Symbolism can be defined as a figure, character, or object that is used to represent complex or abstract ideas. By expressing an idea in the form of an image, the reader can visualize the concept more concretely. The old expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” applies to symbolism as the author creates a visual representation of ideas. The use of symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter helps to illuminate the overall meaning of the work.
At the beginning of the book, the reader is introduced to a dark and gloomy town that had first built a prison and a cemetery. Amidst the depressing landscape, is a beautiful rosebush. “But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-hush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.” (Hawthorne 10) This rosebush represents a change, beauty, and hope for the prisoners awaiting their freedom. Being bright and beautiful, the rosebush is shockingly different from the depressing gloom of the rest of society. “In the contrast of the wild rose bush, with its flowers turned into gems, and the prison, turned metaphorically into an unnatural flower - the black flower of civilization -Hawthorne sets his conflict between prisoner and prison (or prisoner and crowd) into a much larger context. The rose bush is beautiful, also wild and natural; the black flower is ugly, also civilized and unnatural. Nature has a heart to pity and be kind; civilization, apparently, does not.” (Baym 6)
This rosebush was a symbol of hope for Hester Prynne. After committing adultery and becoming impregnated with an illegitimate child, Hester is confined in the town’s prison and sentenced to punishment. Since Hester and Dimmesdale committed adultery, they are trapped in their life of isolation and misery. Just as Hester did during her imprisonment, she and Dimmesdale are like the prisoners staring out at the rosebush, dreaming of salvation and freedom. Later in the book, Pearl states that she was plucked from the rosebush and was born. Because of this, Pearl is the key to salvation for Hester and Dimmesdale, just as the rosebush is the key to salvation for the hopeful prisoners.
The scarlet letter “A” was placed upon Hester Prynne’s bosom to openly and literally symbolize the adultery she committed. This letter was intended to make her ashamed of the sexual sin she had done when she bore an illegitimate child. The scarlet letter was a physical reminder for Hester and for her community of her sinful actions and how different she was compared to her Puritan society. Hawthorne stated that the scarlet letter placed on Hester’s bosom was made of “fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread,” done with...