In his novel The Scarlet Letter, how, where, and why does Nathaniel Hawthorne use symbolism, ambiguity, and allegory?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Nathaniel Hawthorne uses allegory, ambivalence, and symbolism throughout his novel The Scarlet Letter. One passage in which all three of these elements appear together is the following, in which Chillingworth confronts Hester, his adulterous wife:

"Hester," said he, "I ask not wherefore, nor how thou hast fallen into the pit, or say, rather, thou hast ascended to the pedestal of infamy on which I found thee. The reason is not far to seek. It was my folly, and thy weakness. I—a man of thought—the book-worm of great libraries—a man already in decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge—what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own? Misshapen from my birth-hour, how could I delude myself with the idea that intellectual gifts might veil physical deformity in a young girl's fantasy?

Chillingworth himself explains the allegory of the references to the “pit” and the “pedestal.” In using both images, he suggests a one-to-one correspondence between the image and the meaning.  This kind of very close connection between image and significance is typical of allegory.  Whether he chooses to use the image of the pit or the image of the pedestal, Chillingworth suggests that either image (or both) seem(s) appropriate as a corollary to Hester’s “infamy.” She had fallen morally, and thus entered a spiritual “pit,” but as a result of that fall she had also been forced to stand up on a kind of “pedestal,” so that the consequences of her immorality were visible to everyone.

However, the mere fact that Chillingworth hesitates between the two images helps illustrate Hawthorne’ penchant for ambiguity, for double meanings and complex, suggestive  imprecision.  Similarly ambiguous here is the nature of Chillingworth’s own personality. Is he merely and purely evil, or is he a more complex figure (at least at this point in the story) than that?  Is he sinned against or is he a sinner, or is he something of both?  His very willingness to accept some personal responsibility for Hesther’s fall suggests that he is at that stage of the work a somewhat ambiguous figure – someone for whom we feel a certain degree of sympathy, even if we also mistrust his motives and behavior.

Finally, the selected passage also displays Hawthorne’s interest in symbolism, in which images suggest meanings without offering the one-to-one simplicity and precision of allegory. Thus, when Chillingworth speaks of himself as “a man in decay,” he seems to refer primarily to physical or perhaps mental decay, but the word “decay” also foreshadows and symbolizes what will happen to him morally and spiritually during the course of the novel. His spiritual and moral decay will be far worse than any physical decay he may have suffered. Chillingworth calls himself a “book-worm” – a creature that bores into and through literal physical volumes, leaving paths of destructiveness in its wake. In a sense, Chillingworth will continue to display many of these same symbolic traits as the novel develops: he will bore into the heart and soul of Reverend Dimmesdale, again leaving a highly destructive path.




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