Symbolism and allegory in “The Scarlet Letter”
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“The Scarlet Letter” is a beautifully written novel that includes many different literary elements to tie the events together and to draw the reader in. Mainly, the novel is a combination of realism, symbolism, and allegory. The realistic story takes place in colonial America, involving many possible events, in a story that could easily have taken place in that time period. Symbols are abundant in the novel, with the main symbol (the letter) being the center of the story, with many other symbols supporting it and bringing the story a deeper meaning. Allegory is also used, with virtually every character being representative of something deeper into the heart of the novel, and the story is basically being shown as an extended metaphor.
The events of the story take place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, not too long after its founding, when the self-government had only recently been started. The Puritan beliefs were essentially used to govern the colonies, and any person who did not comply with these morals, ethics, values, and beliefs, would be punished by the fathers of the colony. Hawthorne also delves deep into the fragile psyches of his characters, allowing the reader to see their human emotions, those of sadness, happiness, and all the other more complicated emotions in between. By including these elements, Hawthorne brings a very realistic feel, and manages to convince the reader that the story is completely true.
Hawthorne uses symbolism partially as a basis for the story, but mostly uses it to add meaning to the events that occur. The letter that is constantly on Hester’s bosom is precisely the symbol that causes the events in the story, and so it is obviously the most important. Originally, the letter indicates solely the sin that Hester has committed: adultery. It labels her as an adulterer, a sinner, and it shows her to be different from everybody else. However, as the story progresses, it also becomes a representation of the isolation Hester experiences as a result of her sin. Even when a person is unaware of what the A means, they know that it makes her different, and so they isolate her.
Similarly, Pearl is a human manifestation of the letter, evidence of a sin committed that will never go away, and that is always with Hester. The different aspects of the surroundings can also be looked at as symbols. The settlement represents a group of people, all sinners in some way, shape, or form, but who cast out the sinner who is recognized by her sin alone. The forest represents a part of nature, where even nature casts out the sinner, with the sun avoiding Hester. Yet, at the same time, the forest offers a quiet place where Hester can join the supernatural that surrounds her, and she can be herself in peace. While symbolism adds to the base of the story, the allegory is what it adds upon.
Allegory, defined by WordNet as “an expressive style that uses fictional characters and events to describe some subject by suggestive resemblances; an extended metaphor,” is the literary element that The Scarlet Letter is built upon. Hawthorne leaves the characters with rather 2-dimensional descriptions, allowing instead their representations to speak for them. Hester is defined by her sin, and her sin defines her place in the Bostonian society. Dimmesdale was defined as a minister, which again defined his place in society, but a place much higher than that of Hester’s, although they had committed the same sin. Chillingworth seemingly is defined by the truth, the truth not only of Dimmesdale being Pearl’s father, but also the truth of his own identity. Pearl is the sin. She came into being because of the sin Dimmesdale and Hester committed, and she lives on with Hester as a constant reminder and as evidence of the sin. Therefore, the story and all the events that comprise it are an extended metaphor for a sin and its consequences.
Using the literary elements of realism, symbolism, and allegory, Hawthorne brings to life the idea of a sin, and what becomes of a person following their committance of a sin. He weaves the elements together into a complicated, yet somehow simple story of love, ruined by Puritan morals and values, and a life defined by sin with nothing truly existing aside from the sin. He uses the elements to draw the reader in and to retain the readers interest, as well as to show the reader what life was like in that time period. He gives the reader a historical background from which to draw while reading, and he calls on each element of this history to cement the events of the story in place. By blending together these elements, Hawthorn creates a uniquely entertaining novel.