Scarlet Letter's Use Of Symbolism To Show Psychological Effects Of Sin
"The act |gross and brief, and brings loathing after it." This was said by St. Augustine, regarding immorality. This is discovered to be very true by the main characters in The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's story of a woman (Hester) who lives with the Puritans and commits adultery with the local minister (Dimmesdale). In his novel, Hawthorne shows that sin, known or unknown to the community, isolates a person from their community and from God. He shows us this by symbols in nature around the town, natural symbols in the heavens, and nature in the forest.
First we see two symbols in the town that show how sin isolates people. In the first chapter we see a plant which stands out, "But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rosebush, covered | with its delicate gems" (Hawthorne). This rosebush is like Hester, for it too stands out as wild and different. She wears her scarlet letter among the solemnly dressed Puritans as this rosebush wears its scarlet blossoms amidst a small plot of grass and weeds. They both stand separate from their surroundings. Later in the book we hear a conversation between Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth (Hester's unknown husband). They are discussing the origin of a strange dark plant that Chillingworth discovered. "I found them growing on a grave which bore no tombstone, nor other memorial of the dead man, save these ugly weeds that have taken upon themselves to keep him in remembrance. They grew out of his heart, and typify |some hideous secret that was buried with him |" (Hawthorn). Here we have a special case of one who was not discovered by men to have sinned during their lifetime. However, having avoided punishment in life, this person has been isolated in death. This person tried to keep wrongdoing a secret, hiding it within himself. Yet the sins committed could not be kept secret, evidenced by their final disclosure shortly after death. There remains nothing honorable to show where this person lies, but rather mutant weeds that grew out of the blackness of the person's heart. The final resting place of the wrongdoer has now been separated from other graves as the sins are manifested by natural powers.
The next area is symbols in the skies. Our first instance occurs during the second famous scaffold scene. Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl are atop the scaffold when, "a light gleamed far and wide over all the muffled sky. It was doubtless caused by one of those meteors |the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter-the letter 'A'-marked out in lines of dull red light" (Hawthorn). This is God's condemnation of the two sinners, most especially Dimmesdale. Hester has already been discovered and is receiving her punishment by wearing the scarlet letter branding her as an adulteress and keeping her socially isolated. Dimmesdale, however, hides his sin from people. Because of this, heaven here openly condemns him with natural phenomena, and shows that he is no longer welcome in heaven. Another symbol from above shows Hester estranged from society. " 'Mother,' said little Pearl, 'the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom |Stand you here, and let me run and catch it' |Pearl |did actually catch the sunshine, and stood laughing in the midst of it |until her mother had drawn almost nigh enough to step into the magic circle too |As she attempted to do so, the sunshine vanished" (Hawthorne). This too is a heavenly sign from God. Although Hester is undergoing punishment, she has never repented (we see this when she later attempts to get Dimmesdale to run away with her). Because of this, God will not grace her with his smile of sunshine. Pearl on the other hand, who is young and pure, is able to freely romp about in it.
Last to be discussed are the natural symbols that we encounter in the forest. When Hester meets Dimmesdale in the forest, all the sorrow of the past few years since their sin is brought up. Their natural surroundings begin to reciprocate their pain, "The boughs were tossing heavily above their heads; while one solemn old tree groaned dolefully to another, as if telling the sad story of the pair that sat beneath, or constrained to forebode evil to come" (Hawthorne). Their sorrow is so intense even the natural world around them feels the effects. It can sense the unfairness in their situation, how their society has caused them to either live a lie or deny themselves what they really want (each other). It also knows that nothing good can come of this, which is why it forebodes evil. Later on in that same scene, Hester and Dimmesdale decide to escape together. In a moment of joy, Hester removes the scarlet letter and tosses it away from herself. "So speaking, she undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves |With a hand's breadth further flight it would have fallen into the water, and have given the little brook another woe to carry onward |But there lay the embroidered letter, glittering like a lost jewel |" (Hawthorn). She thinks she can just cast off her ignominy, removing guilt as easily as the letter itself is removed. However, she is not truly repentant for her sins. Rather, she is sorry that she was caught. When the letter does not reach the river and isn't carried away, it shows that she is doomed to her shame. She cannot be assimilated into normal society until she proves herself sorry for what she has done. We later see this is true as she lives her final years alone in her cottage on the outskirts of town, still with the scarlet letter affixed to her bosom.
In conclusion, Hawthorne effectively uses symbolism in the preceding aspects of nature to show how sin leads to isolation. The main sinners of this novel are constantly set apart from others, and the whole world stands in disapproval. As St. Augustine noted, the idolatrous act is fleeting, but the aftereffects are loathed as they cause terrible things, such as isolation. In our time society is characterized by more and more amoral people. Progressing until they are "past all moral sense," they eventually give "themselves over to loose conduct" (Paul, Ephesians 4:19). Such ones, as well as all of us, should take a lesson from the theme of Hawthorne's novel. For isolation, terrible enough in itself, is only one of the many effects of sin.