Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 11th grade July 2001

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The Ambiguity Use of Symbolism in "The Scarlet Letter" Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlett Letter, uses a lot of symbolism in the story that represents several meanings within the context of the story. Hawthorne uses symbolism to add greater meaning to the story. Objects such as the prison, rosebush, scaffold, meteor, forest, brook, and little Pearl are all important symbols in Hawthorne's novel. The most obvious and principal symbol in the novel is the scarlet letter "A", which has several meanings. Each symbol has a special significance that reveals a secret, the theme of the story and it also resembles the character's personality.

The author opens his story with the description of the prison and the prison door. The prison is described as an "ugly edifice" and as the "black flower of civilized society" (1131). The prison is a symbol of loneliness and estrangement from the rest of the world.

This "foreshadows the life that Hester will lead" even after she is released from prison. Hester lives in a "prison of alienation". She moves away from the town, but remains near. She lives a secluded life on the outskirts of the town. Hester alienates herself from the rest of the town people and tries to avoid any contact with them because they see her as the "black flower" of their society. The prison may also represent the outcome of punishment from unconfessed sin. Reverend Dimmesdale lives in a prison of guilt and remorse because he does not have the courage to confess his sin to the people. This imprisonment of unconfessed sin deteriorates his health and peace with God. Chillingworth, Hester's husband, also imprisons himself by his vengeance on little Pearl's father. He is enslaved to torture and torment Dimmesdale. Throughout the novel the reader can see that his intent of revenge changes his appearance and makes him loose his reason.

As stated before, Hawthorne opens the chapter by introducing the significance of the prison that opens the "tale of human frailty and sorrow". However, he also includes a wild rosebush that with its charm gives a "fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner" (Hawthorne 1131). The wild rosebush symbolizes the "sweet and moral blossom" of the story. Its beauty surpasses all that is around it and its color gives life to the ugliness of the prison. It may represent that despite the tragic tale of Hester, God might have some pity on her and her child. The rosebush can also symbolize the scarlet letter on Hester's bosom. Hester has to wear this letter as a sign of her sin. Hester transforms this plain letter into an elaborately gold embroidered A. The more she garnishes the letter with gold thread, the less the people notice it. As the years pass by, the letter that once stood for adultery, seems to have changed its meaning and is no longer seen as a sign of sin, but as a sign of a person in goodness and loveliness.

Another important symbol in the story is the scaffold. There are three scaffold scenes that are relevant to the story. The Puritans used the scaffold as an object where they placed people to punish them or discipline them for their sins or actions. The Puritans were "people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful" (Hawthorne 1332). They used the scaffold as a symbol of God's scaffold on the great judgement day. It is said that "meager, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders at the scaffold" (Hawthorne 1132). The first scaffold scene is when Hester bravely stands before the heartless crowd with little Pearl in arms as a punishment for her sin. This scene is at the beginning of the story. She stands there alone with her baby not revealing the identity of her partner in sin. Very different from Hester, Dimmesdale finds great difficulty standing before the crowd on the scaffold. He finds it difficult to confess the truth of his dark secret. The second scaffold scene happens in the middle of the story. It occurs seven years later when Dimmesdale intents to confess his sin standing on the scaffold at midnight. At this time the town sleeps and is not aware of what Dimmesdale is trying to do. His remorse makes him cry aloud into the night, but no one hears him. Hester and Pearl, returning from the governor's deathbed, later join him and the three stand on the scaffold holding hands. However, the town sleeps and nobody is aware of his action, except Chillingworth who is standing nearby. The third scaffold scene is found in the end of the story. It is broad daylight and Dimmesdale has just finished given one of his best sermons. He looks very weak and tired. As he attempts to walk through the crowd, he stumbles across Hester and Pearl that are standing nearby. He calls out for them and asks them to help him get up the scaffold. Dimmesdale bravely stands on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl and publicly acknowledges that he is Pearl's father. He dies in that scene, but he dies in peace knowing that his mercy lies in God's hands.

Very similar to the purpose that the Puritans used the scaffold for, other super natural occurrences or objects were also seen as religious events. For example, the meteor illuminating the sky at night forming the letter A was symbolic to the characters in the story. Dimmesdale sees this sign as a sign of his own secret sin. The community saw this sign as a sing that the Governor Winthrop has died and has become an angel.

Pearl is also a very significant symbol in the novel. Pearl is the symbol of Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale's forbidden love. She is the fruit of their immoral love affair. Like the scarlet letter A, Pearl is a constant reminder to Hester of her shame and sin. Pearl is "the scarlet letter endowed with life!' But despite of this Hester's "first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom" was her reaction when she stood on the scaffold the first time. Pearl also represents "the great price" that Hester will pay for her sin. Pearl is the only thing of value that Hester has in her life.

The most important symbol in this story is the scarlet letter A. This symbol can have several different meanings depending on the context of the story. This letter is given to Hester as a symbol of her adultery. The purpose of this letter is to publicly punish and humiliate her. For Hester the letter stands for her agony and loneliness. She is an outcast of the Puritan society. For seven years Hester lives isolated from the town. She lives alone with her child in the outskirts of the town. As the years pass by and as she is more involved in helping the sick, the people forget the actual meaning of the letter. The town people now see the letter as a symbol of an able person and not a sinner.