The Scarlet Letter: Symbolism And The Pursuit Of Identity

1303 words - 5 pages

Human identity is a perplexing concept, one that is difficult to define and often challenging for people themselves, whether philosophers or everyday citizens, to come to terms with. In his novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne uses an elaborate array of duplicitous symbols in order to illustrate that individual lives cannot be defined by a single, solitary characteristic or event. The symbols of the scarlet letter itself, the scaffold, and the setting of the forest all contain a certain duality of meaning that highlight the variety within the human identity.
Over the course of the novel, the symbol of the scarlet letter acquires two separate meanings, each reflecting the way Hester's character is identified according to the Puritans, and more importantly, alluding to the complexity of identity of every human individual. At the exposition of the novel, the scarlet letter is a burdensome castigation that is partially imposed by the Puritan community as her legal reprimand, and partially imposed by Hester herself. In having "for the remainder of her natural life to wear a mark of shame upon her bosom" (Hawthorne, 71), Hester is immediately identified as a despicable, ignominious woman to the greater Puritan society and to the reader in the early chapters of the novel. Hawthorne uses this distinction of identity to suggest that people often define each other by one particular attribute. Yet it is critical to note that all identification does not come from an external source: Hester also struggles with a degrading view towards her own personal identity. The scarlet letter, representative of her wrongdoing, is literally fashioned by the work of her own hands. Therefore it is, in a sense, a self inflicted punishment, so as to illustrate the fact that sometimes the individual looks down upon his or her self by only recognizing one (and often a negative) trait, while failing to acknowledge equally significant positive attributes. Hawthorne's disproval of this human reality is solidified by the fact that the scarlet letter does not retain its onerous, shameful characteristics (in their entirety) for the duration of the novel: “The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her—so much power to do, and power to sympathise—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification” (183). This shift in connotation for the letter parallels the unfolding duality in Hester's own identity, therefore suggesting that her whole character cannot be merely defined by the instance of her sin, and likewise that she has many inherently good qualities within her personality. Hawthorne is not singularly speaking about the person of Hester; he rather uses her, and the scarlet letter, to illustrate that every human individual cannot be defined by one solitary event or trait. As the scarlet letter comes to have dual meaning, and as Hester's persona adopts the meanings of the letter, so too does human identity...

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