Imagery in The Scarlet Letter: Examples & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Imagery
  • 1:08 The Rose Bush
  • 2:01 The Governor's Garden
  • 3:02 Sprightly Sunlight
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

This lesson will take a look at some examples of imagery in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter.' What makes a description imagery instead of just description? What purpose does it serve? Let's find out!


'This coat hates me!' You might say this to your companion in frustration as you notice yet another tear in your coat. You know the coat isn't capable of feeling and therefore doesn't actually hate you, but saying it this way evokes an emotion and describes the coat's new hole in a way that the reader can better relate to than they would to a fact-based explanation. Without realizing it, you have used a literary device.

Imagery is a particularly intense kind of description. It's not just describing something in detail, but making it come alive for the reader. Often, this involves the use of other literary devices in the description, like simile, metaphor, or in this case, personification, giving inanimate objects human qualities. Going beyond ordinary description into the realm of imagery can elevate the importance of an object or a natural element.

Nathaniel Hawthorne does this in The Scarlet Letter with several different aspects of the natural world. This makes these natural elements come alive and become more active participants in the novel. Let's take a look at some examples of how this works.

The Rose Bush

There is a rose bush which grows just outside the prison door through which Hester Prynne walks at the start of the novel. This rose bush, being right next to the prison, serves as a metaphor and a contrast at various points in the novel. To mark its significance, Hawthorne employs imagery to make us notice it.

Hawthorne uses personification as he says the roses on the bush are performing an act of empathy as they 'offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.'

A rosebush can't actually feel sympathy, but by adding those human qualities to the ordinary description of the 'delicate gems' that were its flowers, Hawthorne makes this description come alive. The memory of this rosebush will stay with the reader throughout the novel, and thus it can be more effectively used later.

The Governor's Garden

We see nature come alive again through imagery in the garden at the governor's mansion. Here imagery is used to show nature not as sympathetic, but as adversarial. Hawthorne tells us about the governor's garden and about the attempts of others to replicate an ornamental English garden in New England soil. It apparently has not gone well.

Pretty shrubs and flowering trees have been abandoned, and now cabbages and pumpkins have taken over. One pumpkin plant 'had run across the intervening space, and deposited one of its gigantic products directly beneath the hall-window; as if to warn the Governor that this great lump of vegetable gold was as rich an ornament as New England earth would offer him.'

Pumpkins can't actually warn anyone about anything, and they're not in the habit of strategically placing their fruit to send a message. Personification is used here to elevate this description into the realm of imagery. The effect of the imagery here is to show that there is some hostility in the New England environment for their English settlers. There's no room for frivolous ornament. Instead, one must be hearty and productive. Like cabbages. Or pumpkins.

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