What is the symbolism of the color red as it is used in The Scarlet Letter?

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appletrees eNotes educator| Certified Educator


The color red is one of the most heavily symbolic of all the colors. Being a primary color, it lends its hue to secondary and tertiary shades such as purple and orange, or red-orange and red-purple. But red's prominence in nature and in man-made objects make it a major source of meaning in the arts including literature. Red is closely associated with the realm of the emotions: it is the color assigned the human heart the color of blood, and is variously associated with love, passion, sexuality, romance, anger, embarrassment, will and excitement. It is associated with the color Mars (the "Red Planet"), and the Roman god the planet was name for: Mars/Ares, a god of war who was known to be forceful on occasion. Red is associated with other figures in mythology such as Adonis whose death from being slain by a wild boar caused red roses to grow. It is said that the color red has a strong effect on people, and that seeing it can even raise the heart rate. 

The term "scarlet woman" is used in literature to refer to a woman who is promiscuous, or who commits adultery. Though it is tempting to assume this expression comes from Hawthorne's novel, it goes back further, to the Whore of Babylon depicted in the Bible. We often see visual representations of such women dressed in red; most famously Scarlet O'Hara wears a red gown to a ball soon after the death of her husband (when normally she would be expected to wear black), and where she scandalously dances with Rhett Butler, who she later falls in love with. In Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts ears a sophisticated red gown to denote her transformation form a low class prostitute to a glamorous lady, but the red is a reminder of her previous occupation.

The use of the color red in this novel is obviously associated with Hester's sin of adultery, but it also is reflective of the various emotions surrounding her actions: the shame and embarrassment of her lover, the anger of the townspeople towards her, and the passionate love that caused her indiscretion. 


gpane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The use of the colour red is most visible in this novel in the form of the scarlet letter. To the Puritan community it signifies Hester's sin and shame in having committed adultery, but the use of the colour also seems to have broader meaning in the novel as a whole. It is a striking colour, the symbol of passion and perhaps of life itself. Another notable instance of the use of red is in the depiction of the wild rosebush just outside of the prison door. Its beauty and vividness contrasts sharply with the barrenness and essential lifelessness of the prison. Pearl, the little girl so full of life and spirit, also sometimes wears red.

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The Scarlet Letter

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