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Wild Card - This novel makes extensive use of symbols. Discuss the difference between the Puritans use of symbols the meteor, for example and the way that the narrator makes use of symbols. Do both have religious implications? Do symbols foreshadow events or simply comment on them after the fact? How do they help the characters understand their lives, and how do they help the reader understand Hawthorne's book?
The Puritans in this book are constantly seeking out natural symbols, which they claim are messages from God. Yet these characters are not willing to accept any revelation at face value. They interpret the symbols only in ways that confirm their own preformulated ideas or opinions. The meteor that streaks the sky as Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold in Chapter 12 is a good example of this phenomenon. To Dimmesdale and to the townspeople, the "A" that the meteor traces in the sky represents whatever notion already preoccupies them. To the minister, the meteor exposes his sin, while to the townspeople it confirms that the colony's former governor, who has just died, has gone to heaven and been made an angel. For the narrator, on the other hand, symbols function to complicate reality rather than to confirm one's perception of it. The governor's garden, which Hester and Pearl see in Chapter 7, illustrates his tactic quite well. The narrator does not describe the garden in a way that reinforces the image of luxury and power that is present in his description of the rest of the governor's house. Rather, he writes that the garden, which was originally planted to look like an ornamental garden in the English style, is now full of weeds, thorns, and vegetables. The garden seems to contradict much of what the reader has been told about the governor's power and importance, and it suggests to us that the governor is an unfit caretaker, for people as well as for flowers. The absence of any flowers other than the thorny roses also hints that ideals are often accompanied by evil and pain. Confronted by the ambiguous symbol of the garden, we begin to look for other inconsistencies and for other examples of decay and disrepair in Puritan society.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, he utilizes the scaffold scenes to convey his two opposing philosophies on society, romanticism and Puritanism. In the beginning of the now, Hester is openly purged on the scaffold in the middle of the marketplace. This scene magnifies the punitive and penal society of the Puritans. "With almost a serene deportment, therefore, Hester Prynne passed through this portion of her ordeal, and came to a sort of scaffold, at the western extremity of the marketplaceâ€¦In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of penal machineâ€¦The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron." (57-58). In the first scaffold scene, one can see the Puritan side of Hawthorne. Through the descriptiveness of the scene, he alludes to the importance of having a strict penal code. The scaffold scene is located right next to the marketplace, proving that those strict rules were an integral part of the Puritan society. As Hester sees "the very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest on this contrivance of wood and iron". The narrator illustrates Hester's perception of the scaffold. She believes that the scaffold is a symbol of public shame that she must now endure. This narrator makes Hester's sin appear to be blight on Puritan society that needs to be made up for. The Puritan author wrote this setting of Hester's shame and penance, but the romantic author uses the same setting as well. During the second usage of the scaffold, it was not Hester but instead Dimmesdale who was suffering. However, this suffering was not of Puritan wrath, but rather romantic sorrow and depression. "Walking in the shadow of a dream, as it were under a species of somnambulism...Mr. Dimmesdale reached the spot where, now so long since, Hester Prynne had lived through her first hours of public ignominy. The same platform or scaffoldâ€¦He had been driven hither by the impulse of that remorse which dogged him everywhereâ€¦" (152-153). Dimmesdale ever since the first scaffold scene has become increasingly depressed as he continues to repress the immense guilt he feels. This new narrator uses the "somnambulism" to show that unconsciously Dimmesdale was aware of what action he needs to take so he can be with Hester. The romantic narrator uses the scaffold as juxtaposition of Puritan penal code. He wanted Dimmesdale to suffer so that Dimmesdale might find an insight and decide to give up the lie he lives and declare his sin. The flashback to Hester's "first hours of ignominy" reinforces the idea that Dimmesdale was tormented about letting Hester be alone. His "remorse which dogged him everywhere" proves that the Romantic narrator wanted to illustrate the mind of Dimmesdale and show the extraordinary feelings that he possesses. This would contrast the idea of having a Puritan narrator in the first scaffold scene because it was based more on unconscious desire rather than physical punishment. Finally, both authors narrated the vows that Hester and Dimmesdale made to each other in the deep, protective forest. "Never, never!" whispered she. "What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou forgotten it?" (203). This quote has a double meaning, each of which corresponds to the narrator in question. The romantic author narrates the love between the couple. He emphasizes the words "felt it so" because the feelings between the two were extremely complicated. The feelings of love and adoration were mixed with somberness and depression over the troubles their relationship has caused. This vow helps to reinforce that love is eternal and can't be forgotten even if Puritanism dictates otherwise. It is a very romantic idea because even in the worst of situations, happiness can be found. Despite the romantic view, the Puritan narrator also has a major point of irony. When Dimmesdale utter the words "hast thou forgotten it", the irony becomes clear. Dimmesdale is questioning a woman about the permanence of their relationship, which was started due to an affair despite being married already. Hester and Dimmesdale's relationship was morally, spiritually, and legally wrong in Puritan society but they seem to forget this key point. The Puritan narrator mocks the worthless vows taken by the couple and confers a tone of disgust. The two narrators are clearly distinguishable as the Puritan dogma causes a more skeptical and realistic approach to the illegal couple while the Romantic ideology continues to emphasize hope and happiness for Hester and Dimmesdale despite the odds.
In the Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrates Hester as a Byronic heroine through her isolationism, sexual deviance, and natural strength as person. The Byronic hero is an example of a Romantic hero who unorthodox characteristics set him or her apart from the rest of society. As seen in the novel, Hester displays this through her inability to connect with society. "In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than the rest of human kind." (87-88). After going public with her sin, Hester is forced to be in social exile. Despite her best efforts to regain what she had lost, the majority of people continue to display contempt. The isolation that she felt was not only mental but also physical. She could not gesture nor speak at all with anyone. This need to communicate and be active in society is a fundamental requirement for a sane person. This is why social isolationism is an effective punishment. However instead of being defeated, she was forced to think by herself and act alone. She used her position of banishment as crutch to bolster herself. This furthers the idea that she was able maintain a good mental health, while others in her position would have not. Another important part of the separation was due to inability of Hester to reveal the name of her fellow sinner. In doing so, she reinforced her heroic nature by being unrepentant by societal standards because of its unrealistic and condescending demands. Another major aspect of a Byronic hero was the start of their isolation. Usually, it is due to a crime that is sex-oriented, which in Hester's case was the sin of adultery. "But this had been a sin of passion, not of principle, nor even purpose" (209). Hester was guilty of committing the sin of adultery, because she had an affair with a man and conceived Pearl despite her husband being back in England. This "act of passion" was spontaneous and without reason. There was "no purpose" behind it except for the love that she felt for Dimmesdale. This memory of what she had done drove her to be more committed towards Dimmesdale, Pearl, and her penance. Her guilty conscience made her a stronger hero, as she was more committed. Hawthorne conveys this through her self-isolationism and the bearing of the scarlet letter. Hester wore this symbol of adultery and ignominy proudly as it separated herself from the masses creating a figure more heroic. Her courage and level-headedness among other attributes created a persona stronger and more recognizable than many American heroes. Finally, a Byronic hero has a character that is unrelenting in its confidence and superiority. Even though Hester is not typically arrogant or superior, she can be seen as strong and awe-inspiring in certain cases that attract others. "Be thou strong for me! answered he. "Advised me what to doâ€¦fixing her deep eyes on the minister's, and instinctively exercising a magnetic power over a spirit so shattered and subdued that it could hardly hold itself erect." Hester is an excellent heroine when compared to Dimmesdale, a figure highly regarded throughout the novel by Puritan society. Dimmesdale said "be thou strong for me" to Hester to emphasize Hester's amazing sense of self-confidence that enabled her to go against the norm of society. The words "advise me" indicate that she is also one who is willing to help others at the expense of her own superiority and arrogance. Instead of turning her back, Hester's heroic nature tried to help Dimmesdale and his success later on would be a direct result from her efforts. Also, Hawthorne describes Hester as a "magnetic power" that attracts people to her. This alludes to idea that her character is so virtuous that it almost exhibits some form of gravity in that it attracts smaller characters to her larger one. Hester may be disputed as the first heroine of America, but she is definitely an important one due to her unusual ways of dealing with society, faith, and love.
6. In the Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne shapes Dimmesdale as a weak figure by utilizing his failure to confess his sins and constant repression despite the solution of redeeming himself. Hawthorne demonstrates the weakness of Dimmesdale when he comes asking for Hester to lead him toward confessing his sin. "â€¦the young minister at once came forward, pale, and holding his hand over his heart, as was his custom whenever his peculiarly nervous temperament was thrown into agitation. He looked now more careworn and emaciated than as we described him at the scene of Hester's public ignominy; and whether it were his failing health, or whatever the cause might be, his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth." (117). Dimmesdale is described as being "pale", "careworn", and "emaciated". These qualities are characteristic of people who are being oppressed. Yet, in Dimmesdale's case, he is his own oppressor and represses his own moral code to satisfy his weak nature. The hard choice would be to announce the sin he committed, but instead Dimmesdale believes that if he represses the memories, they will go away. This repression, however, has physical consequences that make his weak mental state slowly start to deteriorate along with his overall health. "His large dark eyes had a world of pain" because he was internally conflicted with no easy solution. His love for Hester and the Romantic qualities she embodies is compared to the Puritan position of minister and its responsibilities. After years have passed, Dimmesdale's conscience had begun to take a toll on him. He used self-inflicted punishment on his body to heal his own mental state. "In Mr. Dimmesdale's secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge...He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify, himself.´(150). Hawthorne uses the "bloody scourge" as a symbol of Dimmesdale's struggle. The use of self-flagellation was to purify one's mind and soul so that he or she can be prepared for heaven. However, Dimmesdale uses it for less noble purposes because he wants to end his own psychological suffering. Hawthorne shows that Dimmesdale uses the whip to try to block out the mental suffering. Dimmesdale can endure the slight, physical pain because it is instantaneous. His weakness lies in his mental state in that he cannot accept responsibility and rather let Hester take it. Dimmesdale proves that despite his best efforts, he is unable to develop a strong character that can endure mockery and hatred.. Finally, Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the protection of the forest, where Hester begins to question Dimmesdale's unwillingness to commit, to which Dimmesdale replied with signs of weakness and frailty. "So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou mayest still be happy! Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of Roger Chillingworth? 'Yes, Hester; but only under the fallen leaves!' replied the minister, with a sad smile." (205). The forest is a major setting in the novel because it is the only place where Dimmesdale and Hester can be together without witnesses or persecution. However, even under the safe haven that they have come to enjoy, Dimmesdale's weakness shows. This passage sums up Dimmesdale's entire character. Hawthorne uses the leaves as a metaphor to Dimmesdale's own dreams and aspirations. Dimmesdale is the prime minister of the Puritan community and with it he has earned a high degree of responsibility and respect. If the truth came out to the general public, Dimmesdale's ministry would be over and be mocked by those who previously adored him. This weakness of Dimmesdale is the failure of recognizing the importance of Hester in his life and how personal beliefs should precede public one. Overall, Dimmesdale is ultimately weak not because of physical attributes but rather his inability to see that life free of guilt as a sinner is far superior to that of a guilty minister. Dimmesdale would not have been able to leave with Hester due to fact that he was not intrinsically motivated and would have preferred the Puritan life he is already living