Light vs. Dark in The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne adds visual imagery with light or shadows that have deeper, even moral meaning in the book The Scarlet Letter. The use of light and darkness is fundamental in the novel and alludes to the larger conflict between good and evil. The light and dark imagery is present throughout the novel in the main characters yet only Hester's character has the juxtaposition of both light and dark surrounding her, sometimes at the same time.
Hester's secret lover Dimmesdale is dark throughout the novel and allows light into his soul only in the last few moments of his life. Dimmesdale is so full of self imposed darkness the real world does not even need to bother punishing him, he punishes himself more. Darkness provides Dimmesdale a place where he can wallow in his guilt and remorse. His character figuratively, and sometimes literally, lives in darkness. Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold at night hiding his sin and concealing his confession from the Puritan society. Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the dark forest and their guilt is reflected in the darkness of nature. While sitting in the forest and talking about their love for one another the sun finally reaches them. The forest is a place where they can hide from the rest of Puritan society and be honest with each other because it is dark and nobody can see them. On the scaffolding where he should have stood seven years ago with Hester a meteor lights up the sky and “they stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendor as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets “(154). Dimmesdale tries to hide his darkness from his daughter, but she is too smart for that. Pearl asks Dimmesdale to stand together in the light of day at noon but he chooses to conceal his sin until later. Dimmesdale after giving the speech of his life is described with the “glow, which they had just before beheld burning on his cheek, was extinguished, like a flame that sinks down hopelessly among the late decaying embers “(246). The light shines on the people of town, but not on him. It is noon, in the daylight, with full exposure when Dimmesdale is finally exposed as Hester’s secret lover. His public confession in the broad light of sunshine is literally in the final moments of his life in the last scene. Dimmesdale helps others repent and forgive their sins in his daily life. Dimmesdale gave into a natural instinct in sleeping with Hester and he is repentant, so it is not as big of a sin. The bright daylight after he revealed his sin purges his sin from him and allows him to escape Chillingworth forever. After his big reveal he dies but even Dimmesdale’s grave is dark “so somber is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow” (254).
Chillingworth has no light, he is the only character consistently associated with darkness, as he is the only truly evil character in the book. Chillingworth even describes himself as a fiend of some kind. He turns into a devil with blue fire in his eyes because he is mining for Dimmesdale's sin. Chillingworth is truly evil because he searches for darkness and sins with no intent to forgive. “Sometimes, a light glimmered out of the physicians eyes, burning blue and ominous, like the reflection of a furnace, or, let us say, like one of those gleams of ghastly fire”(125). Light is evil in Chillingworth’s presence. He tells Hester “let the black flower blossom as it may!”. Even when he talks about telling the truth it is black and dark because in his mind the truth is a dark truth. Revenge has turned him from a boring scholar into a demon from hell fiend whose sole purpose in life is to torture Dimmesdale, and when Dimmesdale is dead he no longer has a reason to live. Roger Chillingworth is a completely dark character. Once the truths are exposed and the main characters are in light, he simply disappears.
Darkness in Pearl is not really evil; it is more about how she repels darkness with her innocent elf like behavior. Pearl is drawn to the light which shows her natural instincts tell the truth. While at the governor's house Pearl notices the beautiful bright sunlight through the windows. She asks that “the sunshine be stripped off its front and given her to play with” (100). Her mother tells her “No my little Pearl. Thou must gather thine own sunshine. I have none to give thee!”(100). Light represents the truth. Pearl constantly reminds Hester of her darkness because she is the human proof of her sin. The sunshine flickers only on Pearl in the deep dark forest. Pearl reminds her mother that the sun will not shine on Hester. Hester and Pearl are in the forests Pearl tells her mother, “The sunshine does not love you because it is a afraid of something on your bosom. It will not flee from me: for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”(180). Pearl is described as “the very brightest little jet of flame that ever danced upon this earth” (98).
Hester is the only character that connects both light and dark. She is often described as both good and evil at the same time. The author describes Hester’s hair as “dark and abundant so glossy it threw off the sunshine with the gleam” (51). She is so lovely that she even creates light with her opulent beauty. When Hester appeared the townspeople “had expected to behold her dimmed and secured by a disastrous cloud” (51) yet in reality “her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune” (51). Hawthorne goes back and forth describing Hester as illuminating and then it talking about the dark mass inside of her. The sun shines on Hester in the dark forest only when she passionately lets down her hair. In the end Hawthorne shows you that the light had outshined the darkness when she turns into a respectable citizen rather than as a disgraced adulterer. After throwing off the Scarlet letter she transforms the dark forest into a light filled place of truth. The clouds spread apart and the sun begins to shine as if nature is supporting her in her decision to throw off the letter. Early in her life she was filled with nothing but light. “She saw her own face, glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating all the interior of the dusky mirror in which he had been wont to gaze at” (56). She chose to marry a malformed older man and her light never dimmed until she gave into temptation after her husband is lost at sea. Being with Dimmesdale was in both light and dark. She loves him so passionately that it feels natural to her.“She thought of the dim forest, with its little Dell of solitude, and love, and anguish, and the mossy tree trunk, where, sitting hand-in-hand, they had mingled their sad and passionate talk” (233). Hester could easily live in the light all the time because she is a character who has repented and is now free of sin. Ultimately Hester chooses to stay in the darkness forever, feeling she deserves no better.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter daylight is the equivalent of honesty and goodness. While the nighttime and darkness represents hidden secrets and evil. After Hester commits adultery she has wrapped herself in darkness. Hester is not evil but sin made her beauty and her light hideaway with guilt. Hester had light inside of her all the time and when Dimmesdale finally confessed the whole world got to share in her lighted beauty. By the end of the novel Hester has moved back to the tiny Puritan town. She cloaks herself in sadness and gloom by choice because she believes good and evil still live inside of her, and she does not deserve to live in the sun.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Perma-Bound, 1988. Print