The Scarlet Letter is a romantic novel that was written in 1850 by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The story commences in Boston in the 17th century with Prynne’s condemnation and humiliation by the Puritan community for adultery. She is forcefully marched through the market place carrying her baby in her arms plus a scarlet letter “A” on her breast (Literature Resource Center 115-125). A man within the crowd mentions to an old onlooker that Prynne is being reprimanded for committing adultery. Roger Chillingworth, Prynne’s husband, seemed to have been lost at sea on his way to Boston. While Prynne waits for him, she falls in love with Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and their extra marital affair leads to the birth of their daughter Pearl. When asked to reveal her lover’s identity, she declines to talk, and consequently, the townspeople compel her to wear the scarlet letter on her bosom all the time as punishment for her secrecy and sin (Literature Resource Center 115-125).
The elderly onlooker in the crowd is Prynne’s missing husband, who now lives in Boston and practices medicine. As several years pass, Prynne works as a seamstress to support herself and her daughter, Pearl, who grows into a mischievous and stubborn child. The two are shunned by the community and are forced to reside in a small house on the outskirts of Boston. Some officials from the community try to take away Pearl form her mother, but Dimmesdale helps them to stick together. Dimmesdale’s life seems to be wasting away possibly from the psychological stress brought about by his sins, and this consequently leads to the deterioration of his physical and mental health. Being a doctor, Chillingworth attaches himself to Dimmesdale and moves in with him to be able to provide him with medical care round the clock. However, his main intention is revenge (Literature Resource Center 115-125). Chillingworth suspects a connection between Prynne’s secret and the minister’s suffering, and one afternoon, he discovers a mark on Dimmesdale’s breast as he sleeps, which confirms his suspicion. As the minister’s psychological trauma deepens, Prynne, on the other hand, engages in charitable deeds, which earn her amnesty from the community’s scorn (Literature Resource Center 115-125).
To escape the public scorn and suspicion from her husband, Hester meets secretly with Dimmesdale in the forest at night, and they plan to escape with their daughter to Europe. They both feel relieved, and Prynne loosens her hair and removes her scarlet letter. However, Pearl does not recognize her without the scarlet letter. A day prior to their departure, Dimmesdale delivers a sermon to the townspeople, and upon leaving the church, when he saw Prynne and her daughter in front of the town’s scaffold, he hastily mounts the scaffold with Prynne and Pearl, and confesses his adultery publicly exposing the scarlet letter on his breast. He falls down and dies shortly after (Literature Resource Center 115-125). Chillingworth also dies a year later, frustrated from not being able to take revenge on the Dimmesdale. Thereafter, Prynne and Pearl leave Boston for another country, and after some years, Prynne returns alone to reside in her old house (Literature Resource Center 115-125). When she dies, she is buried next to her husband, with both sharing one gravestone with a scarlet letter “A” (Literature Resource Center 115-125). This paper analyzes The Scarlet Letter by examining how symbolism and representation help to create meaning in the text. The analysis focuses mainly on (1) the scarlet letter, (2) Roger Chillingworth as a representation of the “Black Man,” and (3) the character of little Pearl as a living symbol.
Symbolism and Representation in The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter
The scarlet letter “A,” which Prynne is forced to wear every day as a punishment for her adultery, symbolizes sexual sin and is a day-to-day reminder of shame that jeopardizes Prynne’s soul. This is evident in the narrator’s words when he says, “…Hester Prynne had always this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon the token; the spot never grew callous; it seemed, on the contrary, to grow more sensitive with daily torture” (Literature Resource Center 120). Even though the letter was originally meant to mark Prynne as an adulterer, with time, its meaning changes to “Able,” as stated by the narrator: “They said that it meant ‘Able’; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (Literature Resource Center 117). She sewed garments for the less fortunate in the society and gave out all of her income to them. Prynne’s hard work and generosity became so significant that instead of her scarlet letter, people saw her as a person of high status and importance. Just like Pearl, the scarlet letter is the physical reminder of Dimmesdale’s affair with Prynne, thus signifying the Puritan community’s system of punishment and judgment. According to Hawthorn (51), Prynne’s scarlet letter is a clothing piece with the letter “A” that is beautifully embroidered and is shining in her bosom. The scarlet letter in this context symbolizes Prynne’s artistry and talent, and skills, which enable her to make a living as a single parent. It shows her strength and independence. In addition, the letter symbolizes guilt and cowardice of Dimmesdale, curiosity of Pearl as well as betrayal and revenge of Chillingworth.
Roger Chillingworth as a Representation of the “Black Man”
Chillingworth represents evil in The Scarlet Letter, as implied by Hawthorne throughout the novel. From the novel, we are told that the Black Man in the forest carries a leather book that is black in color and has clasps (Literature Resource Center 120). He hangs out in the forest at night and lures people to sign away their souls in his book. Similarly, Chillingworth also has a large leather book which has clasps, which he uses to reference plants and herbs he collects in the forest to create the medicine. His physical transformation suggests that he is the “Black Man”. Initially, when he arrived in Salem, he was seen as an old kind physician; however, as the novel ends, he changes into an ugly, dark and crooked version of himself; a representation of wickedness (Hawthorne 255). Chillingworth’s association with secular and illicit knowledge, as evident in his medical practices and chemical experiments, points out that he may be practicing witchcraft. Though some people may view the love affair between Hester and Dimmesdale as evil, Chillingworth’s careful plot aimed at causing deliberate harm and revenge to Dimmesdale represents evil in its most wicked forms.
Pearl as a Living Symbol
Pearl is a beautiful and naughty daughter of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. She is more than just a character in The Scarlet Letter: she is a living symbol of the scarlet letter, the physical outcome of adultery, and the indicator of transgression between her mother and the minister (Literature Resource Center 123). She is a constant reminder not only to Prynne, but also to Dimmesdale of their sexual sin, and she leads them to acknowledge and admit their sin. Pearl cannot accept his father, unless he starts acting like one by accepting his sin and loving them as his family publicly. This is evident when she asks her mother, “Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into town?,” which implies that she wants her father to love them openly (Hawthorne 145). Other than being a punishment to Prynne, Pearl is also a blessing to her. She represents the passion that brought about their sexual sin, thus her existence gives Prynne a reason to live, strengthening her spirit when she is about to give up (Literature Resource Center 125).
The following passage shows Pearl as the living symbol of the connection between Dimmesdale and Prynne:
In her was visible the tie that united them. She had been offered to the world, these seven years past, as the living hieroglyphic, in which was revealed the secret they so darkly sought to hide, — all written in this symbol, — all plainly manifest, — had there been a prophet or magician skilled to read the character of flame! And Pearl was the oneness of their being” (Hawthorne 141).
As Pearl grows up, she becomes a symbol of Prynne’s mental state and wrecked life. She does not allow her mother to take off the scarlet letter for any reason; she wants her mother to accept her sin and not view herself as the most evil person in the world. Pearl’s stubbornness and harassment of her mother over the scarlet letter causes her great anguish and grief (Literature Resource Center 117).
In conclusion, The Scarlet Letter is a very interesting book with numerous moral lessons to the reader. The novel’s story is comparable to what happens in everyday life. A major lesson we learn from the novel is that nobody is free from sin; not even preachers. How we handle the effects of our sins, including the punishments, greatly determines our future lives. People should take responsibility for their sins/mistakes, learn from them, and move on with life, just like Prynne did.