Figurative Language in The Scarlet Letter

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  • 0:03 What Is Figurative Language?
  • 0:49 Personification
  • 2:02 Symbolism
  • 3:07 Simile and Metaphor
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Breazeale
Figurative language is used by writers everywhere, and it's been used for centuries - even by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel 'The Scarlet Letter.' In this lesson, learn about some different types of figurative language as they appear in this work.

What Is Figurative Language?

Figurative language is commonly used by authors in their work. With this, authors use language to convey a meaning that is different from the interpretation of the literal words used on the page. Figurative language can be used by an author for many different reasons, like wanting to make a particular point with word choice, or making language particularly beautiful. In this lesson, you'll examine four types of figurative language: personification, symbolism, simile, and metaphor.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, famed author of the novel The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850, uses figurative language throughout this particular work. The novel tells the story of a woman punished for adultery in the harsh Puritan society of the 1600s.


Personification is giving an inhuman object human traits. This conveys a point easily on the page, while also offering a more relatable, easier-to-visualize description of something. Like in this example:

'She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam.'

What's being given a human trait in this quote? That's right: Hawthorne is telling you, the reader, that the protagonist's hair throws off sunshine. Can hair take charge of sunlight and throw it around? Of course not! Hair can shine, sure. It can even shimmer in the sunlight. But throwing is definitely a human action, because it has to be done with arms.

So why phrase the description this way? Well, in this passage, Hester Prynne, the novel's protagonist, is leaving the town jail. It's the first glimpse you, the reader, have of this woman, so Hawthorne really wanted to make a splash in your mind. By using any descriptive word he could to give you the sense of Hester's defiant, 'don't care' attitude in the face of the mockery of the townspeople, Hawthorne solidifies Hester's character in the space of a paragraph. Even her hair throws off the sun like it just doesn't care. Much more interesting than simply saying 'Her hair was shiny,' right?


Symbolism is using a particular person, place, or thing to represent something else, like an abstract idea. Like how a heart is used to represent the huge, abstract concept of love. Symbols take something difficult to visualize and change it into something more manageable.

In The Scarlet Letter, Hester's daughter, Pearl, is actually a symbol herself. It's even in her name: Pearl. Pearls are precious things, right? You don't keep pearl necklaces in your safe for nothing. Pearls are very costly, too. So what does Pearl symbolize, then?

That's right. Pearl symbolizes the hardship Hester suffers through in order to have her child. Since Pearl is the product of an affair between Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale, Hester is the butt of ridicule, scorn, and punishment. Pearl also symbolizes how much Hester gave up in order to have her, the cost of Hester's affair: her reputation within the Puritan community, her good standing, her religion. Basically, everything. Pearl becomes a symbol of her mother's sin and suffering for much of the novel.

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