The Scarlet Letter
By Daniel Smith
Nathaniel Hawthorne used light and darkness in The Scarlet Letter in a most brilliant way. He often used darkness to symbolize death, sin, or hatred; he used light to bring forth a mindset of civilization, acceptance, and conformity. Hawthorne?s use of these symbols allowed the reader to somewhat develop a mental picture and feeling of the situations that were displayed.
In The Scarlet Letter, there were many times which Hester Prynne was seen entering or exiting the prison. Hawthorne used darkness to create a feeling of shame and punishment. Hester is described coming out of the prison “like a black shadow emerging into sunshine” (p 49). This is attempting to show that Hester is covered in darkness (her sin and punishment) and is emerging into the sunshine (the glaring society) to be punished.
In the same scene in which Hester is shown exiting the Prison, there are images of light mentioned. Before the Prison door opened, there was a collection of country-women waiting outside. Hawthorne used the sunlight as a symbol of the society?s acceptance of these women and their conformity with the set ways of civilization. The statement, “The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and well-developed busts” (p 48) is trying to send to the reader a picture of these women standing in the sunshine (acceptance by society), while Hester is kept in the darkness (punishment and shame). Hawthorne uses the line, “who winked and turned aside its little face (Pearl) from the too vivid light of day” (p 50) to show that Pearl has been kept in the darkness of the prison with Hester and now that she is exposed to society, she turns away.
Light is used in many ways to create a feeling about the society. The phrase “unadulterated sunshine” (p 61) suggests that the sunshine (acceptance) of society falls on those who have not sinned and that Hester does not deserve it. Light is also used to symbolize the glare which people place on this outcast. The line “Her prison door was thrown open, and she came forth into the sunshine, which, falling on all alike, seemed, to her sick and morbid heart, as if it meant for no other purpose than to reveal the scarlet letter on her breast.” (p 72) suggests that the glare and stare of people (the sunshine) seems to be focused on nothing but her symbol of sin.
The use of light throughout the story is not constant. There are times in which light is used to symbolize Pearl and her importance to Hester. The line, “there was an absolute circle of radiance around her, on the darksome cottage floor.” (p 82) infers that as darkness (shame) follows Hester, she can see through it to Pearl. Pearl is the dominant figure in Hester?s shame. She is the light in Hester?s heart that keeps her strong; yet Pearl reminds her constantly of her doom to darkness. This is reinforced by the line “now illuminated by the morning radiance of a young child?s disposition” (p 84) Pearl is also represented as “a shadowy reflection of the evil that had existed in herself.” (p 87) This shows that even though Pearl is Hester?s guiding light, she can see the resemblance of her sin within the innocent young girl.
Throughout the book, darkness symbolized the bad part of society, the exiled, the hated, and the unaccepted. The quote “the black flower of a civilized society, a prison.” (p 46) symbolizes that the people who are determined to be bad and therefore to be punished and hated are like black flowers, those which are considered ugly and not desirable. The line “the shadow of the forest” suggests that the forest is not a civilized community, therefore is in the “shadow” of the community.
The use of darkness slightly deviates to symbolize a general feeling of society. Everyone who has ridiculed and hated Hester has shared in the emotion that causes them to find color in their life from the “dark tinge” (p 73) in hers.
Nathaniel Hawthorne used light and darkness to contrast two different sides of civilization. The authoritative, popular, judgmental, and unaccepting side was usually characterized by light. The condemned, sinful, shameful, and rejected side was characterized by darkness. The use of these symbols as opposed to another form of description allowed the reader to draw conclusions and feelings about a character based on how he/she perceived the image.
The use of light and darkness to convey a feeling about a character or situation is a very effective method. Often, in everyday life, we use the sight of light or darkness to create feelings about a situation. Because of the similarities, it is easy for us to relate feelings conveyed in this manner to real-life emotions.