Discussion Topic

The symbolic significance of the rose bush in The Scarlet Letter

Summary:

The rose bush in The Scarlet Letter symbolizes both nature's resilience and moral blossoming. Situated outside the prison, it contrasts the harshness of Puritan society with the possibility of grace and forgiveness. It serves as a reminder that beauty and compassion can exist even in the bleakest circumstances.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the rose bush symbolize in The Scarlet Letter?

The first two things any community makes, according to the narrator of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, are a cemetery and a prison. This is an indication, of course, of two things that never change in human nature. First is man's tendency to sin and society's need to punish; second is the inevitability of death for all men. It is the prison door which captures our attention for this question and, until the end, this novel.

Right next to the prison door, on one side and almost flush against the threshold of the prison, is a wild rose bush. Every prisoner who goes in or out of the building must see it. To the criminal (sinner) who enters the prison, it is a "fragran[t] and fragile" reminder that beauty still exists; for the "condemned criminal as he [comes] forth to his doom," the sight of the delicate petals is a reminder of Nature's pity (sympathy) for him.

The narrator tells us this rose bush "has been kept alive in history," though he cannot attest to the source of its being there and will not presume to guess. He does say, in the last words of chapter one: 

Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.

In the narrator's words, then, the rose symbolizes a luminescent (bright) touch of morality in this story, or perhaps it will serve as a pure and colorful spot of relief in this woeful tail of "frailty and sorrow." Another way to look at the rose is as a symbol of hope to all who leave or enter the prison, a place which represents sin, condemnation, and punishment. It is as if Nature wants to offer at least a glimmer, a fragile petal of hope to all who feel hopeless and condemned. 

As the story progresses, the rose serves as a kind of relief from the weight of darkness and sin.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the rose bush symbolize in The Scarlet Letter?

At the end of the first chapter, the narrator describes the prison from which Hester enters and then, later, into which she recedes, as the “black flower of civilized society.” Earlier, he noted that two of the first provisions that any new community makes are for a cemetery and a prison, implying that there are two certainties in any community: people will die and people will commit crimes. Those law-breaking sinners will need to be punished by society, and so the prison is constructed. The prison, this “black flower,” is juxtaposed with the “wild rose-bush” that grows just beside its heavy iron-studded door. This rose bush is covered with “delicate gems,” which the narrator claims

offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

The prison is an indication of the lack of mercy and compassion that will be extended to sinners by this Puritan society. The rose bush, however, by growing nearby and producing such beautiful blooms, seems to symbolize the idea that nature does not judge the sinner as society does and that nature will offer kindnesses no matter what.

Further, the narrator notes that the rose bush remains “alive in history” despite the death of the “gigantic pines and oaks” that once overshadowed it. Thus, nature and its will are of much longer duration than any society. The narrator concludes the chapter by suggesting that the roses will “symbolize some sweet moral blossom” that we might find in this story of “human frailty and sorrow.”

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the rose bush symbolize in The Scarlet Letter?

The rose-bush, as we learn in chapter one, is a symbol of the redemptive compassion and kindness inherent in the natural world. Man may build cruel prisons and impose harsh laws, but nature, the great equalizer, will bloom in the form of a wild rose-bush outside the prison wall, allowing even the condemned prisoner the mercy of its sweet scent. The rosebush symbolizes the bounty and mercy of nature.

The novel also suggests that saintly people, such as Ann Hutchinson, help nature bloom sweetly: the goodness of nature and the goodness in the hearts of humans are both, symbolically, fertile soils that bring forth sweet flowers.

Pearl, when asked by the governor who made her, will not say "God," which is the obvious answer, but instead announces that she was plucked by Hester from the wild rose-bush that grew outside the prison door.

This may be a theologically shocking response, but it is also a true answer in terms of the novel's symbolism: Pearl is a fruit of the natural goodness and redemptive compassion of God's creation that is symbolized by the rose-bush.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the rose bush symbolize in The Scarlet Letter?

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. 

Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the rose bush symbolize in The Scarlet Letter?

Chapter 1 of The Scarlet Letter, titled "The Prison Door" describes the "ugly edifice" that is the village's prison. Hawthorne explains that, when the villagers entered their territory for the first time,  they sure would have had all the wishful thinking expected of newcomers who think that they have just reached Utopia.

Nevertheless, after reality sets in, it is more that clear that, even in Utopia, there must be a place where people who are not behaving need to face consequences. Similarly, there is also a need for a cemetery. In this village, both places were plotted in close proximity as far as their planning goes.

Back to the prison, the building is absolutely dilapidated, as its existence is allusive to the people who will eventually end up inside of it. With time, it has begun to decay, and there are grown weeds of the worst kind surrounding it, which gives it a terrible atmosphere. Hawthorne is very descriptive of this place, and his description is anything but positive.

However, in an ironic twist, the author explains,

But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rosebush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems

The significance of the rosebush is found in the explanation that comes afterwards, where it essentially says that the rosebush is a symbol of mercy; a way for nature to tell us that she is more forgiving and understanding than mankind. That she, nature, is willing to smile upon the downtrodden, and even cheer up the day of those whose souls are "the black flower of civilization".

[the rosebush] offer[s] [its] fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him

There are more meanings attributed to the rosebush. Hawthorne says that the rosebush has kept alive despite the bigger trees growing around it and keeping the sun away from it. This shows that the rosebush is a symbol of resilience and strength, much like those who entered prison, not for crimes, but for standing up for their rights and beliefs, such as "the sainted Ann Hutchinson".

Finally, this beautiful, flowering plant is also made to "relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow". This means that, whoever enters the prison, has a sad story to tell. Nobody goes to prison for being happy, stable, or in harmony with life. The prison is a place with people whose "frailty and sorrow" will coexist with them as long as the imprisonment lasts, maybe even longer than that. Therefore, the flower is a way to, at least, give some joy to that lonely soul, and bring some hope back into the hearts of those who witness it.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, what is significant about the rosebush outside the prison door?

In chapter one of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne offers a brief description of the prison in which Hester Prynne has been incarcerated. He does not mention Prynne yet; in fact, he does not allude to the subsequent narrative at all. His purpose in this brief chapter (about a page long) is to set the tone of the story for the reader.

After noting that the prison was one of the first necessities that Boston’s forefathers’ had built, he describes the door of the prison. This door, on which “the rust of the ponderous ironwork looked more antique than anything else in the new world” represents the idea that punishment is a never-ending aspect of life in a civil society. This reflects on the inability of man to behave appropriately—prisons will always be necessary, even in a proposed religious “utopia” like Puritan Boston.

Then Hawthorne mentions the rose bush.

But on one side of the portal . . . was a wild rosebush.

To Hawthorne, this rosebush is more than just an object of natural beauty to relieve the dreariness of the prison, it is also a potential comfort to the prisoner.

Its delicate gems [roses] . . . might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

Note that Hawthorne has suggested that, while man cannot create a functioning society without the need to imprison others, nature has a more forgiving attitude to those who transgress man’s law.

Finally, Hawthorne alludes to his main character, Hester Prynne, without naming her. Look at how the following quote associates the main character with the beauty and goodness of the rose.

It [the rosebush] may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.

It is unusual that Hawthorne actually uses the word “symbolize” in his narrative. He is simply coming right out and telling the reader that the rosebush is a symbol. Writers usually aren’t as obvious as that about their symbols.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the symbolic significance of the "rose bush" in The Scarlet Letter?

The rose bush symbolizes a variety of people, reading enotes style section attached below will give you a great variety of those.

For a most basic symbol, it represents Hester. The rose is a beautiful flower that grows and withers. It has great fragrance and these like positive qualities can be found in Hester with her great skill and humble personality. But a rose will stand up for itself as Hester eventually asserts herself in the novel to Chillingworth and the magistrates.  Hester's life is both beauty and pain, like a rose and its thorns. The red color of a rose has positive and negative connotations as does Hester's love. First, her love was with a forbidden man, thus the negative. Next, her love was a pure and true love, unlike the love of her real marriage.  Many more parallels can be drawn.

Hope this helps you.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the rosebush outside the governor's mansion in The Scarlet Letter?

The rosebush at the governor's mansion is an echo of the mention of the wild rosebush that grew beside the prison door where Pearl was born while her mother was jailed for her adultery. The narrator describes it as covered with roses that "offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him."

Pearl was conceived in an act of passion that Puritan society could not condone. Her mother, Hester Prynne, was living alone in the wake of her husband's disappearance; moreover, their's had been an arranged and loveless marriage, because of her parents' poverty. Pearl's father, Arthur Dimmesdale, would not acknowledge Pearl or Hester because he was a Puritan minister.

The wild rosebush represents something beautiful that comes from Nature, much like Pearl herself. Because the novel is romantic, Pearl has a seemingly supernatural ability to intuit that she is wild and beautiful as well. When Pearl reaches out and cries for the rose in the governor's garden, it is as if she has a sense memory of the place of her birth and identifies with the rose's natural beauty.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on