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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Symbols in the Scarlet Letter

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. Discuss the functions of the three characters that stand as symbols in The Scarlet Letter.


The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a novel full of rich symbolism. Hawthorne utilizes the characters in his story to reveal many underlying meanings significant to the plot. The ways in which he develops his characters help the reader grasp the important ideas that he wishes to portray throughout the story. Three such key characters utilized to portray this important symbolism are Pearl (the impish daughter of Hester), Reverend Dimmesdale (the clandestine father of Pearl), and Roger Chillingworth (the vengeful husband of Hester Prynne). These figures will prove to be very helpful in creating the theme of the novel.


Hawthorne uses Pearl as an extremely obvious symbol to demonstrate to the reader what the scarlet letter means and how much of an example she is of her mother’s vice. Pearl’s character as Hester Prynne’s daughter is very mischievous and almost unworldly, and she seems to possess an uncanny yet naïve knowledge of her mother’s (Hester Prynne’s) ignominy. ‘“ Go now, child, thou shalt tease me as thou wilt another time,”’ says Hester after one of Pearl’s many knowledgeable, hurtful, and naïve comments. Pearl’s rambunctious, sinful yet innocent, and eccentric nature seems to reflect the error of her parents that led to her birth, which justifies and makes the ‘other worldliness’ about her extremely important to her character as Hester’s daughter. ‘Pearl was a born outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants.’ Hawthorne writes, ‘a lovely and immortal flower, out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion.’ However, she ‘lacked reference and adaptation to the world into which she was born.’ The name, “Pearl” also carries great symbolism, ‘But she had named the infant “Pearl,” as being of great price�purchased with all she had�her mother’s only treasure!’ She is directly associated to as the symbol of the scarlet A more than once in the book, and she wears a scarlet cloak through out the book to even further make clear her resemblance of the Scarlet letter. ‘“ Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter, and, of a truth, more over, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along her side!”’ Pearl is the living semblance of Hester’s demerit and maneuvers as the symbol of Hester’s ignominy and is the palpable representation of the scarlet letter.


The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale is the symbol of one who has sinned, is aware of it, and knows he is wrong, but he too fearful to confess his sins. The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale is the pastor of the town setting in which the story takes place. He is very well respected by the citizens of the town and looked up to because of his lack of pride and his love of sacrifice due to his religion, but in terms of himself, his sacrifice was not because of his religion, but for his own self discipline. ‘It was his custom, too, as that of many other pious Puritans, to fast�not, however, like them, in order to purify the body and render it the fitter medium of celestial illumination, but rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance.’ Mr. Dimmesdale tortures himself in hopes of compensating for his sin and his inability to profess it. He kept himself, ‘down, on a level with the lowest; angels might have listened to and answered!’ For this very reason he received, ‘mankind’s sympathies’, that led to inconceivable agony ‘with which this public veneration tortured him!’ He longed to speak out that it was, ‘“I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!”’ The very thing that makes Dimmesdale a symbol of the secret sinner is also what redeems him from his hell. The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale represents the ultimate coward who was too morally weak to confess his sin and stands as a closet sinner, one who recognizes his wrongdoing but keeps it hidden and ambiguous, even if it leads to his own destruction.


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Roger Chillingworth represents the vengeful, evil, and the insane. Hawthorne uses the character Chillingworth to develop suspense and to create a sense of mystery, or in other words to add a little eccentricity to the story. ‘“ There is a strange secrecy in his nature,” replied Hester thoughtfully, “and it has grown upon him by the hidden practices of his revenge. I deem it not likely that he will betray the secret. He will doubtless seek other means of satiating his darkest passions.”’ No one but Hester is aware of his presence as her husband until chapter seventeen, this is especially important pertaining to the fact that Chillingworth is a major catalyst in the events that lead to the climax of the story. This quote proves that he is indeed a catalyst, ‘�the secret poison of his malignity, infecting all the air about him, and his authorized interference, as a physician, with the minister’s physical and spiritual infirmities.’ He acts as if he is Dimmesdale’s friend to try and get him to confess that he was the father of Pearl, which eventually leads to the destruction of Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. ‘He now dug into the poor clergyman’s heart like a minor searching for gold; or, rather, like a sexton delving into a grave, possibly in quest of a jewel that had been buried in the dead man’s bosom, but likely to find nothing save mortality and corruption.’ This quote expresses the deep frustrations of how much Chillingworth wants to know for sure that the minister is the father of Hester’s daughter, and how in love he is with the idea of how much he can possibly torture poor Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale’s heart, mind, and soul, for they provide much more excruciating pain than that of anything physical. Hawthorne describes Chillingworth as an, “obsessed fiend” totally enamored with the passion not only to know but also to inflict mental pain all to get revenge for the. ‘Calm, gentle, passionless as he appeared, there was yet we fear, the remorse, the agony, the ineffectual repentance, the backward rush of sinful thoughts, expelled in vain! All that guilty sorrow hidden form the world, whose great heart would have pitied and forgiven, to be revealed to him, the Pitiless, to him, the Unforgiving! All that dark treasure to be lavished on the very man to whom nothing else could so adequately pay the debt of vengeance!’ There is also symbolism in Roger Chillingworth’s name, meaning that he is chilling in the fact that he is diabolical. Hawthorne makes it evident that Roger Chillingworth is indeed vengeful, evil, and insane, due not only by his actions, but also by other characters reactions.


In conclusion, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne has a great amount of symbolism throughout it. The author uses Pearl, the Minister Mr. Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth as symbols to get across to the reader his different points and aims. It is clearly exhibited that the author works through his characters in The Scarlet Letter to help the reader to further understand not only the plot but also the theme.





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