english literature

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Mirrors and reflections

Mirrors and Reflections

Mirror images reflect Nathaniel Hawthorne's view of the Puritan society, his message of humanity, and the different significances of sin during that time period. Not only are these shown through the characters, but it also reveals the characters' true being. Throughout the novel, characters continuously attempt to conceal their true self from the society. However, their reflections continue to magnify their own imperfection, revealing their true intentions.

Reflections and mirror images amplify the characters' imperfections because of the manner in which they read the significance of their own reflections. One example is when Hester sees her own scarlet letter being reflected in the armor. The only thing she sees is the scarlet letter, filling up a large part of her reflection. This reflects the disgrace and Hester's awareness of the scarlet letter to herself and the society, as well as the amount of shame and attention that is pointed towards her because of the letter. The letter constantly reminds the community of a symbol of an evildoer as well as alleviation for their own sins. "Hester looked, by way of humoring the child; and she saw that, owing to the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance" (102). After Hester recognizes and experiences the intensity of the effects of the scarlet letter, she not only realizes the disgrace that is taking over her life because of the scarlet letter, but also the concern that it may impact Pearl. Because of the way the society punishes and ostracizes Hester, she begins to find it affecting her mentally and spiritually, and allows it to devour her life. Eventually, the scarlet letter is the only thing she sees, so much that when she is threatened to have Pearl taken away from her, she is willing to trade her soul to the devil because Pearl is the only relief to Hester in her time of shame. The armor reflects Hester's sin as well as effect of the scarlet letter to Hester.

Mirrors are portrayed as a reflection of the characters' true being. For example, everybody realizes the evil change in Roger Chillingworth except for himself. He is so engrossed by revenge that he does not notice this change until he talks to Hester. Only then does he see his evil self in his mind.

"The unfortunate physician ... lifted his hands with a look of horror, as if he had beheld some frightful shape, which he could not recognize, usurping the place of his own image in a glass. ... a man's moral aspect is faithfully revealed in his mind's eye" (168).

The picture Chillingworth sees in his reflection displays how much he has changed in his purpose of revenge. He is incompetent of realizing his own transformation until he looks at it with his own eyes. Earlier in the novel, Chillingworth is shown humanely. However, once the reader sees his reflection, his inner self is revealed, showing how his transformation changes him to resemble the devil. Hawthorne manipulates the topic of evil and the effect it has on the mind and soul. Chillingworth has not realized how possessed he has become due to his obsession for revenge. This shows the effect of sin and evil as well as the obsession over trivial matters.

Mirror reflections provide insight to the characters to display that the characters may be different as to what others think of them. An example to support this would be Dimmesdale. To the society he appears to be a pure and holy minister, but in reality, he is just as corrupt as anyone else in the society. He is weak and does not show the courage to reveal his sins and free himself from its grasp. This is all shown when Dimmesdale begins to torture himself in order to atone for the sin he has committed. Dimmesdale punishes himself while looking at his own reflection. He begins to see visions that gradually affect his psychological state.

"Through his self-torture, we are able to see the effect of guilt and his weakness. He kept vigils, ... and sometimes, viewing his own face in a looking glass, by the most powerful light which he could throw upon it. In these lengthened vigils, his brain often reeled and visions seemed to flit before him ... within the looking glass" (141).

Dimmesdale becomes so obsessed with his crime that he begins to punish himself in and effort to compensate for his transgression. This reflects the effectiveness of Chillingworth's revenge. The outcome is he begins to witness visions that points out what he sees himself as and the weight of guilt of holding his secret to himself. Demons begin to welcome him; angels and his dead friends and parents ostracize him. He even sees Hester and Pearl, accusing him of concealing his sin. This relates to the message that it is better to live in a situation of open shame rather than hiding it and self torture.

All the mirror images and reflections are used to reveal the character's true intentions and magnify their imperfections. This stresses the topics of sin, evil, humanity, and the Puritan society. Roger Chillingworth's transformation, Dimmesdale's helplessness, and the exaggeration of the scarlet letter all present the themes of evil and sin. Through mirror images, the reader is able to interpret Nathaniel Hawthorne's purpose of the novel.


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