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Essay/Term paper: Scarlet letter's use of symbolism to show psychological effects of sin

Essay, term paper, research paper:  The Scarlet Letter

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"The act…gross and brief, and brings loathing after it." This was

said by St. Augustine, regarding immorality. This is discovered to be very

true by the main characters in The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's

story of a woman (Hester) who lives with the Puritans and commits adultery

with the local minister (Dimmesdale). In his novel, Hawthorne shows that

sin, known or unknown to the community, isolates a person from their

community and from God. He shows us this by symbols in nature around

the town, natural symbols in the heavens, and nature in the forest.

First we see two symbols in the town that show how sin isolates people.

In the first chapter we see a plant which stands out, "But on one side of the

portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rosebush, covered…

with its delicate gems" (Hawthorne, 46). This rosebush is like Hester, for it

too stands out as wild and different. She wears her scarlet letter among the

solemnly dressed Puritans as this rosebush wears its scarlet blossoms

amidst a small plot of grass and weeds. They both stand separate from their

surroundings. Later in the book we hear a conversation between

Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth (Hester's unknown husband). They are

discussing the origin of a strange dark plant that Chillingworth discovered. "I

found them growing on a grave which bore no tombstone, nor other memorial

of the dead man, save these ugly weeds that have taken upon themselves to

keep him in remembrance. They grew out of his heart, and typify…some

hideous secret that was buried with him…" (Hawthorne, 127). Here we have

a special case of one who was not discovered by men to have sinned during

their lifetime. However, having avoided punishment in life, this person has

been isolated in death. This person tried to keep wrongdoing a secret, hiding

it within himself. Yet the sins committed could not be kept secret,

evidenced by their final disclosure shortly after death. There remains nothing

honorable to show where this person lies, but rather mutant weeds that grew

out of the blackness of the person's heart. The final resting place of the

wrongdoer has now been separated from other graves as the sins are

manifested by natural powers.

The next area is symbols in the skies. Our first instance occurs during

the second famous scaffold scene. Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl are atop

the scaffold when, "a light gleamed far and wide over all the muffled sky. It

was doubtless caused by one of those meteors…the minister, looking

upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter-the

letter 'A'-marked out in lines of dull red light" (Hawthorn, 150, 152). This is

God's condemnation of the two sinners, most especially Dimmesdale.

Hester has already been discovered and is receiving her punishment by

wearing the scarlet letter branding her as an adulteress and keeping her

socially isolated. Dimmesdale, however, hides his sin from people.

Because of this, heaven here openly condemns him with natural phenomena,

and shows that he is no longer welcome in heaven. Another symbol from

above shows Hester estranged from society. " 'Mother,' said little Pearl, 'the

sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is

afraid of something on your bosom…Stand you here, and let me run and

catch it'…Pearl…did actually catch the sunshine, and stood laughing in the

midst of it…until her mother had drawn almost nigh enough to step into the

magic circle too …As she attempted to do so, the sunshine vanished"

(Hawthorne, 180). This too is a heavenly sign from God. Although Hester is

undergoing punishment, she has never repented (we see this when she later

attempts to get Dimmesdale to run away with her). Because of this, God

will not grace her with his smile of sunshine. Pearl on the other hand, who is

young and pure, is able to freely romp about in it.

Last to be discussed are the natural symbols that we encounter in the

forest. When Hester meets Dimmesdale in the forest, all the sorrow of the

past few years since their sin is brought up. Their natural surroundings begin

to reciprocate their pain, "The boughs were tossing heavily above their heads;

while one solemn old tree groaned dolefully to another, as if telling the sad

story of the pair that sat beneath, or constrained to forebode evil to come"

(Hawthorne, 192). Their sorrow is so intense even the natural world around

them feels the effects. It can sense the unfairness in their situation, how

their society has caused them to either live a lie or deny themselves what

they really want (each other). It also knows that nothing good can come of

this, which is why it forebodes evil. Later on in that same scene, Hester and

Dimmesdale decide to escape together. In a moment of joy, Hester removes

the scarlet letter and tosses it away from herself. "So speaking, she undid

the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom,

threw it to a distance among the withered leaves…With a hand's breadth

further flight it would have fallen into the water, and have given the little brook

another woe to carry onward…But there lay the embroidered letter, glittering

like a lost jewel…" (Hawthorne, 198-199). She thinks she can just cast off

her ignominy, removing guilt as easily as the letter itself is removed. However,

she is not truly repentant for her sins. Rather, she is sorry that she was

caught. When the letter does not reach the river and isn't carried away, it

shows that she is doomed to her shame. She cannot be assimilated into

normal society until she proves herself sorry for what she has done. We later

see this is true as she lives her final years alone in her cottage on the

outskirts of town, still with the scarlet letter affixed to her bosom.

In conclusion, Hawthorne effectively uses symbolism in the preceding

aspects of nature to show how sin leads to isolation. The main sinners of

this novel are constantly set apart from others, and the whole world stands in

disapproval. As St. Augustine noted, the idolatrous act is fleeting, but the

aftereffects are loathed as they cause terrible things, such as isolation. In

our time society is characterized by more and more amoral people.

Progressing until they are "past all moral sense," they eventually give

"themselves over to loose conduct" (Paul, Ephesians 4:19). Such ones, as

well as all of us, should take a lesson from the theme of Hawthorne's novel.

For isolation, terrible enough in itself, is only one of the many effects of sin.

 

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