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Essay/Term paper: The scarlet letter: darkness illuminated

Essay, term paper, research paper:  The Scarlet Letter

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The Scarlet Letter: Darkness Illuminated

Since the conception of humanity, man has been fascinated with that
presence which illuminates, yet cannot be touched. Mankind has brought it into
his religions, giving it a great deal of importance in his creed. Following in
the footsteps of his ancestors, Nathaniel Hawthorne uses light as a tool of God
that illuminates the darkness of human iniquity and exposes its permanence. He
studies the psychological theme of the impossibility of eradicating sin from the
human heart in his novel The Scarlet Letter. The use of light in order to
fortify this psychological theme confirms its significance in the novel. As
though he were weaving an elaborate tapestry, Hawthorne meshes light's intense
symbolism into his characters' natures until a chef d'oeuvre manifests itself
upon the loom of the reader's intellect. This tapestry serves as a subtle
background upon which the characters' sinful hearts are bared.
As Hawthorne navigates the reader through the passages of his dark tale,
one follows Hester as she goes to Governor Bellingham's mansion. Light is
reflected by almost every aspect of the extravagant dwelling. Through the
narrator's words, we see the Governor's house as Hester sees it: "...though
partly muffled by a curtain, it [the hallway] was more powerfully illuminated by
one of those embowed hall windows..." (Hawthorne 101). One can envision the
brilliant sunlight streaming though the immense window, slicing through the
facade of the Governor's feigned sanctity. Is not simplicity one of the
fundamental tenets of the Puritan faith? Yet Bellingham, the very person that
passed judgment on Hester and her sin is laid bare to the reader's opened eye.
Here, light shows Governor Bellingham to be corrupt due to his improvident
In his genius, Hawthorne defines light not only as a presence, but as an
animate consciousness. Still acting as a tool of God, light seems to run away
from Hester when she tries to touch it. Pearl, in her inexplicable
intuitiveness, says to Hester, "...the sunshine does not love you. It runs away
and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom" (Hawthorne
180). Although Pearl makes this comment concerning the scarlet "A", one may
argue that the sunlight is actually afraid of Hester's sin, and not the scarlet
"A". In this case, light is used to remind Hester of her sin and to bring it
to the front of her mind as punishment for her adultery.
Not only does light show Hester's sin to herself, it shows her sin to
others as well. Near the end of the story, Mistress Hibbins speaks with Hester,
"I know thee, Hester; for I behold the token. We may all see it in the
sunshine; and it glows like a red flame in the dark" (Hawthorne 237). By
shining on the palpable reminder of Hester's sin, the sunlight screams to others
of the scarlet letter's noncorporeal counterpart: her immorality. Though the
scarlet "A" is intrinsically only a superficial indication of Hester's sin,
Mistress Hibbins goes beyond this surface detail when she says, "I know thee",
implying that she perceives the immutable nature of Hester's sin. Light
can expose not only exterior indications of human sin, but can also make known
the sin itself.
Hawthorne leaves the reader with a crystal clear picture of how light is
a brutal reminder of man's permanent sin. It cuts, pierces, even shatters the
masks which man tries to place over his sin. Man no longer falls on his knees
in awe of the dazzling lightning bolt or the godlike rays of sunlight through
misty clouds. He no longer regards light as a magical deity to be worshipped.
Despite this, Hawthorne again bestows upon light its original glory as a thing
of God. Its role remains constant as an exhibitor of iniquity, a spotlight
lancing into the sordid darkness of mankind's damned souls.


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