The Use of Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Convey Hypocrisy and Society’s Treatment of Outcasts

Category: Culture
Last Updated: 02 Apr 2023
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The Scarlet Letter Essay In the novel, The Scarlet Letter, the author, Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts major themes of the book through usage of various symbols. By utilizing symbolism, Hawthorne portrays humanity’s disposition towards those rejected by society and the effects of being an outcast, along with other various meanings conveyed in Hawthorne’s novel. The most obvious symbol, and the most important, is the scarlet letter that Hester is burdened to wear due to her conviction of adultery. Such symbols convey an intriguing message of hypocrisy that lies beyond the naked eye.

Through his use of symbolism, a hidden message portraying hypocrisy is revealed line after line. Early in the novel, as the crowd awaits Hester to emerge, Hawthorne vividly describes a prison in which the puritan disciplinary system is symbolized. Hawthorne writes that “... whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness”(Hawthorne 45) the founders hoped to achieve, but “Hawthorne deflates the tradition of American dreams of Utopia and new social orders”(Pearl) by pointing out that both a cemetery and a prison were among the first structures to be built.

However, Puritan society is based on religious enlightenment, yet despite their morals, the first structure to be built in Boston was a prison, a place of punishment, darkness, and sin. Puritan morals expect tranquility within the society and to surely repress sin, but by building a prison, they almost antagonize sin to be committed as the prison proves to be “... borne the black flower of civilized society... ” (Hawthorne 46). The prison symbolizes corrupt society plagued by hypocrisy within the religious system as it defies puritan beliefs of a sin-free environment by bringing darkness upon social life in Boston.

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Hawthorne brings light upon the darkness by contrasting the prison with a rose bush that “.... had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally over-shadowed it ,- or whether, as there is fair authority for believing.. ” (46). The rose bush signified “Sweet moral blossom” (46) that emerged from the hypocrisy of Puritan society. Hawthorne makes several reference to the rose bush throughout the novel as in chapter 8 when pearl claims she was “plucked by her mother off the bush of wild red roses that grew by the prison door”(102).

Salvation for the prisoners is depicted by the rose bush, this symbolizes that Pearl is the key to salvation for both Hester and Dimmesdale. Pearl was born through an act of sin, as she lives in a world of sin she must be sanctified along with serving as salvation to all the characters as she represents light among darkness. To truly understand the nature of Hawthorne’s symbolism used to depict hypocrisy, one must understand the meaning of the infamous Scarlet Letter “A”. Throughout the novel, the scarlet letter “takes on several different meanings” (Pearl) for each of the characters.

For the public, the letter is “taking Hester out of the ordinary relations with humanity and inclosing her in a sphere by herself”(51). Due to Hawthorne’s unique usage of symbolism “... we are invited to enter a separate sphere, where both imagination and moral growth can occur”(Pearl). As Hester becomes accustomed to wearing the lettter, the meaning of the “A” gradually transcends from meaning “adulterer” to symbolizing “able” or “angel”. Apart from symbolizing the obvious, the letter also depicts a major theme of the book, hypocrisy.

Puritans believe that people should not be punished for sin, however the Puritan leaders made Hester face a lifetime of embarrassment by making her wear the letter. Keep in mind these leaders are also the leaders who preach the word of God while condemning Hester revealing their nature of hypocrisy. Hawthorne’s symbolism usage leads the reader to reflect on why followers of a religion that stood for forgiveness would merciless condemn its own for the most rational actions. Symbols portrayed in The Scarlet Letter range from representing the hypocrisy and corruptness of Puritan society, to showing how salvation can exist in a world full of sin.

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The Use of Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Convey Hypocrisy and Society’s Treatment of Outcasts. (2018, Jan 20). Retrieved from

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