In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne creates a startling vision, rife with meaning and symbolism. The book is unique in that Hawthorne leaves the reader in a state of flux; there is no “bad guy,” there is no definite conclusion, good is not triumphant over evil. The finish of the story does not end in “happily ever after,” but in a feeling of inscrutability; the loose ends are tied, yet left open for the reader to image what comes next. “The Scarlet Letter’s strange power over its contemporary readers derives from its unresolved tensions”(264).
There are no clearly defined roles of good and evil, only lesser and greater forms of both, with which the characters have to deal with. Hawthorne asks his “readers to sympathize with Dimmesdale and Chillingworth as “mutual victims”(272). The book is one of human and moral weakness; Hawthorne hopes “to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow”(54).
The abundant symbols in the volume are constantly evolving and developing, creating different mood and tone shifts within the text. The scarlet letter takes on many forms throughout the book, meaning both “adultery” and “angel,” and a myriad of other significant tokens.
A close examination of the text reveals the major role metaphors play in the tale. The patterns within the writing evolve and develop; henceforth the meanings of these metaphors also evolve and change. The strongest of these metaphors is the scarlet letter itself, the letter is powerful; it becomes a fixation point for all who meet its wearer.
The A is initially the outward representation of Hester’s sin of adultery. The whole community turns out to see her present the “ignominious letter on her breast”(58). It is a powerful scene, when “that Scarlet Letter, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom”(58) is revealed. “It had the effect of a spell, taker her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself”(58). Hester is, in effect, taken out of reality at this point. She is no longer an active participant in the world; she is a spectator, held up as an example of fallen grace in her harsh society. It is her public exhibition of the letter that allows her the moral fortitude to withstand its shame.
She is able to bear the burden of the letter because it is in the open; there is nothing she can do to hide it from the world. It is in this way that she can begin to transform herself and the ignominious A into something greater. She lives on the outskirts of society, subsisting on little and giving what she can to charity: “Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on wretches less miserable than herself, and who not unfrequently insulted the hand that fed them”(78). She becomes an Angel of Mercy; “none so ready as she to give of her little substance to every demand of poverty”(131). The letter became a beacon in the dark, for those who have lost their way. “The letter was a symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her, – so much power to do, and power to sympathize, – that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength”(131).
Hester is not the only one afflicted by the letter; it also mars the Reverend Dimmesdale. He is Hester’s unidentified lover; the father of Pearl and a man persecuted by his own demons. He wishes he were strong enough to expose himself as the adulterer he is, but he lacks the moral fortitude to admit his own flaws. Late one night, he climbs the scaffold that Hester had been sentenced to stand upon seven years before. As he is standing there, Hester and Pearl come by and he asks them to join him. It is through this action that he is able to feel “a tumultuous rush of new life, other life than his own, pouring like a torrent into his heart, and hurrying through all his veins, as if the mother and the child were communicating their vital warmth to his half-torpid system”(125). As he stood there with Pearl and Hester, he looked “upward to the zenith, and beheld there the appearance of an immense letter, –the letter A, — marked out in lines of dull red light”(127). The A becomes a visual symbol for both Dimmesdale and Hester, representing their joined sin. The light is also seen by a few of the townspeople who, ironically interpret it as standing for “Angel,” in regards to the passing of the governor on that night. Throughout the story the scarlet “A” evolves and shifts its meaning, creating many different ideas and emotions.
The scarlet letter is not the only metaphor present in the text. There are numerous smaller, less prominent, yet powerful symbols. The rose bush in front of the jail is a prime example. The red flowers contrast strikingly with the somber and oppressiveness of the prison and its “beetle-browed and gloomy front”(53). Nestled among the weeds that surround the jail, the rose is a symbol of strength and beauty, among a desolate, foreboding landscape. It has survived for years in a inhospitable climate, surrounded choking plants, and noxious weeds. The rose among the weeds can be seen as a metaphor for Hester. She is “a figure of perfect elegance… ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days”(57). Hester is the rose among the “grim rigidity” and “severity of the Puritan character”(54); she is the only spot of color in an otherwise gray society.
As the reader delves into the text of The Scarlet Letter, it becomes apparent that there are not the clearly defined roles of good and evil. The novel does not dwell in the realm of black and white, but in the indiscernible shades of gray that perpetuate in the real world. This is not to say that there is uniformity in the players, or that they all are of the same moral character. There exist those who are inclined to good and those who are inclined to evil; what is plain in the book is that there is also evidence of evil within those who are good and vies versa. Mr. Dimmesdale is a prime example of basically good, yet with some definite moral weakness; Dimmesdale understands his sin and has a desire to confess it and relieve the burden he carries with him. He wishes “long ago to have thrown off these garments of mock holiness, and have shown myself to mankind as they will see me at the judgment-seat”(152). What prevents him from revealing himself, and in doing so lifting the burden of shame from his heart, is his moral weakness.
Dimmesdale justifies his actions because he feels that it would cause more harm to the community if they found out; if he were to “shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in the view of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be achieved by them; no evil of the past be redeemed by better service”(111). Dimmesdale’s justification is a hollow one at best. He is unable to reconcile himself, and in this way he perpetuates the sickness that is slowly destroying him. It is not till the end, when he is able to understand and reconcile himself, that he is able to confess his sin and finally be relieved of his burden and is able to die in peace: “With a convulsive motion he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation. For an instant the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentred on the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood with a flush of triumph on his face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory”(196). In his revelation Dimmesdale can finally redeem himself; he is able to feel the weight and burden of his sin lifted from his own mind.
Chillingworth is by far a closer representation of total evil than Dimmesdale is of total good. However, even he is not a two dimensional character of darkness, Chillingworth is not an evil man at the beginning of the story. It is only after discovering the truth about his wife, Hester, that he is first contorted in rage: “A writhing horror twisted itself across his features… His face darkened with some powerful emotion”(62). Even this discovery and the rage it brings does not truly turn him to the “dark side.” Hester is distraught and hysterical about the appearance of her husband, and, ironically, it is he who is allowed to examine her and the child. Hester initially fears that the medicine he prescribes is poison. Upon her expression of this fear to Chillingworth, he simply laughs it off, “what would ail me to harm this misbegotten and miserable babe? The medicine is potent for good; and were it my child, -yeah, mine own, as well as thine! – I could do no better for it”(70). It is this expression of concern, though tinged with anger and bitterness, that shows that even the personification of evil has his limits. It is not until he starts to examine Dimmesdale closely that there occurs a dark shift in his soul. The change occurs when Chillingworth begins to suspect Dimmesdale of being the father of Pearl. Initially, he hopes to use Dimmesdale as a way to discover the individual who committed the crime with Hester.
He soon starts to suspect Dimmesdale; this causes him to transform from the scholarly physician into someone with “something ugly and evil in his face”(108). As Chillingworth’s suspicion deepens, he begins to press harder and harder at the feeble preacher, relentlessly questioning him without revealing himself. One day while Dimmesdale is asleep he creeps up on him and opens his shirt: “how Satan comports himself, when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won into his kingdom”(116) is the expression that is revealed upon his face. Chillingworth is now sure of the identity of the other adulterer; he then takes almost a certain glee in being able to press and torment the poor preacher at any time he wishes. The tormenting continues throughout the book, until the time of Dimmesdale’s death. When Dimmesdale reveals himself as the other bearer of the scarlet letter, he breaks Chillingworth’s hold on him. Now the vengeance that was sustaining Chillingworth has disappeared, and he no longer has a reason to exist. Shortly after the death of Dimmesdale, Chillingworth also dies. His transformation is a perfect example of the evolution of a person moving through the stages of a sort of moral development. Transforming from scholarly physician, to cruel inquisitor, to sadistic torturer, and finally to a defeated and broken old man.
Yet Hawthorne does not leave everything happily ever after, because it quite simply cannot be done. The scarlet letter will forever brand Hester, even if the stigma diminishes in time; she has lost her only true love, and, in essence, became his widow, and lives out her days in solitude.
The Scarlet Letter is truly an astounding vision. The constantly evolving symbols and metaphors imbibe in the reader an abundance of tumultuous feelings, and logical thought. The unique way Hawthorne blurs the line between good and evil leaves the reader feeling, at times, wanting and fulfilled. This duality is present throughout the book, and is one of the reasons why The Scarlet Letter is still so heavily examined over one hundred years after its penning.
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