Color Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter

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  • 0:00 Colors in Our Lives
  • 0:39 Red in 'The Scarlet Letter'
  • 1:57 Black in 'The Scarlet Letter'
  • 3:45 Gray in 'The Scarlet Letter'
  • 4:29 Gold in 'The Scarlet Letter'
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson, we will learn about Hawthorne's use of color in 'The Scarlet Letter'. We will learn how he uses red and black to describe sin and evil, gray to represent sadness, and gold to represent happiness.

Colors in Our Lives

Color is important to us, and so we often attach meanings to color. For example, we all know the meaning of 'go green,' a 'red flag,' or 'feeling blue.' These types of sayings are common in our lives because color evokes strong feelings in each of us.

In The Scarlet Letter, author Nathaniel Hawthorne uses color symbolism to help evoke the desired feelings and to help us better understand what is happening in the novel. Some of the colors that he uses are red, black, gray, and gold.

Red in The Scarlet Letter

Red is used frequently in The Scarlet Letter, and it is even a part of the book title. Red refers to sin and evil. Black is also used to refer to sin and evil, yet red tends to be the more outward appearance of sin and evil, while black tends to signify hidden sins or the things that society doesn't want to face.

The letter 'A' that Hester needs to wear in The Scarlet Letter is made of red fabric to ensure that everyone can quickly identify her as an adulteress. It is a symbol of shame that everyone recognizes.

Hester's daughter Pearl can also be characterized by the color red. She is an interesting child who serves as a reminder to both Hester and Dimmesdale of the sin they have committed. Pearl is frequently dressed in lavish colors, including red, and Hawthorne describes her as 'the scarlet letter endowed with life' (Chapter 7). At one point, Dimmesdale says that Pearl should instead be named Ruby, Coral, or another 'red' name. Pearl acts as a daily reminder of what he has done.

Black in The Scarlet Letter

As mentioned earlier, the color black in The Scarlet Letter symbolizes sin and evil. This symbol is one of hidden sins. This Puritan society believes life should be lived in a very strict manner, even if it means pretending to be someone they are not. The Puritans would rather have the appearance of righteousness than of being outside of the mold.

The prison is referred to as 'the black flower of civilized society' (Chapter 1). This community was created as a refuge, as a paradise on Earth. Therefore, even the existence of a prison is not something they want to think about, yet it is there in the town as their 'black flower.' The prison is a sin in the community that they would rather not face.

Since Dimmesdale's sin is hidden while Hester's sin is visible to the entire community, he is frequently embodied by blackness. He is burdened by 'the black secret of his soul' (Chapter 11). Dimmesdale is not able to have his sin known to the world like Hester is, so he keeps it hidden inside, and it festers within him.

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