Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne ‘s " The Scarlet Letter": Interpreted Differently in Different Times


A classic like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter has been interpreted differently in different times. There has been of the shifting critical responses to The Scarlet letter and different point of time. It is evaluated in terms of a realistic work of fiction with an excess of allegorical and symbolic references. Critics have observed it as a romance novel in which allegory and symbolism play a crucial role.

Since The Scarlet Letter is more of a historical romance rather than a realistic novel, the characters tend to be allegorical and symbolical. There are various ways in which scholars have looked upon the characters in the book. While Hester seems to stand for art reflected in her exquisite needle work, Dimmesdale stands for religious due to his dedicated work as a pastor in his parish. While Chillingworth stands for science in his relentless search for herbs and medicines. Pearl stands for nature that is radiant lovable but beyond human control. Taken together, the major characters seem to represent art, religion, science and nature. From another angle, these characters seem to foreshadow the Freudian categories of mind, the id, the Ego and the super-ego.

It is Pearl who seems to stands for the Id and with her wild impulsive nature is governed by the pleasure principle. She always acts according to impulses rather than conscious thoughts. While Pearl stands for the Id, Hester stands for the Ego that is operated largely by the reality principle. Hester is aware of her own self, her Eros and physical needs, but she is also aware of the pressures of external reality, that is the norms of the Puritanic community in mid- seventeenth century New England. She also serves as a bridge and link between Pearl the Id and Dimmesdale the super-ego. It is the priest who represents the social and moral dimension of personality and is always governed by the high ideals of society. Dimmesdale has a pronounced conscience and suffers from terrible sense of guilt and anxiety due to the sin of adultery. It is the dominance of the super-ego in the Priest, and his awareness of the Id with in him, his craving for Hester that gives an adge to the drama of sin and redemption that is unfolded so graphically.

From another allegorical perception, Hester, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth seem to represent heart, soul and mind. As a sister of Charity, Hester is full of compassion and always tries to help to poor and the needy. The narrator makes it clear that Hester stands for heart and as a result she is able to atone for her and is transformed into able nun serving humanity. Dimmesdale is a priest and seems to stands for the soul. He does care for the soul of others and he is also tormented by his conscience. His antagonist, chilling worth is, however, primarily governed by his mind. His cold, calculating mind, utterly divorced from his heart stifles his noble impulses as a physician dedicated to the profession of heading.

The creativity of writer does not lie in a photographic reproduction of the surface aspects of humdrum reality but in his capacity to penetrate below the surface and bring out obliquely the dark truths lying buried in our consciousness. While the Actual is transformed into something strange and dreamlike the Imaginary is made concrete and tangible through symbols. To cite an example, the red letter A fixed on the bosom of Hester Prynne becomes a sacred object that sums up the entire like destiny of a sinful woman in Puritan-dominated New England. It also seems to encompass the myopia, intolerance and cruelly of the Puritan community in colonial America.

If the scaffold of the pillory is symbol of suffering in the puritan English, the forest outside the tome is believed to be the abode of the Blackman, a sort of utopia where the priest will attain supreme happiness and bliss. The wilderness of the new world seems to be tempting to Hester than the cities of the old world. Further the forest symbolically stands for different meaning for different persons.

While keeping in mind the modernist temper F.O. Matthiessen focused attention on the structure of The Scarlet Letter and the importance of the three scaffold scenes, Yvor Winters laid stress on the strange nature of the fiction created by Hawthorne. He said, “In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne created an allegorical view of life upon which early Puritan society was based.” How Thorne is a poet father than an allegorist and his writing is allegorical, it is to be regarded ‘as an expanded metaphor.’ Nina Baym quotes that the most exciting thing about The Scarlet Letter is not that we can translate it into a core meaning, but that it is full of meanings. The difficulty of a final interpretation of The Scarlet Letter arises from the mulct dimensional, complex symbolical metaphoric density of the text. The elusiveness of the text is thus the essential reason for its continuous fascination throughout the years.



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