Use of Symbols in The Scarlet Letter
In many stories, symbols included by the author add deeper meaning. Nathaniel Hawthorne is one author who mastered the skill of using symbols effectively. The Scarlet Letter is regarded as a "symbolic masterpiece" due to Hawthorne's exceptional use of the scarlet letter, the setting, and Pearl as symbols.
One of the main symbols of the novel is the basis for the title of the novel itself. Hester Prynne's scarlet letter is attached to her dress, and appears "in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate embroidery with fantastic flourishes of gold thread" (Hawthorne 60). The letter is said to have "the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity and enclosing her in a sphere by herself" (Hawthorne 61). The letter seems to be the focal point of Hester's figure, and the townspeople obsess about the blazing red sign of her sin for a long time after Hester's ignominy.
Hester's fantastically embellished red letter takes on many meanings as a symbol. The gold thread with which the letter is embroidered symbolizes Hester's mockery of the Puritan way of punishment. A female spectator in the market place remarks, "Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they ... meant for a punishment?" (Hawthorne 61). The embellishment of the letter physically displays Hester's reaction to her punishment. Her strong will not only accepts the challenge that the Puritan church has laid before her, but she also laughs in mockery at it. The scarlet letter also shows the triviality of the community's system of punishment. Whenever Hester walks outside of her cottage, Pearl is always with her. The presence of Pearl is a much stronger representation of Hester's sin than the letter itself is. Hawthorne states that Man chooses to represent Hester's sin with a cloth letter, but God represents the sin with a human child (91-92). The existence of Pearl compared with the scarlet letter shows idiosyncrasy in the Puritan ways of punishment.
Aside from the letter, Hester's surroundings also bear symbolic meaning. One of the first elements of setting that the reader encounters is the rosebush directly outside of the prison door. Hawthorne uses the bush as a contrast point to his bleak, dark description of the prison:
But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rosebush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and beauty to the prisoner as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him. (56)
Hawthorne actually suggests possible symbolic interpretations of the rosebush in this passage. The roses, or "delicate gems" of the bush, symbolize a faint glimmer of hope to the prisoner entering the...