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Symbols and allegories in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romance The Scarlett Letter: distinctions and functions

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The article is dedicated to symbols and allegories in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romance The Scarlet Letter. We formulate the essential distinctions between two literary devices and analyse their functions. Many symbols can be found in nature depicted in the romance. Moreover, some personages are endowed with symbolical meaning that goes beyond the plot and points out ‘other reality’. What is most remarkable is that a variety of perspectives plays a significant role in turning a character into a symbol.
We can regard Hester Prynne as a symbol and a round character at the same time. On the contrary, her daughter Pearl seems to be a literary symbol throughout the book. Allegorical characters lack the features that are essential for symbols. The most important among them are ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning. Allegories are an effective ‘tool’ for an intrusive narrator who tends to explain many ideas to his reader.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romance The Scarlet Letter is one of the most prominent examples of mature American Romanticism. This artistic trend was developed by specific rules in comparison with European literature. Firstly, the appearance of Romanticism in the United States of America coincided with the formation of national literature itself. Secondly, these literary works were featured by closer connection with reality. Even the most fantastic plot combined with everyday-life scenes.
The romance as a genre of literary Romanticism was an ideal form for an embodiment of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s creative ideas. As any representative of Romanticism Hawthorne uses the techniques typical for this trend – allegories and symbols. The most important is that a symbolic and a clear discourse have ‘equal rights’ in narrative structure of the work. It is obvious, for example, that the introductory part, ‘The Custom House’, is more a realistic story than a tall tale. Nevertheless, allegorical and symbolical elements are a noteworthy part of the romance. We have chosen them as the main objects of our article.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a descendant of the Puritans who thought that earthly existence is a reflection of the doctrine of predestination. There are the roots of Hawthorne’s inclination to symbolical interpretation of reality in this belief.
There were many theorists of a literary symbol since the end of the nineteenth-century. Among them are С. Jung, A. Symons, A. Guber, E. Cassirer, A. Losev, T. Todorov, N. Frye. Arthur Symons wrote about a literary symbol in 1899: ‘Gradually the word extended its meaning until it came to denote every conventional representation of idea by form, of the unseen by the visible’ (Symons, 1919, 2).
The scarlet letter is the core symbol of the romance. The personages’ deciphering towards it differs. Moreover, some protagonists are also symbols and in this case the interaction between the characters and ‘a specially evocative kind of image’ (Baldick, 2001, 251) will be particularly noteworthy.
The fact is there is usually a generalized approach towards symbols in the Scarlet Letter in various scientific studies. The unique significance of our work is to give classification of different kinds of symbols in the romance and counter this literary method to other ones. Using this comparison, it will be easier to show special advantages of the literary device in accomplishing specific writer’s goals.
Hester Prynne is a protagonist in The Scarlet Letter. Her status is major and complicated at the same time. First of all, Hester Prynne is the only round character in the romance. In fact, the most dynamic thing in a static nature of the plot is the transformations of the heroine. Furthermore, each personage is linked with the main symbol ─ the scarlet letter ─ which has many variations. It seems that this token saturates and captures some separate parts of the narrative. Thanks to narrative technique, the emblem ‘A’ on Hester Prynne’s gown eventually blends with her personality. From this point of view, Hester Prynne is not only an independent character but a distinct symbol.
According to the theory of Russian literary critic A. F. Losev, there are two main groups of symbols – ‘simple’ and ‘artistic’. He claims that: ‘[…] Художественность хотя часто и сопутствует символам и эмблемам, но вовсе для них не обязательна и не существенна’ (‘[…] Though artistry frequently accompanies some symbols and emblems it is not obligatory and essential for them’; Losev, 1995, 122). He continues by assertion: ‘Также и художественная образность не есть обязательно символизация, хотя ничто не мешает писателю нагрузить свои художественные образы той или иной символикой’ (‘Imagery is not obligatory symbolization though nothing prevents a writer to charge his images with some symbols’; Losev, 118). Thus we can call Hester Prynne ‘an artistic symbol’.
From gloomy and hostile puritans’ point of view Hester is an adulteress and the whore of Babylon. That is why from the first pages of the romance the letter ‘A’ becomes a symbol of adultery. It is noteworthy that author himself sometimes ‘helps’ his readers clearly decoding the significance of the token. We can consider the implied author of The Scarlet Letter an intrusive narrator who occasionally destroys some potential symbols and turns them into allegory by his unambiguous remarks. ‘Unlike the oral performer of the epic, who was a perpetual recounter and preserver of historical events, the narrator of the Scarlet letter orchestrates an investigation into the moral implications of events.’ (Bayer, 1980, 256). This is only one of the examples: ‘Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful passion.’
Hawthorne shows that an attitude of the same system of personages towards the symbol changes. Since Hester Prynne manages to win the respect of citizens by her labor and talent, somber Bostonians begin to interpret the scarlet letter as the first letter of the word ‘able’ and forget the previous description. In addition, the narrator does not hesitate to thoroughly explain this transformation: ‘The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her,--so much power to do, and power to sympathize,--that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength’ (Hawthorne, 137; The Chapter XIII).
However, this interpretation of the scarlet letter is not the last one. Hester opposes the society and keeps her distance. Gradually the environment perceives her as a recluse and a ‘rebel’. A grey crowd does not accept and does not try to understand the bright personality. From this moment the scarlet letter on the gown symbolizes living in exile and spiritual loneliness. ‘A’ turns into the first letter of the word ‘alienation’. It is significant that this meaning of the symbol is presented implicitly – a reader has to guess this new shift.
Moreover, some inhabitants of Boston, who earlier severely stigmatized Hester Prynne, treat her at last as a symbol of kindness thanks to her mercifulness and compassion for people: ‘Individuals in private life, meanwhile, had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay, more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin, for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since’ (Hawthorne, 137; The Chapter XIII).
The key method in this imaginative world of Nathaniel Hawthorne is that an unambiguous emblem has chances to become a symbol depending on which narrative perspective we deal with. The fact is each character interprets the symbol differently whereas narrator’s point of view may distinguish from personages’ opinions. Therefore, Hester Prynne can be considered an artistic symbol because of variety of perceptions and insights in this romance.
For Hester Prynne herself the scarlet letter is only the emblem of shame in the beginning of the romance. The strengths of her character were not evinced then. She did not feel free from the pressure of a crowd despite the fact that she ventured to ‘rebel’ decorating the red cloth with elaborate embroidery. This token is only a reminder of adultery for her. Furthermore, she obtains a sort of mystical vision and henceforth sees a secret sin in the souls of strangers. For the narrator Hester Prynne’s behavior is a reason for some philosophical reflections. He interferes in the text and analyses Hester’s state of mind: ‘O Fiend, whose talisman was that fatal symbol, wouldst thou leave nothing, whether in youth or age, for this poor sinner too?’ (Hawthorne, 74; The Chapter V).
However, afterwards Hester Prynne feels that the scarlet letter evolves in the greatest salvation because she finds a deep harmony with the world by over-emphasizing her sin. A constant suffering helps her to atone the misconduct. It seems that the author especially highlights this interpretation of the symbol from the eight chapter. The emblem of shame suddenly disappears - the scarlet letter surprisingly becomes the symbol of redemption and trust. Hester Prynne starts to think of her future happier life. She wants to set herself free and believes that her bright token helps her to do this.
Though the plot is static (there are almost no actions in the romance) we can consider Hester Prynne a round character. The fact is this heroine is not predictable. She does not totally obey to the rules of the Puritan community and stands out from the crowd thanks to her physical appearance and inner life. Considering this fact, we can conclude that this character goes beyond the boundaries of many images of women of the seventeenth-century and approaches to some heroines of the nineteenth and twentieth-century who struggle for their rights and sought to change the social order. And this is one of the obvious proofs of a symbolical nature of this character. Aleksandr Guber - one of the first theorists of a literary symbol – believes that a symbol is characterized by ‘взаимопроникновение образа и значения, тождество общего и особого’ (‘interaction of a character and a meaning, identity of total and individual’; Guber, 1927, 130).
Notwithstanding the moral code of Puritans Hester Prynne relieves herself from feeling of guilt. One of the most important episodes of the book is the scene in the forest where Hester Prynne tries to persuade Arthur Dimmesdale to escape from a musty atmosphere of a town. Her beloved does not fully understand her and is even afraid of her inspiration, unimaginable at that time. The narrator tends to explain a historical background here: ‘The world's law was no law for her mind…She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatised by the scarlet letter’ (Hawthorne, 139; The Chapter XIII).
How does Hester Prynne understand freedom? Freedom is, above all things, an insubordination and an internal revolt. The scarlet letter taught Hester to understand nature of a sin and, what is more important, to realize ambiguity of people’s attitude and comprehension of it. She grasps that a society does not always judge impartially. This awareness overwhelmed and transformed her. The heroine’s conversation with her husband Roger Chillingworth is the proof of this change. Hester Prynne is convinced that revenge and obsession with punishment is a heavier sin than adultery. Eventually the scarlet letter for Hester Prynne is a kind of secret knowledge, the symbol of enlightenment, awakening and liberty: ‘The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread’ (Hawthorne, 139; The Chapter XIII). The character of Hester Prynne personifies a core motif of American literary Romanticism – a confrontation of a protagonist against his environment. Oddly enough, the narrator does not allow his main character to get away from antagonistic surroundings, despite the fact that the scarlet letter opens the world of freedom to Hester Prynne. The heroine unexpectedly reconciles herself with Boston and humbly puts on the emblem of disgrace again though the bystanders do not associate the letter with this meaning anymore.
There are two personages whose attitude towards the letter is deliberately emphasized. These are Roger Chillingworth obsessed with revenge and an enchanting little Pearl. For the former the scarlet letter is not only a symbol of depravity but also an embodied and supernatural instrument of punishment. He perceives only one meaning of the letter and is not able to understand Hester’s perception that she has got by the days of ordeal and labor. Roger has no doubt that his interpretation is the only correct.
A little Pearl denies all the grim concepts of the symbol. She is very young and cheerful and the token excites her curiosity and causes positive emotions. She believes that the scarlet letter is a part of natural life and even is waiting for it. She wonders: ‘Will not it come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?’ (Hawthorne, 156; The Chapter XVI).
It is significant that we can consider Hester Prynne a symbol even beyond the connection with the scarlet letter. At the beginning of the romance the author compares a beautiful woman to Madonna. At the last pages the narrator emphasizes a new role of this woman – to become a prophetess for a new generation. This book is permeated with belief that the dark days of Puritanism will end. The country is on the verge of spiritual revival and Hester Prynne is a herald of it. However the narrator is quite inconsistent because he immediately withdraws this high mission for the protagonist: ‘Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow’ (Hawthorne, 223; The Chapter XXIV).
Therefore, it is possible to regard Hester Prynne with the scarlet letter on her gown as an artistic symbol primarily because of the other characters’ perspectives. We cannot interpret the scarlet letter only as an emblem of disgrace because many deeds of the heroine change the spectators’ attitude towards her badge.
Furthermore the scarlet letter is the symbol for Hester Prynne herself. This is confirmed by her ambivalent regard on her sign. She passes through different stages of understanding her fate. The scarlet letter is shame, repentance, salvation and torture for Hester Prynne. At the climax (the scene in the forest and the discussion with Hester Prynne and Roger Chillingworth) the scarlet letter becomes for the heroine a symbol of true freedom – the interpretation that is comprehensible only to her and Pearl. In contrast with her daughter, for whom freedom is a natural condition, Hester Prynne comes to this understanding by a severe trial.
Pearl is another very important character in the romance. Her symbolism distinguishes from Hester Prynne’s. In comparison with Hester Prynne, Pearl is more an idea of various meanings than a traditional literary character.
A little daughter of Hester Prynne is the most cheerful character in the romance. From the first pages of the book she stands out from a Puritan society – initially by her bright clothes and then by her indomitable spirit, cleverness and ability to intuitively distinguish truth from falsehood. Moreover, it is not a coincidence that we can behold a word ‘intelligent’ referred to her many times in the narrator’s discourse and in some dialogues of the personages.
We have found out that Hester Prynne carries out two functions in the romance. She is a round character and an artistic symbol. However, Pearl is only an artistic symbol from the beginning to the end. We can make this conclusion according to the narrative technique. We perceive Pearl as somebody incomprehensible and mystical from the very outset. She is an unexplored world for both the narrator and other characters. Matthew Gartner claims: ‘Pearl does not entirely leave off her life as a letter and become fully endowed with human life until the final scene on the scaffold […]’ (Gartner, 1995, 141). The Bostonians are not able to comprehend the nature of Pearl. She is only ‘a demon offspring’ in their eyes. For Hester herself her daughter is ‘a spirit’. She is even a little bit afraid of Pearl’s independence and vitality: ‘Brooding over all these matters, the mother felt like one who has evoked a spirit, but, by some irregularity in the process of conjuration, has failed to win the master-word that should control this new and incomprehensible intelligence’ (Hawthorne, 76; The Chapter VI). The pastor John Wilson calls her an ‘elf’ what is repeated by the narrator who gives one of the chapters the title ‘The elf-child and the minister’.
But what else does Pearl symbolize except a personification of a mysterious extraordinary creature? Pearl symbolizes different things in the same way as the attitude towards the scarlet Letter changes from another perspective. Foremost Pearl is an animated scarlet letter and the symbol of sin for all the inhabitants. Nevertheless, Hester Prynne is not inclined to interpret her emblem as an instrument of a moral punishment. That is why she finds in Pearl her main salvation. Hester dresses a child in bright red color disregarding the Puritan moral code of behavior. The narrator points out that life of Hester Prynne would lose its meaning without Pearl: ‘See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a million-fold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall not take her! I will die first’ (Hawthorne, 76; The Chapter VI).
Pearl resembles her mother in many ways. But the difference between these two characters is that Pearl has such traits since birth which are unreachable to Hester Prynne. Pearl does not know what a word ‘sin’ means. She is not aware of pangs of conscience and does not suffer from public opinion. What is most remarkable is that she is not scared to be free. Hester Prynne, born in a strict Puritan society, is eager for freedom but is not capable to break irrevocably the link between past and future. Pearl does not face any dilemma; she is free and serene from the beginning until the end. Hester Prynne experiences a significant change – she loses her radiant beauty due to hard labour and moral suffering. Whereas Pearl’s charm and loveliness are constant. Hester is afraid of her own child because she sees in her, as if in a mirror, the reflections of her feelings and troubles that she is not able to cope with.
Pearl with her brightness and internal independence becomes a symbol of true liberty and emancipation that a woman will gain many years later. In addition, Pearl is also a symbol of riot against the society that judge without mercy. What’s more important, this is not an acquired characteristic (as in Hester Prynne’s case) but an innate and fundamental trait of Pearl. That is why Pearl feels great in the forest – the nature favours a little harmonious creature thanks to her genuineness.
Pearl personifies an acute thirst for justice too. This feeling reveals itself in full measure in a famous scene at the scaffold. At the moment when her secret father pastor Dimmesdale refuses to stand near her mother in the market place Pearl explodes with anger feeling cowardice and hypocrisy. As far as nervous and week Arthur Dimmesdale is concerned Pearl is only a materialized conscience. She constantly reminds him of an inevitable punishment for the sin he tries to hide throughout all the romance.
A vivid and genuine Pearl is an artistic symbol hinting at the arrival of true freedom not only for a woman but also for humanity as a whole. This symbol suggests that a natural and unrestrained aspiration for sincerity, independence and love ought to triumph.
A murky mysterious forest plays an important role in the book. There is a meeting between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne in the forest, and this is the climax of the storyline. The narrator very often uses an epithet ‘dark’ referring to this place. In contrast with many static symbols (a wild rosebush, the sсaffold, the meteor) the forest is depicted in the details and accompanies the reader throughout the romance. Moreover, the author entitles one chapter ‘A Forest walk’. It gives the reader insight into comprehension of this symbol.
A forest walk of Hester Prynne and Pearl among mysterious and somber trees is penetrated with tense and enigmatic atmosphere. Nature is not only a backdrop to the story in this fragment. The dark paths of the forest turn into a symbol of the spiritual quest.
It is predictable that certain personages of the romance perceive the forest in different ways. This symbol is deliberately ambivalent – it hints at kindness and evil simultaneously. For example, the forest’s paths embody a road to liberty for Hester Prynne. She is looking for new discoveries; she wants to go away from Puritan way of life. Mistress Hibbins (‘an old witch’ as the author calls her), on the contrary, believes that the forest is the darkest place because the Black man (that is the devil) lives there. Hester Prynne is not free from these prejudices either – she trusts in this connection and treats the forest as an unrevealed secret. A cheerful and untroubled Pearl cannot even imagine that the forest is perilous. She is in deep harmony with nature and enjoys being among the majestic trees. The narrator himself obviously emphasizes that the forest is the second home for Pearl: ‘The truth seems to be, however, that the mother-forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child’ (Hawthorne, 175; The Chapter XVIII). Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, burdened with suffering and painful memories, can breathe freely only in this secluded spot. As far as Pearl is concerned, the forest is just another good place for merry games. She does not find mystique and bleakness there: ‘The great black forest--stern as it showed itself to those who brought the guilt and troubles of the world into its bosom--became the playmate of the lonely infant, as well as it knew how’ (Hawthorne, 173; The Chapter XVIII).
The brook in the forest is also serving as a symbol. We can draw a parallel between its flow and the tide of Hester Prynne’s life. The brook is melancholic and a little bit gloomy like a young woman: ‘Pearl resembled the brook, inasmuch as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as mysterious, and had flowed through scenes shadowed as heavily with gloom. But, unlike the little stream, she danced and sparkled, and prattled airily along her course’ (Hawthorne, 157; The Chapter XVI).
A literary symbol is always polysemantic. On the one hand, the brook is a dark secret and a grim asylum. On the other hand, this is a sign of a life itself filled with joy and bliss or with sorrow and heartache depending on a person’s state of mind. Hester Prynne says to Pearl: “If thou hadst a sorrow of thine own, the brook might tell thee of it,” answered her mother, “even as it is telling me of mine’ (Hawthorne, 159; The Chapter XVI). Anyway it is hard to believe that Pearl will treat the forest and the brook the same way even after many years of trouble…
Examining such artistic symbols as Hester Prynne and Pearl, we have often used the words ‘a prophetess’, ‘a nunciate’, ‘future’ and so on. These are ‘the marks’ of a literary symbol. They prove that such images go beyond a plot and some remarks of the author and his literary work as a whole. Symbols point at another world and let us see a thing in a new perspective. It should be perceived intuitively rather than by listening to reason. However, in Arthur Dimmesdale’s case we cannot assert that this character stands for something else. He remains in the circle of his usual Puritan views about sin and punishment. The idea of a resistance does not come to his mind. ‘Because Arthur perceives the world entirely through moral categories, he must see himself in just the same way as the crowd perceived Hester in the first scaffold scene: he is a sinner, nothing more.’ (Hunt, URL:
We can consider Arthur Dimmesdale to be a static flat character. The author stresses the traits of character that are very close to each other – cowardice, lack of willpower and apathy. Did Nathaniel Hawthorne want to make from the pastor an allegory of pusillanimity and weakness presenting an embodiment of an unrepentant sinner? The first part of the book makes us believe in it: ‘The only truth, that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth, was the anguish in his inmost soul, and the undissembled expression of it in his aspect. Had he once found power to smile, and wear a face of gayety, there would have been no such man!’ (Hawthorne, 122; The Chapter XI). We always see Arthur Dimmesdale in the same condition: a pale exhausted man with his hand on the heart.
In contrast with Hester Prynne who commits herself to needlework and finds in this activity consolation for her soul, the pastor returns to duty with a heavy heart. In the end, this character does not change over time. Even the appearance of Arthur Dimmesdale remains the same. A frightened anxious look does not leave the pastor’s face during a discussion with Roger Chillingworth. He is scared and embarrassed standing with Hester Prynne at the scaffold.
The tragedy of Arthur Dimmesdale is not a confrontation with a hostile society in contradistinction to Hester Prynne’s case. His tragedy is suppression of his personality and his self-humiliation. We can talk about an internal conflict in the soul of a man who is not able and does not want to set himself free from a torturous burden of guilt. His situation is compounded by the fact that the surroundings consider him almost a saint while the pastor himself suffers greatly from his secret. It is not possible for this man to feel good next to Hester Prynne – his former love and devotion have given way to continual pangs of conscience. But the most tragic thing is that Dimmesdale suffers from discrepancy of his personality to his own ideal of a man: ‘And yet, by the constitution of his nature, he loved the truth, and loathed the lie, as few men ever did. Therefore, above all things else, he loathed his miserable self’ (Hawthorne, 186; The Chapter XX).
Despite the fact that Arthur Dimmesdale can be considered an allegory of suffering and selfhumiliaion in the first part of the romance, this character begins to change in the scene of discussion with Hester Prynne in the forest. We believe that this episode is the climax of The Scarlet Letter. An energetic Hester Prynne wants to revive an exhausted beloved. Being inspired Arthur Dimmesdale feels happiness and freedom for the first time since his sin. Nathaniel Hawthorne addresses a problem of comprehension of inner freedom there. The reverend pastor is used to oppressing himself. That is why his urge to independence takes one of the most primitive forms. Liberating himself from any restrictions, he desires to commit a bad deed. ‘At every step he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional; in spite of himself, yet growing out of a profounder self than that which opposed the impulse’ (Hawthorne; 186; The Chapter XX). The author shows how dangerous a lack of self-confidence and bravery can be. And this is one of the most important ideas of the book. Only those who has the intelligence and force to cope with true liberty deserve it. Freedom is what you gain as a result of your work on yourself rather than an unexpected gift.
Therefore it is very predictable that Arthur Dimmesdale becomes a pale and a feeble man only a few days later. He has used his last force, literally his last breath for his farewell sermon. He has confessed his sin and set himself free from a burden. Finally, liberty means for him a death. Why has Athur Dimmesdale gone? The fact is this scene also carries a symbolical meaning. Arthur Dimmesdale is not able to oppose himself to the society in contrast with Hester Prynne. He is not prepared for internal independence at all. Moreover, the characters who are bounded by the environment, who do not dare to confront the others cannot be the main object of interest for a romantic writer.
The boundary between a literary character and an allegory is quite vague when we deal with Arthur Dimmesdale. Notwithstanding that, the narrator constantly emphasizes that remorse is the main trait of Arthur Dimmesdale’s character, this personage is a contradictory person. On the one side, he is a coward and a hypocrite. On the other side, he also likes truth and sincerity. All his life in the romance is a road to revealing his secret. There were sudden insights (the scene on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl) and stormy impulses (the scene in the forest). Moreover, the role and the value of this character are not defined immediately.
Taking into account Arthur Dimmesdale’s system of thought, we can come to conclusion that the scarlet letter on his breast is not a symbol but just an emblem that signifies the obvious, straightforward thing. This is the stigma of ‘the crime’. The difficulty lies in the fact that а reader does not know exactly whether Arthur Dimmesdale bears the scarlet letter on his breast or not. Roger Chillingworth sees it clearly. Many inhabitants of Boston are certain that the stigma ‘burns’ on the pastor’s body. However some spectators in the market place saw nothing: ‘It is singular, nevertheless, that certain persons, who were spectators of the whole scene, and professed never once to have removed their eyes from the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, denied that there was any mark whatever on his breast, more than on a new-born infant’s’ (Hawthorne, 220; The Chapter XXIV) . Hawthorne stresses again how important the perspective and a certain point of view are in the romance filled with symbols.
Is it possible to consider Arthur Dimmesdale a tragic character? Definitely. As the book in the whole. Apart from the final symbolical meaning of the mysterious scarlet letter on the pastor’s body, this personage himself tends to be allegorical rather than symbolical. He lacks at least two essential characteristics of a symbol – ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning.
Roger Chillingworth is in many ways similar to Arthur Dimmesdale. Both personages have one trait of character emphasized by the narrator. However, Arthur Dimmesdale has some contradictions in his personality that enable us to regard him as a round character. In Roger Chillingworth’s case we do not see any transformations. The author initially defines the meaning of this character. In addition, he is static and is not interesting apart from the idea he embodies. ‘Условность связи и абстрактность значения характерны для аллегории’ (‘An allegory is distinguished by a conditional association and abstraction meaning’; Guber, 1927, 128).
We can compare this allegory to another artistic device – an emblem. In contrast to a symbol the meaning of an allegory and an emblem is fixed and unambiguous. Roger Chillingworth is a full embodiment of revenge and nothing more. We do not know what kind of person he was before returning to Boston. We are not aware of his interests and activities. The author only focuses on his vengeful nature. He feeds his revenge upon an accomplice of Hester Prynne’s sin and is not interested in the world around him. Roger Chillingworth is an obsessed person: ‘I shall seek this man, as I have sought truth in books; as I have sought gold in alchemy. There is a sympathy that will make me conscious of him. I shall see him tremble. I shall feel myself shudder, suddenly and unawares. Sooner or later, he must needs be mine!’ (Hawthorne, 76; The Chapter VI).
Roger Chillingworth is not a symbol because this character does not ‘go beyond’ the plot. This personage does not carry the meaning that is supplementary to a simple idea of vengeance. No doubt, this is not a dynamic and a round character either. Nevertheless, Nathaniel Hawthorne needed this personage. Using this type, the author shows how dangerous a limited view of the world can be.
In the world of Romanticism the symbols play a significant role. As a rule, a major symbol is quintessence of an author’s conception. The truth is that only a multifaceted character may become a symbol. If we deal with some stock or flat characters like Roger Chillingworth it is possible to talk only about an allegory. Revenge became the meaning of Chillingworth’s life. He lived while he tortured Arthur Dimmesdale. The death of Dimmesdale led him to his own decline and ‘a decay’ of a literary character. And just like in the fable the narrator clearly explains a moral that the character ought to represent: ‘All his strength and energy--all his vital and intellectual force--seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shrivelled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun’ (Hawthorne, 221; The Chapter XXIV). Northrop Frye believes that ‘a writer is being allegorical whenever it is clear that he is saying “by this I also (allos) mean that” (Frye, 2000, 90). In this sense, we can also regard the narrator as ‘an allegorical type’.

A romance novel The Scarlet letter is a completed interrelated symbolic system. Almost each object carries a symbolical meaning. It is noteworthy to mention that a symbolical and a clear discourse intersect and complement each other.
There are the signs with clear and fixed significance that we call ‘allegories’. On the contrary, a symbol suggests to a multitude of meanings and sometimes is hard to decrypt. In addition, we have distinguished a special kind of a symbol – an artistic symbol which is usually a round character with many interpretations can be applied to it.
The attitude towards a sign depends on a reader’s perception as well as a narrator’s perspective. Moreover, the personage himself influences this differentiation. For example, the scarlet letter – the main token of the romance – is only a stigma in Arthur Dimmesdale’s comprehension whereas the meaning of the same sign changes throughout the narrative for Hester Prynne.
There are many different symbols apart from the scarlet letter in the romance: the scaffold, the meteor, the bush of wild roses, the slab of slate near one tombstone served for both Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. The main object of the author’s attention is definitely the scarlet ‘A’. It seems that a fatal symbol is ‘travelling’ throughout the book and takes different forms. The scarlet letters are the trail of a meteor, the stigma on Arthur Dimmesdale’s breast, a mysterious apparition that Roger Chillingworth sees at the church-steps after his marriage to Hester Prynne. The Pearl ‘turns into’ the animated scarlet letter and her mother merges with this badge in the eyes of the inhabitants. And, what is more important, in all these cases is that the meaning of the scarlet letter varies. It is essential for any symbol to be ambiguous and polysemantic. This literary device is quite complex and more intuitive than rational.
It is significant that the scarlet letter retains the same meaning for some personages. This is because their logic of life does not allow changing their perspective. Such characters are usually static and flat. That’s why we can consider them allegories. As far as Roger Chillingworth is concerned the scarlet letter is always only a punishment. For Arthur Dimmesdale the scarlet letter is a reminder of his sin and this sign burns his soul.
One of the most important peculiarities of The Scarlet Letter is an intrusive narrator. He frequently intervenes in the course of the narrative, makes comments and points directly to the meanings of some symbols. However, we cannot talk about an obvious superiority of the narrator’s point of views. His perception is just one of many others that may appear in an attempt to decipher an inexhaustible symbol.
1. Symons, Arthur. 1919. “Introduction.” In The symbolist movement in literature. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company.
2. Baldick, Chris. 2001. The concise Oxford Dictionary of literary terms. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Unless otherwise stated, all translations are my own. Losev, Aleksei. 1995. The problem of symbol and realistic art. Moscow: Iskusstvo.
4. Bayer, John G. “Narrative Techniques and the Oral Tradition in the Scarlet Letter.” American Literature 52.2: 256.
5. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. 1994. The Scarlet Letter. London: Penguin Books. Subsequent references to this work will be given in the main body of the article.
6. Guber, Aleksandr. 1927. The structure of a poetic symbol. Moscow: Trudy GAHN.
7. Gartner, Matthew. “The Scarlet Letter and the Book of Esther: Scriptural Letter and Narrative Life.” Studies in American Fiction 23.2: 141.
8. Hunt, Lester H. 1984. “The Scarlet Letter: Hawthorne's Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Philosophy and literature. April 8.
9. Guber, Aleksandr. 1927. The structure of a poetic symbol. Moscow: Trudy GAHN.
10. Frye, Northrop. 2000. “Second Essay. Ethical criticism: Theory of Symbols.” Anatomy of criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hi! Would you,please, look at my text? Unfortunately, my submission to one of american journals was returned due to "unnatural language".

TatianaMokhova 2018-02-06 05:25:55

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