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Similes in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In ''The Scarlet Letter'' by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne faces a level of judgement and disdain for committing adultery that is hard to imagine today. The author uses similes to provide clear descriptions of her circumstances.

Vivid Descriptions

Do you know someone who seems as 'pure as new-fallen snow?' What does this mean? A person doesn't become the cold, wet precipitate in the literal sense; this is a simile that compares a person's purity to something that is white and untouched like snow. Similes are comparisons between two things that are not related using words such as 'like' or 'as' to link them. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author uses similes to describe setting, events, characters, and feelings. Similes provide vivid descriptions of the contempt and cruelty that Hester faces, but which she manages to overcome in order to provide for her daughter, Pearl.

Hester's Humiliation

Have you ever been through something so surreal that it seemed as though you were observing your surroundings from outside yourself? When Hester is forced to stand on the scaffold for three humiliating hours while the townspeople gawk at her and judge her for committing adultery, many thoughts go through her mind. The author uses similes to vividly describe the thoughts, feelings, and surroundings of this terrible event in these examples:

  • As Hester emerges from her jail cell, the official that directs her to the scaffold hardly seems human. '… there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into the sunshine, the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle…'
  • While she stands in the middle of town amongst the people who now despise her, she is unable to make out the form of the individuals who are watching her. The crowd '…seemed to vanish from her eyes, or, at least, glimmered indistinctly before them, like a mass of imperfectly shaped and spectral images.'
  • Hester realizes that her sentence of wearing a scarlet 'A' to mark her adultery means an end to life as she knows it. She considers the limited opportunities ahead of her as she starts life again without her husband, her lover, or her reputation. '…a new life, but feeding itself on time-worn materials, like a tuft of green moss on a crumbling wall.'

Hester Prynne on the scaffold
Hester Prynne on Scaffold

Living in Shame

Even after she returns to her cottage to raise her daughter on her own, Hester's shame continues to play a big role in her life. Hester continues to live within the community, but she is no longer accepted by the community and suffers greatly from their judgement of her. Similes are used to describe not only her isolation, but also the abuse she endures.

  • Hester works from home as a seamstress who creates such beautiful work that she is able to support Pearl and herself. However, while her neighbors purchase her creations, they refuse to associate with her. 'She stood apart from moral interests, yet close beside them, like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside, and can no longer make itself seen or felt…'
  • Many of the women from the higher social classes openly scorn her in painful and humiliating ways, sometimes making hurtful comments, using '…a coarser expression, that fell upon the sufferer's defenceless breast like a rough blow upon an ulcerated wound.' Over time, Hester becomes accustomed to their remarks, but there are occasions when the cuts are deep.
  • Imagine the pain of having your daughter come home after speaking with Mistress Hibbins, the Governor's sister, with this information, '…this scarlet letter was the Black Man's mark on thee, and that it glows like a red flame when thou meetest him at midnight, here in the dark wood.' The Black Man is a euphemism for Satan, who of course would be attracted to a glowing red flame.

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