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Symbols, Themes, and Motifs,


The Scarlet Letter - The scarlet letter originally is a symbol of shame but over time it becomes a symbol of identity to Hester. The letter originally means adulterer but over time it becomes to mean able. Pearl, like the letter is a constant physical reminder of Hester's affair with Dimmesdale. The letter seems insignificant when compared with Pearl, a human child, this helps to point out the idea that the system of judgment and punishment in the community is really rather meaningless. It could be perceived that Pearl had been sent from God and the letter is merely a human contrivance, however the instability of the letter's meaning calls into question the ability of symbols for ideological reinforcement.

Pearl - Pearl is a complex character however her main part in the novel is to be a symbol. She is the living version of her mothers scarlet letter and she is the physical consequence of sexual sin. Pearl, although a reminder of her mother sin, also is a blessing to her mother. She represents the passion that led to Hester and Dimmesdale's sin. Pearl's existence gives her mother reason to live boosting her spirits when she feels down and ready to give up, a constant reminder of true love and passion.

The Meteor - The meteor that traces an "A" in the sky on the night that Dimmesdale stands with Hester and Pearl on the scaffold is interpreted differently by those in the community. Dimmesdale views the meteor as a sign that he should also where the mark of shame, however those in the community view the meteor as "Angel" representing that Governor Winthrop has been accepted into Heaven. This confirms the idea that symbols do not always hold the same meaning to all the people who see them.

The Rosebush Next to the Prison Door - The rosebush symbolizes the ability of nature to outlast man's activities.


Identity and Society - Hester is unwilling to leave the town even after she is publicly shamed and forced to wear the Scarlet Letter as a badge of humiliation. This may seem confusing especially since she is not physically imprisoned if she left her colony she would be allowed to remove the letter. However even when the town fathers are considering allowing Hester to remove the letter she reacts with dismay. Hester's behavior results from her desire to find her own identity and not allow others to determine it for her. She views moving away or removing the letter to be an acknowledgment of society's power over her, through the removal of the letter she would be admitting that the letter is a mark of shame and something from which she would like to escape from. Hester makes the decisions to refigure the scarlet letter as a symbol of her experiences and character, her past sin being a part of who she was and she would not deny a part of herself. She integrates her sin into her life.

Reverend Dimmesdale struggles against a socially determined identity, as a minister he is more symbol than just that of a human being. Those around Reverend Dimmesdale viewed him as holy and misinterpreted his anguish as holiness. Only Roger Chillingworth knew the truth. Reverend Dimmesdale never fully understood what Hester had learned, that individuality and strength are gained by quiet self-assertion and reconfiguration, not rejection, or one's assigned identity.

Sin, Knowledge, and the Human Condition - Sin and knowledge are linked to the experience of Hester and Dimmesdale because it recalls the story of Adam and Eve. In both these stories sin results expulsion and suffering. These stories result in knowledge and specifically in the knowledge or what it means to be human. The scarlet letter allows Hester to speculate about her society and herself in a more bold way than anyone else in New England. Reverend Dimmesdale on the other hand, found the burden of his sin gave him sympathy towards mankind, in a way that he felt his heart was in union with theirs. It was this empathy that led to his eloquent and powerful sermons.

Throughout the play Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale contemplate their own sinfulness and try to reconcile it with the way they live. The elders in the Puritan society see earthly experiences as an obstacle on the path to heaven. They view sin as something that is threatening to the community and needs to be punished and suppressed. Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale's experience shows that sinful state can lead to personal growth, sympathy, and understanding of others. However these are qualities that are also shown to be incompatible with a state of purity.

The Nature of Evil - Throughout the novel the characters debate the identity of the "Black Man," or the embodiment of evil. The "Black Man" is associated with Reverend Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, and Mistress Hibbins. It was also thought by some that Pearl was the Devil's child. The characters also try to root out the causes of evil, this causes confusion over the nature and the causes of evil and reveals the problems with the Puritan conception of sin. In the book it is suggested that true evil comes from a close relationship between love and hate. The narrator points on in the novel's last chapter that both love and hate depend on "a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent upon another.". Evil is not present in the lovemaking of Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale and it is not in the cruel ignorance of their Puritan fathers. Rather evil is found in the carefully plotted revenge of Roger Chillingworth, whose love has been perverted. At one point Pearl thinks that Reverend Dimmesdale is the "Black Man" and perhaps she is not entirely wrong because her true father also has perverted his love. He should have loved Pearl however he denies her and refuses to publicly acknowledge her. This denial may be seen as perpetrating evil.


Recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes are called Motifs.

Suggestive Names - The names of the characters in the Scarlet Letter are representative of the characters. Chillingworth is cold and represents the "chill" he brings to Hester and Dimmesdale's lives. "Prynne" rhymes with "sin," while "Dimmesdale" suggests being dim or weak with lack of insight and will, all things which are part of the character of Dimmesdale. The name "Pearl" suggests a biblical symbolism device, "pearl of great price" which means salvation.

Civilization versus the Wilderness - The town and surrounding forest in The Scarlet Letter represent opposing behavioral systems. The town represents civilization, a place that is rule-bound and where everything is done on display and where wrong doings are quickly punished. On the other hand, the forest represents natural rather than human authority, where societal rules do not apply. This aspect makes the forest a play where misbehavior is allowed, for example Mistress Hibbin's midnight rides. The forest also is a place where greater honesty is possible and it provides a place of escape from the repression Of Boston. Hester and Dimmesdale had their loving experience in the woods. Hester's cottage is located on the edge of the forest and the outskirts of town, this is symbolic because her house embodies both the rules of the town and the freedom of the forest. Her home is her place of exile tying it to the authority of the town, however being placed on the outskirts of town makes it a place where she is able to create a life of relative peace for herself.

Night versus Day - The novel emphasizes the alternation between sunlight and darkness in order to organize the plot into two categories: the socially acceptable and the activities that must take place covertly. Daylight makes on vulnerable to punishment as their activities become exposed. Night, enables activities and conceals activities that would otherwise not be possible or tolerated. A perfect example of a night experience that would not be tolerated or possible in the day would be the instance when Dimmesdale's encounters Hester and Pearl on the scaffold. Night is the time when people can show their true inner nature. During the day people are force to hide their true inner nature in order to be accepted by societies rules, secrets remain secrets.

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