Figurative Language In The Scarlet Letter

Please identify examples of figurative language in The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables as he probed the darker side of Puritan New England.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Anyone who has studied Nathaniel Hawthorne for long knows that he is rather obsessed with the dark themes of Puritanism, perhaps for good reason, and his condemnations are consistently evident in his writing. 

The Scarlet Letter is Hawthorne's master work and it is replete with figurative language of all kinds. In particular, he uses figurative language to condemn the New England Puritan beliefs. The Puritans were consumed with sin: avoiding it, pointing it out in others, and hiding it from everyone else. We all struggle with sin, but the Puritans were not a very forgiving lot. Everything was quite literally black and white with them, at least from Hawthorne's point of view, and he uses settings as one way to depict the darkness of Puritanism.

In all of Hawthorne's writings, the forest is the place where sin abounds and Satan rules. The forest was often personified as a place of evil. In this quote from Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses figurative language to describe Hester's moral state. In chapter 18 he says:

She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest.

Here Hester's rather tempestuous moral life is compared to a wild and untamed forest. She now lives in a kind of metaphorical forest, though she does not live in the literal forest (but ironically she does live on the outskirts of town, of course). She lives in an isolated moral wilderness as well a literal isolation, and it is all because of her sin which cannot be pardoned. This is in perfect keeping with the Puritan view of sin as personified by the forest.

The House of the Seven Gables is another work in which Hawthorne depicts some of the darker aspects of Puritanism. One of the themes of this novel, according to the author's preface, is the idea of a generational curse, the belief that the sins of the father are visited on the son. This concept is found in Numbers 14:18, which says:

The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.

This sounds just like something that Hawthorne's Puritans would believe and even revel in--at least for other people. When Colonel Pyncheon builds his house on stolen land, the people believe he has established a curse which will be visited upon his family for generations. People told him that 

he was about to build his house over an unquiet grave.... The terror and ugliness of Maule’s crime, and the wretchedness of his punishment, would darken the freshly plastered walls, and infect them early with the scent of an old and melancholy house.

The figurative language in this passage includes personification, such as the "unquiet grave" and the "terror and ugliness" which will "infect" the house. The so-called curse does seem to have a life of its own as it rather violently and unexpectedly ends the life of at least three of the Colonel's descendants.

Hawthorne uses language as a weapon against the Puritans, and by using figurative language he ensures that we "feel" each dart of condemnation as he throws them.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Here are some more examples of figurative language:

The Scarlet Letter

Metaphor - Often Hawthorne compares happenings and objects to abstract qualities. 

  • In Chapter 1, the symbolic rosebush at the prison door is compared to "a token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him [the prisoner who enters]."
  • Roger Chillingworth is compared to a fiend and calls himself this. In Chapter 10, he rejoices in his discovery of what is on the chest of the Reverend Dimmesdale and is compared to Satan:

Had a man seen old Roger Chillinworth, at that moment of his ectasy, he would have no need to ask how Satan comports himself when a precious human soul is lost to heaven.

  • Called "an imp" and "a sprite," n Chapter 8 Pearl is likened to a bird by Rev. Mr. Wilson, "What little bird of scarlet plumage may this be?"
  • Governor Billingham calls Hester's scarlet letter a "badge of shame."
  • Hester declares that Pearl is her "torture."  "See ye not....she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved,.."
  • In Chapter 10, Dimmesdale suffers from "some black trouble of the soul," a metaphor for his sin and gnawing conscience.
  • Chillingworth is likened by Pearl to the Black Man, a metaphor for Satan, who conducts the black masses in the forest primeval also a metaphor for a place of moral danger.
  • The "babbling stream" is a metaphor for the honesty of nature since Pearl will not cross this stream until Hester replaces her scarlet letter upon her bosom.
  • Hester is alluded to as a "self-enlisted Sister of Charity" in Chapter 20
  • In his famous statement of theme, also in Chapter 20, Hawthorne employs "face" as a metaphor for one's pretenses, or facade, that he puts forth to the public, or the metaphoric "multitude":

No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

Metonymy - At times Hawthorne uses something closely related for the things actually meant.

  • In Chapter 11, the Reverend Dimmesdale longs to speak to his congregation from his pulpit and confess, 

"I, whom you behold in these glack garments...I, who ascend the sacred desk...."

Here the word desk stands for Dimmesdale office as minister and religious leader.

  • heart is often used for the soul in this novel. And, in Chapter 11, also, it is used to mean the the souls of Dimmesdale's congregation:

...[Dimmesdale's] heart vibrated in unison with theirs, and...sent its own throb of pain through a thousand other hearts....

The House of Seven Gables

Metaphor

  • In Chapter 2, Hawthorne writes that Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon, has taken "no part in the business of life," a comparison to social interaction.
  • In this same chapter, the sun rays are compared to "its golden gleam." ( this phrase also contains alliteration with the /g/.)
  • Frequently, Hepzibah is referred to as the "maiden lady" or "elderly maiden."
  • Hepzibah's first customer is later referred to as "the little cannibal of Jim Crow" ["Jim Crow" is a gingerbread cookie in the shape of a dancing black man and Ned Higgins is the "cannibal" because he devours it.]
  • In Chapter 11, there is an organ grinder with his monkey, whom Hawthorne admits "symboliz[es] the grossest form of the love of money." Thus, the monkey is a metaphor for Judge Pyncheon.

Doppelgangers

  • Gothic doubles are the Judge and Colonel Pyncheon, the younger and older Clifford Pyncheon [2 sides], Mr. Holgrave shares interest in human psychology, the "secret character," as does Hawthorne. 
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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Much like the Pyncheons, Nathaniel Hawthorne's family lived under the darkness of the sins of its ancestors. Yet, Hawthorne's Puritan heritage provided the backdrop for two of his famous novels, The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), novels replete with his characteristic symbolism, which effectively develops Hawthorne's themes and motifs. In fact, it is in the use of symbolism that Hawthorne made his most significant contributions to American literature.

The Scarlet Letter 

  • The scarlet letter - Interestingly, this major symbol changes meaning throughout the narrative as it takes on various appearances. In its initial form, the red A represents Hester's sin of adultery. Yet, the letter does not rest upon Hester's bosom unobtrusively as it is elaborately embroidered gold lettering weighs upon Hester's heart, and as Pearl throws wild flowers or prickly burrs at it, and delights in its exaggerated form in the armor breastplate at the governor's mansion, making it "the most prominent feature of her appearance." Later in the narrative, the letter connotes the positive meanings of "Angel" as it appears in the sky while Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold. Further, the townspeople see the letter as signifying "Able" as Hester tends the sick and dying and earns some respect from the Puritans. Finally, the A is revealed upon the chest of the minister, a stigmata of his adultery.
  • The prison door - Evidence that Puritanism has not eradicated sin, the heavily timbered door represents the harsh and relentless justice of the Puritans.
  • The rosebush - The counterpart to the punishment of the prison, the rosebush represents mercy and grace.
  • Pearl - Named for Matthew 6:1 "the pearl of great price," Pearl is the incarnation of Hester's sin, as well as the possibility of redemption for both Hester and Arthur as he pays the price of confession.
  • The forest - The spiritual wilderness where Hester can, at least, be herself and where she and the minister can speak freely, but they can find their way only on a narrow path. It is a symbol of darkness and evil, where witches gather.
  • Mistress Hibbins - witchcraft
  • Reverend Wilson -Puritan world

The House of the Seven Gables

  • The House - Representative of the Pyncheon family, the house is embedded in the past as it is built upon the foundation of the house of Matthew Maule, who was accused of witchcraft. Thus, it represents a decaying family.
  • The portrait of Colonel Pycheon - As the standard for greed, the colonel looks down upon the living. It seems to frown as Gervayse Pyncheon agrees to exchange the house for Matt Maule's help in finding the Maine land grant.
  • The deed hidden behind the portrait - The ambitions of the Pycheons' are stymied by their ancestor's portrait that hides the land grant deed desired the living relatives. This hidden deed is symbolic of the frustrations of the Pyncheons. 

...The truth is, that, once in every half century, at longest, a family should be merged into the great, obscure mass of humanity, and forget all about its ancestors.

  • Maule's well - Symbolic of the persistence of Matthew Maule's curse, the well bubbles up periodically.
  • The daguerreotype of Judge Pyncheon - According to Holgrave, the photo uses sunlight, "[to bring] out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon."  The photograph can supposedly see into the soul.
  • Ghosts - Matthew Maule laughs at the Pyncheon family after preventing the Colonel' ghost from telling Alice of the deed.
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