THE SCARLET LETTER Themes, Symbols, and Imagery IMAGERY: LIGHT AND DARK The interplay of light and darkness is fundamental in the novel. Hawthorne “shadows” every scene: The mingling of light and shadow gives the book visual imagery that alludes to the larger, grander conflict between good and evil. IMAGERY: LIGHT AND DARK Consider Pearl’s wise observation in Chapter 21, regarding Dimmesdale: “What a strange, sad man is he! In the dark nighttime he calls us to him, and holds thy hand and mine, as when we stood with him on the scaffold yonder! And in the deep forest, where only the old trees can hear and the strip of sky sees it, he talks with thee…and he kisses my forehead, too…But here, in the sunny day, and among all the people, he knows us not; nor must we know him!” IMAGERY: LIGHT AND DARK Sunlight and daylight can be seen as the equivalent of openness, honesty, and goodness. Nighttime and shadow represent concealment, secrets, and evil. But wildness and evil are not necessarily identical. The forest, where Indians and the Black man dwell, is also the abode of nature. IMAGERY: LIGHT AND DARK As Pearl notes, in town, Dimmesdale can mount the scaffold and enact a mock penance only in darkest night. He can freely be himself with Hester only in the forest. And in the heart of the forest’s darkness, sunshine bursts through as if to support the lovers’ liberty. The forest, for all of its shadows, is the symbol of the human heart and inner self. If the settlement stands for society, it appears to be a society that neglects or even outlaws the human heart. IMAGERGY: LIGHT AND DARK What emerges is a novel built on a world of symbolic contrasts. Every scene can become a symbol or metaphor. THEMES: THE SCARLET LETTER Literary themes are the insight an author presents to the reader about life or human nature. Broader themes Good v. Evil Psychological effects of sin Individuals in relationship to Puritan community Hypocrisy Revenge SYMBOLS: THE SCARLET LETTER The scarlet letter “A” Symbolizes the function of the human will as the critical element in the contest between the dark of the devil’s domain and the sunshine of God’s virtue. Its human incarnation is Pearl, Hester’s daughter. SYMBOLISM: THE SCARLET LETTER A = adultery: But is the issue really adultery? Hester did not knowingly cheat on her husband, whom she thought was dead. The bigger issue addressed is the effects of sin. The sin, committed before the story begins, involves four central characters and leads to further sins. The novel raises questions: What secrets are hidden in the human heart? Who, really, is righteous, and who is a sinner? THE PURITANS: KEY CONTEXT FOR THE SCARLET LETTER The scarlet letter that Hester wears over her bosom is as important for the community as it is for the other central characters. The community is measured by the letter as much as the principle characters. First, when humankind tries to evade its sinful legacy by constructing social institutions that “outlaw” sin, the results are usually disastrous. Our fascination with the sins of others predisposes us to a moralistic outlook on society, as opposed to a moral outlook regarding our individual attitudes and actions: the result is arrogance and hypocrisy. THE PURITANS; KEY CONTEXT FOR THE SCARLET LETTER Hawthorne infers that in their religious zeal, this community tries to legislate morality and eliminate the need for human will. Hester, first by her sin, and then by the depth of her character, demonstrates the importance of the individual’s will as a key element in virtue. Hester proves that free will and choice is the one – and perhaps, the critical element – in living the virtuous life. SYMBOLS: THE SCARLET LETTER When these fundamentals are put together, the tale is clear: Hester, through an effort of the will, manages to love (as defined by the Christian ideal) even though that love is not returned by society. THEMES: THE SCARLET LETTER In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne tries to make us see that: Guilt can destroy a person, body, and soul. The punishment imposed on us by others may not be as destructive as the guilt we experience. THEMES: THE SCARLET LETTER True repentance must come from within. Revenge destroys both the victim and the seeker. Even well-intended secrets and deceptions can lead to destruction. We must have the courage to be true to who we are. It is by recognizing and dealing with our weaknesses that make us stronger. THEMES: THE SCARLET LETTER The choices we make determine who we become. Within each person exists the capacity for both good and evil. People must accept responsibility for their actions or suffer the consequences.