In an extended introduction, Hawthorne describes his employment in the Salem Custom House, and how he purportedly found an old document and a piece of cloth embroidered with the letter "A" in a pile of old papers. This fictitious document being the germ of the story that Hawthorne writes, as follows.
The reader is thus invited to consider the whole story as a progressive uncovering of the "truth" of a symbol that constitutes one of the most enigmatic elements of American literature. Critics over the years focused on this search for a hidden significance, and put forward their own interpretation of this "truth.
Instead of offering my own A-word as a key to understanding Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece, I would like to focus on the notion of symbol itself, and on the way the author organizes this search for a meaning.
The narrator frequently uses this word throughout the romance, and its various occurrences enable us to shape a definition that corresponds to his personal use of symbols.
From this starting point, I would like to show how Hawthorne stages the interpretative process within The Scarlet Letter, and how this provides keys for the reader on how to read them. The word "symbol" and its meaning in The Scarlet Letter First, I would like to provide a few basic elements on the definitions of allegory and symbol as I will use them in this analysis.
Starting from that definition, Poe's analysis of Hawthorne's works as "allegorical" can be qualified, especially in The Scarlet Letter in which Hawthorne blatantly refuses some key aspects of an allegorical mode of representation. I will try to demonstrate that the scarlet "symbol," as well as its full-fledged equivalent Pearl, pertains on the contrary to a symbolic mode of representation.
Both partake of the creation of a spiritual meaning, and enable the author to provide several layers of interpretation. The distinction between the two figures appeared later and was shaped mainly by German romantics.
The distinction between symbol and allegory can be organized around three main points. The two elements remain distinct and the object's sole function is to suggest the secondary meaning.
Justice as a blindfold woman carrying scales and a sword can be used as an example to clarify matters. The woman does not exist at the first level of understanding; she does not have a name or a personal history.
Using such an image only aims at indirectly referring to the abstract idea of justice which exists outside of such a representation. The a symbol in the scarlet letter by nathaniel hawthorne the other hand, the symbol has a syncretic value: The interpretation of allegory is finite, whereas that of symbol is infinite.
The blindfold woman represents the concept of justice, and that figure could be replaced by the concept without losing any meaningful element. On the contrary, if a symbol is assigned one definite meaning, some of its reality as a literary object is ignored.
Understanding allegories requires cultural knowledge, whereas the comprehension of symbol is intuitive. One must learn what the blindfold woman stands for, or to guess one must reflect upon her various attributes and relate them to the cultural idea of justice.
The figure does not appeal to sensitivity, and emotions are not part of the understanding process. Hawthorne's definition should be set within the theoretical debate opposing allegory and symbol that first appeared in Goethe's works.
Hawthorne's knowledge of German, although limited according to his wife, enables us to assume that he was at least acquainted with these theories. Moreover, the question of understanding symbols is largely common among intellectuals at the time, since Champollion's discovery of the meaning of hieroglyphs had a great impact on various authors of the American Renaissance.
According to John Irwin, Champollion isolated a series of signs that could not be deciphered and that are tantamount to the symbolic signs per se; these "anaglyphs" correspond to the lost wisdom of the Egyptians. Starting from that definition, I would first like to show that the scarlet letter is endowed with many characteristics pertaining to a symbolic mode.
This contribution aims to describe how, in The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne ventured far into the realm of romantic symbol, discovered the ambiguities and uncertainties related to such a mode of expression, and attempted at providing a number of answers to the problems he encountered.
However, it is far from certain that he considered these answers as satisfactory. I would like to submit the hypothesis that this is the reason why Hawthorne abandoned such a mode and returned to a more classic allegorical mode, at least up to the unfinished undertaking known as The Elixir of Life Manuscripts.
Hawthorne's definition of "symbol" When commenting upon his first volume of Tales, Edgar Allan Poe indicates that Hawthorne "is infinitely too fond of allegory, and can never hope for popularity as long as he persists in it. Jorge Luis Borges, in an article devoted to Nathaniel Hawthorne's stylistic technique, refers to the habit Hawthorne had of writing down in his Notebooks central ideas that would later constitute the backbone of his tales, thus starting from the "moral" of the tale to elaborate a narrative that will illustrate this moral.
The example of "Egotism or the Bosom Serpent" is probably the most appropriate. An entry dated from in the Notebooks hints at a possible idea for a tale in such terms: But Hawthorne's use of "allegory" already bears traces of the romantic symbol, and especially puts forward the idea that the snake has a real existence.
He repeatedly insists upon the materiality of the serpent, especially in the final scene when Roderick is finally delivered: At that moment, if report be trustworthy, the sculptor beheld a waving motion through the grass, and heard a tinkling sound, as if something had plunged into the fountain.
This fusion of the spiritual meaning - Roderick acted unselfishly and is delivered from his egotism - and the material aspect - the serpent left his bosom - thus presides over the conclusion of the tale, bringing a tinge of romantic flavor to his allegorical dish.
But it is interesting to remark that Poe used the term "allegory," whereas Hawthorne preferred that of "symbol" in The Scarlet Letter. This underlines a major inflection in Hawthorne's use of this type of stylistic figure, from the "Allegories of the heart" to The Scarlet Letter.
No less than twenty-four occurrences of the noun or the verb can be numbered, delineating a definition of symbol that undoubtedly leans towards that of the German romantics. According to Goethe's definition, the classical allegory aims at providing the reader with a direct knowledge of what is meant, and establishes a conventional - and therefore immutable - relationship between an image and an abstract meaning.
We can find in The Scarlet Letter a blatant refusal of such a mode when he presents Hester during the first scaffold scene with this sentence: 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.
Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast, [ ] as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.In the works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, he uses symbols for secret sin in The Scarlet Letter, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and “Dr.
Heidegger’s Experiment.” As seen in The Scarlet letter, the symbol for secret sin is the Scarlet letter “A.”. The Scarlet Letter The Scarlet Letter is a well known novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The novel is composed and written in Salem and Concord, as well as Boston, Massachusetts in the late 's.
(Click the symbolism infographic to download.) The Black Man is a euphemism for Satan in this book: Hester considers the scarlet letter A to be the Black Man's mark, and Pearl wonders aloud if the The Forest and the Wilderness.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Home / Literature / The Scarlet Letter / Analysis / But she's just as much a symbol as she is a character in her own righ The Scarlet Letter (Click the symbolism infographic to download.) Hester's scarlet letter is a hardworking symbol. At various times, it symbolizes adultery, sin, hard work.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the most prolific symbolists in American literature, and a study of his symbols is necessary to understanding his novels. Generally speaking, a symbol is something used to stand for something else.
In literature, a symbol is most often a concrete object used to. The punishment of the scarlet letter is a historical fact; and, apart from the symbol thus ready provided to the author's hand, such a book as The Scarlet Letter would doubtless never have existed.
But the symbol gave the touch whereby Hawthorne's disconnected thoughts on the subject were united and crystallized in organic form.