Scarlet Letter: Religious Symbolism

Published 05 Jan 2017

The novel of Nathaniel Hawthorne has use the subject of religion and sexuality throughout the novel. The thesis of the study discusses symbols that Hawthorne utilized in order to portray the message of the novel about religion, and the significance of religion towards the characters of Hester and Dimmesdale.

The novel usually possesses specific events that show the effects of religion in their society from the sexual aggression towards women. In the novel, women are understood to possess powers to fight the sexual abuses from the religious antagonists of the novel. This has been illustrated by the character of Hester Prynne, who is the main character of the novel, through her spiritual writings of the “hapless Dimmesdale”. The presenting irony between the characters of Hester, Pearl and Dimmesdale is the main illustration of religion and sexuality issues of the novel.

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The novel of Nathaniel Hawthorne revolves in the tragedy that occurred to Hester Prynne. In the story overview, Hester Prynne has had her child from the adultery that she committed. After giving birth, Hester denies the identity of the father to her child, and throughout her life, she has struggled moving on from the guilty feelings that she possessed. Within the novel, different symbolisms of religion and sexual tragedies are applied in order to relay the concept of the scarlet letter to the audience. In the study, the aim is to determine these symbolisms in order to answer the thesis statement.

The events in the scarlet letter have involved two issues that are linked to the subject of religion. Essentially, the two issues are adultery and womanhood, which are evidently symbolized by the scarlet letter “A” (adultery) and the struggles of Hester and Pearl (womanhood). The main figure of religion is portrayed by the character of Arthur Dimmesdale, which is the minister in the community of Hester.

The three characters are confronted by Chillingworth, who serves as the antagonists of the novel. In the story, Hawthorne has involved the subjective values of lust, guilt, repentance, forgiveness and secrecy intertwined with the tragedies of this love triangle in order to emphasize the impact of the sexual scandal with the religious component of the novel. The analysis of this study has identified three symbolisms that provide certain significance to the subject of religion.

The letter “A” has played significant role in the entire novel of Hawthorne. Some of the reasons for using this letter symbol are the sin, adultery and the religious conflict of the story. The letter A stands out as a simply acronym for the word “adultery”, which has been considered by Dimmesdale in the latter parts of the story. In addition, the letter symbolizes the sin that Dimmesdale and Hester have committed, which brought Pearl. Considering the first and second reasons, according to the book of Carmichael (2003) entitled, Sin and Forgiveness: New Responses in a Changing World, letter is an actual symbol to remind the religious conflict that Hester and Dimmesdale committed (24).

In the era present in the novel, the trend of Post-Reformation Scotland is the governing culture wherein religion and common law are strictly implemented in the community. People in line with religious careers are very much regarded by the public to the point of extreme admiration and consideration. On the other hand, the public sees adultery as something gravely punishable by death. Hawthorne has used the two character dilemmas to facilitate the gender and religious irony of the novel wherein both sinners did not acquire the same consequences of action.

At this point, the civil laws and the rules of the Church are highly regarded as sacred; hence, those who violate these should expect extreme punishment. The inscription of letter “A” for both characters, Dimmesdale and Hester give two considerable arguments. First, with the character of Hester being the female and temptation symbol of the novel, she triggers the feminine sexual tempting that has been directed towards the religious figure, Dimmesdale. Second, Dimmesdale, being the minister and under the figure of religious character, he portrays the tendencies of sexual weakness that can even be present among religious personnel since their manhood still comprise of human components.

Hawthorne uses the symbol of letter “A” to link history of physical attraction that has occurred between the Dimmesdale and Hester. According to Johnson (2005), Hawthorne has utilized this symbolism in order to illustrate the dark side of religious men that can be reveled through sexual encounters (143). Therefore, despite the absence of Hester’s sexual intentions, the letter “A” symbolizes the religious violations and weakness of the minister against Hester’s female temptation.

The next religious symbolism that can be encountered in the story is Dimmesdale’s preaching during the last part of the story. In this scenario, Dimmesdale provides his most significant and emphasized sermon to the public wherein, during that time, he, Hester, and their daughter, Pearl, are planning to leave the outskirts of the community and settle in for a new start. During the last part of his sermon, Dimmesdale publicly recognized Hester and Pearl as his family, and during the same scene, he left the two ladies of his life permanently for he dies right after kissing Pearl.

This event gives the following symbolisms under the subject of religion wherein the plans of escape behind the scenario illustrate the weakness of Dimmesdale’s duty for church against his personal emotions towards his family. In addition, through the illustration of Dimmesdale’s death right after his admittance, the event is able to portray the idea of freeing oneself from sin. The real escape that should resolve the conflicts of Hester and Dimmesdale against their sin is not by relocation, but rather through admittance.

“People of New England! Ye, that have loved me! – ye, that have deemed me holy! – behold me here, the one sinner of the world! (Hawthorne 254)”

As according to Kopey (2003), the death of Dimmesdale cannot be considered as an escape from the sins they have committed but rather freedom from the lies that they placed upon themselves (88). Hawthorne somehow inculcates the concept or escape as a natural human instinct to avoid the consequences of sin; however, he further corrects this notion by suggesting the value of truth in freeing one’s self from sin’s consequences.

“the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentrate on the ghastly miracle… the minister stood with a flush of triumph in has face (Hawthorne 255)”

In analysis of these two statements, Hawthorne somehow revealed the religious message of finding freedom not escape in the sense of truth. Soon after his acceptance, Hester and Pearl are able to leave a normal life (though not in an instant) with lesser pressure from the society. In the latter parts of the story, the religious sense has shifted to the character of Hester and her relationship with the village. At this point, the act of truth has obtained the blessings of forgiveness, which is manifested in the character of Hester. Although, Hawthorne has utilized the female characters of Hester and Pearl in order to create a more sensible argument towards the portrayal of Dimmesdale as the religious figure of the novel.

The feminine characters in the novel are the identifiers of human sorrows, guilty feelings, instinct of escape and sinful nature. The showing of Hester and Pearl in the public while they are being watched intently by the community people forms the symbolism of womanly rejection. On the other hand, the reverence of the people to the Minister Dimmesdale provides the irony against the humiliation being experienced by Hester and her daughter. While the character of Dimmesdale being revered as holy, pure and morally upright, the women are to face significant ridicule from the public and the humiliation towards their sexuality.

The implications of the feminine symbol in religious interpretations are the following: (a) the feminine characters of Hester and Pearl signify the origin and the product of sin; (b) the character of Hester provides this implication of temptation against the weakness of religious figures (e.g. ministers, priests, etc.), such as with the character of Dimmesdale. According to Ousby (1996), Hawthorne uses the character of Hester to point out the sinful act of adultery in her character, and the sin of failing the duties of celibacy under the contract of being a minister before men and God as well as the sin of adultery (343). These symbols have provided the significant impact of religion in the characters of Hester and Dimmesdale wherein the main implication of religious insights towards their tragedy is the sin of adultery and breaking the law of celibacy.

In answering the thesis statement, the religious implications in the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter are manifested in three identified symbols, namely the letter “A” mark of Hester and Dimmesdale that signify the sin they have committed, the last sermon of Dimmesdale and his death that symbolizes truth as freedom from guilt of sin and the female characters that symbolizes the presence of sin that reveals the dark side of the spiritual figure, Dimmesdale. Hence, the main analysis in the novel states that the presence of sin can occur to any man and woman despite of their religious inclinations since human beings, by instinct, are weak and easily perted.

Works Cited

  • Carmichael, Kay. Sin and Forgiveness: New Responses in a Changing World. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Wordsworth Editions, 1997.
  • Johnson, Ellwood. The Goodly Word: The Puritan Influence in American Literature. Clements Publishing, 2005.
  • Kopley, Richard. The Threads of The Scarlet Letter: A Study of Hawthorne’s Transformative Art. University of Delaware Press, 2003.
  • Ousby, Ian. Cambridge Paperback Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
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