What are the effects of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter?

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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A symbol communicates an idea without the author's explaining it. Symbolism becomes effective when we "get it" and understand the connection between the symbol and the idea. In this novel, each symbol advances Hawthorne's themes.

The scarlet letter itself is the major symbol. It symbolizes Hester’s sin and shame, at least in the story’s beginning. Throughout the novel, however, the letter’s appearance changes as Hester continues to embroider it. It becomes quite beautiful, symbolizing Hester's spiritual growth and the community's growing reverence for her.

The scaffold can be interpreted in different ways. It can symbolize the Puritans' strict moral code; it can also symbolize public confession in contrast with secret sin. Dimmesdale is not redeemed until he stands on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl in the light of day.

The forest also symbolizes differing ideas. To the people of the community, it is a symbol of evil. The devil himself can be found in the forest. Witches meet there to lead people to spiritual destruction. To Hester and Arthur, however, the forest symbolizes a refuge, freedom from fear and relief from deception. There they can drop all pretense and love each other openly. The forest's natural beauty contrasts starkly with the grim reality of the town. The intricate symbolism in this novel makes it a very complex work, full of truth and mystery.