See how Nathaniel Hawthorne uses allegory and symbolism to illustrate the affair and resulting guilt between a minister and a Puritan woman in his novel 'The Scarlet Letter.'
Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter has been adapted countless times for stage and film. The most current, well-known film version of the novel, which was released in 1995 and starred Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, deviates from the original story but does capture the main plot points. Other stories have played off of the themes and symbols found in Hawthorne's story, including the most recent movie, Easy A (starring Emma Stone), which takes the opposite approach - coming clean about being a virgin in the midst of rumors.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's dark romantic novel has all of the elements for a steamy love story: a secret affair, an illegitimate child, a husband in disguise, stuffy Puritans - all pretty racy for a story taking place in Boston during the 1600s.
- Hester Prynne is a beautiful woman who is known for her needlework. She is also an adulteress and has to wear a scarlet letter A on her dress as a punishment.
- Arthur Dimmesdale is the town minister. No one knows it, but he is an adulterer too. He punishes himself in private about it.
- Roger Chillingworth is Hester's husband, who has been missing (and thought to be dead) for a couple years. He is in disguise in town, hoping to take revenge on Hester's lover.
- Pearl is Hester's illegitimate daughter. She is unique in spirit and doesn't like Puritans very much.
The Custom House
Hawthorne begins the novel with a long, drawn-out explanation from an unnamed narrator who worked at the custom house, a place where ship's traffic is monitored and customs are paid in Salem, MA. What the custom house introduction boils down to is this: The narrator found a bunch of old papers in the attic of the building, one set of which was two-hundred-years old and bundled with a scarlet, gold-embroidered letter 'A' on top. After being fired from his job at the custom house, which he is pretty happy about since it was boring and making his brain rot, he decides he needs to write a fictional story about the power of the scarlet letter explained in those papers. And he needs to do this before his brain disintegrates any further!
The story itself then begins at the door of a prison in Boston. This is the time of the Puritans, English Protestants who were rigid in their faith and extremely un-fun. The place is foreboding with iron spikes coming out of the door, looking like it would house the worst of criminals, except for a beautiful rosebush that grows next to the door. Hester Prynne emerges from the prison wearing an elaborate, gold-embroidered scarlet letter 'A' on her dress. She is beautiful and proud as she is paraded down to the scaffold of the pillory, the place where they kept the stocks used for punishment. Hester has committed adultery - something the entire town knows because she has given birth to a child named Pearl, whom she is currently carrying in her arms, and she has no husband. Actually, she does have a husband, but he's been missing for a couple of years, so she has no present husband. As part of her punishment for having committed the sin of adultery, she has to wear a scarlet letter 'A' on her dress at all times. The townspeople, who are at the public shaming, want Hester to name the father, but she refuses to tell them.
During the ordeal, an older man in the crowd is identified by the narrator as Hester's long-lost husband. Why is he there? Well, he wants revenge on Hester and whomever Pearl's father may be. He quickly confronts Hester, and for some crazy reason she agrees not to tell anyone who he really is. He tells the townspeople that he is a physician named Roger Chillingworth.
After several years of this, Hester is no longer in jail and is free to move, but she stays in Boston working as a seamstress on the outskirts of town. She is very good and in high demand to make clothing for special occasions (though not for wedding attire). But she still remains an outcast. Pearl is described as 'impish;' she is beautiful, deep, passionate, and quite uncontrollable. She also likes to throw stones and scream at other children who look at her funny, so she doesn't make many friends. She does, however, spend a good amount of time in daydreams where she destroys mean Puritans who are her enemies. Of course, the Puritan authorities are not pleased with Pearl's behavior and want to take her from Hester. Thankfully, the nice minister, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, convinces the governor to let Hester keep Pearl.
Meanwhile, Roger Chillingworth's physician disguise works brilliantly because the nice minister, Reverend Dimmesdale, is having heart trouble. Chillingworth, who ends up moving in with Dimmesdale to help him, quickly suspects him to be Pearl's father and finds a strange red mark on the man's chest, which causes Chillingworth's face to break into 'a wild look of wonder, joy, and horror.' Chillingworth does a little dance of excitement at the sight of the mark and begins some serious psychological torture on Dimmesdale. As a result, Dimmesdale begins punishing himself for his sin of adultery by beating himself with a whip.
One night, after one of his punishment parties, Dimmesdale leaves the house and goes to the scaffold where Hester had been shamed seven years before. It just so happens that Hester and Pearl walk by - after just having left the governor's deathbed - and join Dimmesdale on the scaffold. They hold hands, with Pearl in the middle. Pearl asks Dimmesdale if he will join them on the scaffold at noon the following day. As he explains that he will join them on 'the great judgment day,' a meteor lights up the sky with a sort of red letter 'A.' In all of the confusion, they notice that Pearl points to someone standing nearby. Who else would it be but Chillingworth, who looks evilly excited? Hester still does not tell Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband.
But, Hester does see how ill Dimmesdale has become and confronts Chillingworth. She tells him that she will no longer keep her promise to keep his real identity a secret. Not long after, she waits in the forest for Dimmesdale to return from a trip so that she can tell him what is really going on. Pearl is with her and begins asking about the Black Man (also known as Satan) and believes the letter on Hester's dress is his mark. She also wonders if Dimmesdale clutches his chest to hide his mark of the Black Man. Together in the forest, Hester and Dimmesdale make a plan to get away from all of the 'iron men' Puritans and find a home elsewhere. It seems like Hester and Dimmesdale are finally going to be happy. But this is a dark romantic novel, so we know that can't be true.
Instead of running off with Hester, Dimmesdale decides to mount the scaffold just as Hester had done seven years prior. He confesses to being Pearl's father and, quite dramatically, rips his shirt apart, showing what appears to be a letter 'A' on his chest. Then he dies. No happy ending there.
A year or so later, Chillingworth dies, leaving all of his stuff to Pearl so she and Hester can go find a new life. Hester does leave, only to return to the colony wearing her scarlet letter 'A' again, but this time by choice. To end the story, Hester dies and is buried next to Dimmesdale. Their headstone is marked with the letter 'A.' Very romantic, but sadly so.
Analysis: Dark Romantic Allegory and Symbolism
An allegory is where characters and objects in a story represent something else in order to teach a lesson. The Puritans were huge fans of allegorical thinking and saw signs and lessons in the world around them. Hawthorne, who was both fascinated with and loathed Puritan ideology, chose to write his story as an allegorical lesson preaching the opposite of what the Puritans would want us to gain from this sort of tale. Here, Hawthorne teaches the theme that sin can lead to insight about ourselves and others. He does this through the use of symbols - where an object or character represents something else - which is an obvious technique to use when writing an allegory. The Dark Romantics are known for their use of symbols to convey ideas about sin and guilt and hypocrisy, and Hawthorne uses a bunch.
The most obvious, of course, is the scarlet letter 'A' which takes on a variety of meanings throughout the story. Initially, it is a symbol of adultery and punishment. But it is beautiful and it is gold (the color of perfection) and is worn over her heart, showing that her pure feelings of love are hidden behind her sin. The 'A' on Dimmesdale's chest is quite different, in that it is hidden and not as beautiful as a result. Because he cannot reveal his true self, the symbol takes on a different meaning. Some characters even interpret the 'A' differently, depending on the situation. Dimmesdale sees the letter 'A' from the meteor as a sign of his guilt, whereas the townspeople believe it means that the Governor has become an angel. And as Hester and the 'A' on her chest become synonymous, its meaning turns to able, hard work, charity, and grace. Hawthorne also uses the 'A,' and the events surrounding Hester's struggle, to show the hypocrisy of the Puritan belief system.
Pearl is also a symbol that can be interpreted based on the characters' outlook. She is the physical representation of Hester and Dimmesdale's sin. She isn't like the other kids; she is precocious and insightful and completely wild. Hester names her Pearl 'as being of great price - purchased with all she had - her mother's only treasure!' Hester gives up everything to have Pearl (because without the presence of Pearl, no one would ever have known of Hester's sin). Dimmesdale does too when he dies after acknowledging Pearl as his daughter. In spite of representing her parents' sin, Pearl turns out just fine, marries a European aristocrat, and has a family of her own.
Hawthorne even uses parts of the setting as symbols, most notably, the scaffold. Used for public humiliation, the scaffold is not a place to be if you're a Puritan. But for our characters, it's a place of change, and a place to show who they really are. This is in contrast to the forest, which is wild and full of evil to the Puritans who live nearby. For Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale, it is a place of natural laws and a place of escape. Even the foreboding jail, in contrast to the beautiful rosebush, shows Hawthorne's belief that the rigid Puritan laws are unnatural and stifling.
To review, The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a dark romantic story about a woman and her minister who had an affair and are punished by the Puritan society as a result. Along with an intentional allegory, Hawthorne uses symbolism - where a character or object represents something else - to tell his story. Of all the symbols, the scarlet letter 'A' is the most well-known, taking on a variety of meanings - from adultery to able, proving that sin can bring us to a better understanding of ourselves and others.
When you finish the lesson, you may be able to:
- Provide some of examples of modern adaptions of The Scarlet Letter
- Describe the main characters from The Scarlet Letter
- Discuss the introduction of the novel
- Summarize the plot of The Scarlet Letter
- Define allegory and explain some of the symbols that are used in The Scarlet Letter