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The Rose Bush in The Scarlet Letter: Symbolism

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  • 0:01 The Rose Bush Appears
  • 1:05 Symbolic Role
  • 1:53 Nature as a Friend
  • 3:04 Anne Hutchinson
  • 4:44 Symbol of Pearl
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

The rose bush at the prison door is an important symbol in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel 'The Scarlet Letter.' This lesson argues that the rose bush signifies Hawthorne's Romantic views of nature as passionate, beautiful, and free.

The Rose Bush Appears

Have you ever been having the worst day of your life, when all of a sudden something beautiful - a rainbow, a sunset - catches your eye and makes you feel better? That is precisely what happens to Hester Prynne as she is led from the prison house to the scaffold at the center of town to face the condemnation of the entire community in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter.

As she is led from her cell, Hester endures what must be the most agonizing, humiliating, and frightening moment of her life. After all, in Hester's Puritan community (a community pledged to social purification through a strict interpretation of the Bible) in 1640s Massachusetts Bay Colony, adultery could - and did - get people executed.

But then Hester sees the rose bush blooming in all its magnificent glory at the side of the prison door. It is wild and beautiful, strong and enduring. It is an unexpected exuberance that brightens that forbidding, punishing darkness of the prison house.

Symbolic Role

The rose bush serves a key symbolic role in Hawthorne's novel. Hawthorne was a leading figure in the American Romantic movement, an aesthetic and philosophical movement that esteems the natural world above the world of progressive civilization. We modern folks, Hawthorne suggests, are corrupted by our social institutions, beaten down and imprisoned by them, just as Hester was literally and figuratively imprisoned by the scarlet letter she wears and the eternal shame for having followed her passion for her unknown lover, the Reverend Dimmesdale.

But, the natural world is free, beautiful, sincere, unapologetic, and passionate. The rose bush symbolizes nature in its potency, solace, and freedom.

Nature as a Friend

Hester is comforted by the sight of the rose bush at a moment when she doesn't have a friend in the world. She is the town pariah, or outcast, because in her Puritan community, one person's sin is seen as a contamination of them all.

But Hawthorne, true to his Romantic ideals, suggests that nature is always a friend to man. Society can be cutthroat, treacherous, and oppressive, but nature is a kind and soothing balm. Nature knows and forgives humanity when humans can't forgive each other - or themselves.

Of the rose bush, Hawthorne writes that its blooms 'might be imagined to 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.'

Social institutions - from prison systems to the government laws that create them - cannot offer the compassion and understanding that nature so freely gives. Hawthorne in this way seems to ask if our modern society is really the force of progress we celebrate it to be. Or does it make us more barbaric than nature ever could be?

Anne Hutchinson

As the narrator describes Hester's rose bush, he recalls a legend that suggests that the rose bush sprang up magically from the spot where Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) stepped as she was being led to prison.

Anne Hutchinson fought the Puritan clergy in Massachusetts Bay Colony, arguing they were becoming too powerful. She feared that religious doctrine and its ministers were contaminating parishioners' relationship with God. The community, she argued, was all too often forced to submit to the clergy and not to the commandments of their own consciences.

Hutchinson also struck a blow for women in Puritan Massachusetts and for their right to tend to the state of their own souls. She was not swayed by the patriarchal (male-driven) models of her time, which held that men were to be the priests of the home and women were to submit to them in all matters, including - and especially - church matters.

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