that they had done in the eyes of God. Hawthorne describes deception, the withholding of the truth, and secrecy in the development of the plot and characters in the novel. Hawthorne vividly makes use of symbolism and feminine status in Puritan New England, giving The Scarlet Letter a complex plot.
American transcendentalist Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts to Elizabeth Manning and Nathaniel Hathorne (Stewart 2). It is said that Hawthorne inherited his father's sternness, moodiness, and desire to stay to himself (3). Hawthorne spent his college years in Maine (13), and married Sophia Peabody in 1842 (62). Hawthorne was once called the "American Shakespeare," by Herman Melville (249).
The use of symbolism by Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter can first be seen in the prison. The prison may be linked symbolically to the rigorous
enforcement of Puritan laws. Also, Hawthorne refers to Ann Hutchinson, who rebelled against the Puritan beliefs and was imprisoned. Hawthorne describes a rose bush growing outside, and how impossible it was that it should be growing there by saying, "This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness. . . or whether, as the is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door. . ." (Literary Classics of the United States 159). This rose bush is symbolic of passion, and Hester's sin is one of passion. The rosebush in bloom parallels the fact that Hester has given birth to a child as a result of her passionate sin. Perhaps the most evident of all symbolisms that Hawthorne details is the scarlet letter "A" that Hester is forced to wear, signifying that she is an adulteress. Hester cannot believe that she is forced to face the town alone, with her new child, and is overwhelmed when she realizes that everything that she once knew is gone (168). Hester is forced to face her sin alone, although another person looks on as the father of the child, Arthur Dimmesdale, an eminent minister in the town. However, Hester will not tell who the father of her child is. Ironically, Hester's husband, who was lost at sea, returns and yells to Hester, "Speak, woman! Speak and give your child a father!" The irony in this situation lies in the fact that Hester's husband, Roger Chillingworth, should have been Hester's child Pearl's father. A final irony is the fact that Dimmesdale is forced to try and make Hester
confess the name of her child's father, and after trying, gives up very easily, when he is the father of Pearl(176). Pearl is an important use of symbolism because she is the living embodiment of her mother's sin. The name "Pearl" is a symbol of who Pearl is; a beautiful pearl inside an unattractive oyster, but still with a grain of sand enclosed. The grain of sand is the memory of the sin that was committed. The image of sunlight running away from Hester indicates that wherever she goes, suffering is caused (276).
The status of women in Puritan New England was very low. Hawthorne provides an explanation in his Custom House Sketch of his political views, and in the novel, Hawthorne portrays Hester as a woman with no political worth. Puritan women were held at a higher standard concerning issues of virtue and integrity, as long as they stayed away from troubling sources. Over the years, a transition in the meaning of morals and values made a woman into what she was in Hawthorne's time. Hester found it difficult to tell the truth because she was a woman. Perhaps writing a book on feminine superiority would have cause a conflict because Hawthorne had much to lose socially. "Even as women claimed republican citizenship, the definition of citizenship for males was shifting to a more individualistic, acquisitive, and capitalist-oriented model," meaning that although women were attempting to catch up to the men politically, the women could not keep up with the changes. Hester finds herself abandoned by both of the men in her life, and, "in a sense, wedded to the letter ["A"]." Hester, released from wearing the letter, continues to wear it. This situation of symbolic marriage
fixates on the American standard that marriage causes a woman to lose her identity, and increases her simplicity and ignorance. Hester finally decides that it is time to take off the letter and rid her of the past when she and Dimmesdale find old feelings for one another. She renounces her desire and lust, as well as the status that the letter represents, and throws the letter into the stream, letting her hair down. The difference between women and slaves in Puritan New England was that the women were self-possessed. The wilderness, as described in the novel, represents a place where passion can grow, a place where morals do not exist (Gussman 58).
Hawthorne uses symbolism and political views of the people in Puritan New England to collect a wonderful novel. The Scarlet Letter continues to be a valuable, intriguing book about the power of making one mistake in a moment that can last a lifetime. The symbolism shows the reader a different way to look at a concrete situation. The political status of women in Puritan culture has changed very much over the years, but male and female inequality continues to be brought up in many situations. This novel is a classic, and it should be noted that it represents two time periods: Puritan New England and Hawthorne's time. The novel touches readers today as well, as people continue to struggle with the humiliation and consequences from sin.
Gussman, Deborah. "Inalienable rights: Fictions of political identity in Hobomok
and The Scarlet Letter." College Literature June 1995: 58-81.
Literary Classics of the United States. Hawthorne Novels. New York: Viking
Stewart, Randall. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1961.