What does the rose symbolize in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter?            

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is through his use of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter that Hawthorne has made one of his most significant contributions to American literature that has been perpetuated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century.  In Hawthorne's symbolic narrative, the red rose is representative of passion; as such the rose bush outside the prison door--"the black flower of civilized society"-- serves

to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the rack, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human fraility and sorrow.

This "sweet moral blossom" is the passionate fortitude with which Hester refuses to wither under the scorn of the Puritans who gather in their grey steeple-crowned hats and "sad-colored garments" to watch and scorn her in Chapter I.  In another allusion to the roses by the prison door, in Chapter VIII, when asked by Reverend Wilson who made her, Pearl--knowing her catechism--impishly says that

she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison door.

Thus, Pearl is the rose and, like the rose, is symbolic, too, of the kind of passion which has accompanied Hester's sin.  The red rose of The Scarlet Letter symbolizes passion and "some sweet moral blossom" in both Hester and in Pearl, who is a symbol herself of Hester's sin of adultery. 

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The Scarlet Letter

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