Literary Qualities

Hawthorne carefully structures his novel, using three climactic scenes that take place on the scaffold outside the Boston prison as centerpieces to highlight key revelations of character or changes of fortune for his hero and heroine. The first two scaffold scenes set the stage for the third, in which Dimmesdale publicly confesses that he is the father of Hester’s daughter, Pearl.

Hawthorne also makes skillful use of imagery in The Scarlet Letter, infusing the natural world of Boston and the surrounding wilderness with symbolic qualities; in particular, Hawthorne makes symbolic associations between his characters and natural instances of light and darkness. Dimmesdale’s name symbolizes his moral plight. The light of his spirituality is dimmed by his secular desires, and Hawthorne’s physical descriptions of the minister frequently stress his pale complexion. At one point in the novel, after Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest and agree to begin a new life together, a ray of sunlight breaks through the gloom. This sunlight, referred to as “the sudden smile of heaven” upon the reunited couple, vanishes when it becomes apparent that the couple’s plan is unrealistic. Hester herself is also subject to the fluctuations of light and darkness. Radiant and blushing when she temporarily casts off the scarlet letter, she pales when forced to pin it back upon her breast. “As if there were a withering spell in the sad letter,” writes Hawthorne, “her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed, like fading sunshine; and a gray shadow seemed to fall across her.”

The most elemental symbol of the novel is the letter A, introduced in the first scaffold scene as a punishment for Hester’s adultery and associated with a multitude of meanings as the novel progresses. When arrayed in a crimson tunic, Pearl is described as “the scarlet letter in another form, the scarlet letter endowed with life.” It is ironic that the scarlet A that appears in the sky during the second scaffold scene is interpreted to stand for “Angel.” And in the final scaffold scene, Dimmesdale bares his chest, revealing the outlines of “a SCARLET LETTER-the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne-imprinted in the flesh.” This wound suggests both Dimmesdale’s adultery and his atonement.

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