In The Scarlet Letter, what is the symbolism of Bellingham's luxuries?

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Hawthorne invokes the Elizabethan world a few times, and not unfavorably, in The Scarlet Letter. Beliingham's house offers one such moment. This house and the scene alluded to are designed to contrast with the otherwise dreary aesthetic one senses marks the Puritan village. While much of the story is...

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Hawthorne invokes the Elizabethan world a few times, and not unfavorably, in The Scarlet Letter. Beliingham's house offers one such moment. This house and the scene alluded to are designed to contrast with the otherwise dreary aesthetic one senses marks the Puritan village. While much of the story is filled with gloom and shame, other aspects of the setting offer a brighter light:

This was a large wooden house, built in a fashion of which there are specimens still extant in the streets of our older towns; now moss-grown, crumbling to decay, and melancholy at heart with the many sorrowful or joyful occurrences, remembered or forgotten, that have happened, and passed away, within their dusky chambers. Then, however, there was the freshness of the passing year on its exterior, and the cheerfulness, gleaming forth from the sunny windows, of a human habitation, into which death had never entered. It had, indeed, a very cheery aspect; the walls being overspread with a kind of stucco, in which fragments of broken glass were plentifully intermixed; so that, when the sunshine fell aslant-wise over the front of the edifice, it glittered and sparkled as if diamonds had been flung against it by the double handful. The brilliancy might have befitted Aladdin's palace, rather than the mansion of a grave old Puritan ruler. It was further decorated with strange and seemingly cabalistic figures and diagrams, suitable to the quaint taste of the age, which had been drawn in the stucco when newly laid on, and had now grown hard and durable, for the admiration of after times.

The hearts of the citizens rather than their architecture seem at fault here.

A few objects within the house do take on symbolic significance. First is Bellingham's armor, which is described as having been used not in ancient English battles but in the Pequot wars. These were brutal battles for which the settlers had since been condemned.

The garden also offers an image of an Elizabethan garden grown wild in the New World, suggesting that like the vegetation, the people in the New World needed a different sort of nurture:

Cabbages grew in plain sight; and a pumpkin-vine, rooted at some distance, had run across the intervening space, and deposited one of its gigantic products directly beneath the hall-window; as if to warn the Governor that this great lump of vegetable gold was as rich an ornament as New England earth would offer him. There were a few rose-bushes, however, and a number of apple-trees, probably the descendants of those planted by the Reverend Mr. Blackstone, the first settler of the peninsula; that half-mythological personage, who rides through our early annals, seated on the back of a bull.

The rose bush, which captures Pearl's attention, is also significant as it reminds the reader of the rose bush that supposedly sprouted from the footsteps of Ann Hutchinson's as she entered the village prison. Pearl herself is also associated through color with roses in this novel, where little else contains a bright hue.

John Wilson is also described as a liminal figure occupying a place between the richness of Elizabeth's Anglican compromise (or religious tolerance) and the extremes of Colonial Puritanism.

But it is an error to suppose that our grave forefathers—though accustomed to speak and think of human existence as a state merely of trial and warfare, and though unfeignedly prepared to sacrifice goods and life at the behest of duty—made it a matter of conscience to reject such means of comfort, or even luxury, as lay fairly within their grasp. This creed was never taught, for instance, by the venerable pastor, John Wilson, whose beard, white as a snow-drift, was seen over Governor Bellingham's shoulder; while its wearer suggested that pears and peaches might yet be naturalized in the New England climate, and that purple grapes might possibly be compelled to nourish, against the sunny garden-wall. The old clergyman, nurtured at the rich bosom of the English Church, had a long-established and legitimate taste for all good and comfortable things . . .

Hawthorne emphasizes this liminality or in-betweenness throughout the novel, suggesting absolutes of any kind are dangerous and destructive. He may not be fully condemning these men, though he does bring their hypocrisy to light, any more than he completely valorizes Hester. These are flawed humans who have taken it upon themselves to pass judgment, and their blindness to the complexity of human consciousness and desires is what is most satirized here.

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The residence of Governor Bellingham is clearly identified as being very different from the rather grim and dour houses that surround it. Note how the narrator presents his mansion to the reader when Hester goes there with Pearl to plead for the right to keep her daughter with her and bring her up herself:

It had, indeed, a very cheery aspect; the walls being overspread with a kind of stucco, in which fragments of broken glass were plentifully intermixed; so that, when the sunshine fell aslant-wise over the front of the edifice, it glittered and sparkled as if diamonds had been flung against by the double handful. The brilliancy might have befitted Aladdin's palace rather than the mansion of a grave old Puritan ruler.

What is noteworthy about this description is the contrast the narrator himself draws between the "brilliancy" of the walls of the mansion and the character of the "grave old Puritan ruler" who lives in this mansion. Hawthorne is clearly making a point about the hypocrisy of Governor Bellingham and of Puritanism in general. Puritanism was a strict form of religion that openly and excessively punished those who were publicly identified as having committed what was deemed a "sin," but ignored other aspects of people's behaviour that were dubious, such as Governor Bellingham's excessive wealth. The irony of this situation is increased when the reader remembers it is Governor Bellingham who holds the fate of Hester Prynne and Pearl in his hands.

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