The Scarlet Letter

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter: Imagery 3 key examples

Definition of Imagery
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines... read full definition
Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Light and Dark:

Light and dark imagery appears throughout the novel as a motif, often representing secrets and disclosure. For instance, in Chapter 12, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl stand together on the scaffold at night but under the light of a meteor:

And there stood the minister, with his hand over his heart; and Hester Prynne, with the embroidered letter glimmering on her bosom; and little Pearl, herself a symbol, and the connecting link between those two. They stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendor, as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets, and the daybreak that shall unite all who belong to one another.

Although Dimmesdale is Pearl's father, these three have scarcely ever spent time together. Dimmesdale is too afraid to publicly claim paternity, and Hester will not reveal his identity for him. This nighttime rendezvous on the scaffold represents the fact that they would like to stand together in public but that they remain shrouded in the darkness of their family secret. The meteor's sudden light is described as "the light that is to reveal all secrets," and the meteor itself forms the shape of an "A," like the twin scarlet letters on Hester and Dimmesdale's chests. This sudden burst of light is a clear sign that the universe wants Dimmesdale to disclose his secret so that he, Hester, and Pearl can be "united." That union will be a relief from dark and shameful secrecy, and it also seems as inevitable as "daybreak."

Light and dark imagery is especially heavy-handed in this scene on the scaffold, but it has been at play since the first scene on the scaffold in Chapter 2, when Hester is brought out of the prison to be publicly shamed:

The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand.

The beadle is supposed to lead the town's effort to force Hester to disclose the identity of Pearl's father. He emerges out of the shadowy prison into the sunshine because he is seen as a crusader for truth (which, as we have seen, is associated with light). When Hester and Pearl emerge, Pearl hides her face from the light: she and Hester are not ready to expose the secret. Throughout the novel, secret conversations take place under cover of night and in the forest. By contrast, when Dimmesdale finally does confess, the sun is high in the sky. Dimmesdale may die right after he discloses his secret, but this moment still constitutes a "daybreak" because he dies in light (truth) rather than darkness (shameful secrecy). Just as the meteor promises, telling the truth allows Dimmesdale and Hester, who "belong to another," to be eternally united in a shared grave.

Chapter 6
Explanation and Analysis—Pine-Tree Puritans:

In Chapter 6, the narrator describes how Pearl plays imaginary games by herself, imagining that the trees and flowers around her are people from town. Vivid imagery contributes to the personification of plants as people:

The pine-trees, aged, black and solemn, and flinging groans and other melancholy utterances on the breeze, needed little transformation to figure as Puritan elders; the ugliest weeds of the garden were their children, whom Pearl smote down and uprooted, most unmercifully.

The reader can hear the "groans and other melancholy utterances" as the tree branches sway in the wind. The image of the "black and solemn" trees towering overhead is personified as a cluster of Puritan elders. This comparison, filtered through Pearl's experience and imagination, allows the reader to understand how intimidating the Puritan elders must be to a young child whose very existence they would like to eradicate from their midst. To Pearl, these men might as well be huge trees, uttering incomprehensible "groans and utterances" overhead and threatening to drop branches down on her. On the other hand, weeds ripped up by the roots are personified as Puritan children. The image of Pearl "unmercifully" tearing the weeds from the ground not to save other plants, but simply in order to "smite" them, magnifies her once more. Whereas the passage emphasizes her smallness in comparison to the Puritan elders, Pearl is a giant in comparison to the peers who have bullied her. The combination of personification and imagery allows the narrator to get at the complexities of Pearl's imaginary games, which involve working through feelings of both power and powerlessness.

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Chapter 12
Explanation and Analysis—Light and Dark:

Light and dark imagery appears throughout the novel as a motif, often representing secrets and disclosure. For instance, in Chapter 12, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl stand together on the scaffold at night but under the light of a meteor:

And there stood the minister, with his hand over his heart; and Hester Prynne, with the embroidered letter glimmering on her bosom; and little Pearl, herself a symbol, and the connecting link between those two. They stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendor, as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets, and the daybreak that shall unite all who belong to one another.

Although Dimmesdale is Pearl's father, these three have scarcely ever spent time together. Dimmesdale is too afraid to publicly claim paternity, and Hester will not reveal his identity for him. This nighttime rendezvous on the scaffold represents the fact that they would like to stand together in public but that they remain shrouded in the darkness of their family secret. The meteor's sudden light is described as "the light that is to reveal all secrets," and the meteor itself forms the shape of an "A," like the twin scarlet letters on Hester and Dimmesdale's chests. This sudden burst of light is a clear sign that the universe wants Dimmesdale to disclose his secret so that he, Hester, and Pearl can be "united." That union will be a relief from dark and shameful secrecy, and it also seems as inevitable as "daybreak."

Light and dark imagery is especially heavy-handed in this scene on the scaffold, but it has been at play since the first scene on the scaffold in Chapter 2, when Hester is brought out of the prison to be publicly shamed:

The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand.

The beadle is supposed to lead the town's effort to force Hester to disclose the identity of Pearl's father. He emerges out of the shadowy prison into the sunshine because he is seen as a crusader for truth (which, as we have seen, is associated with light). When Hester and Pearl emerge, Pearl hides her face from the light: she and Hester are not ready to expose the secret. Throughout the novel, secret conversations take place under cover of night and in the forest. By contrast, when Dimmesdale finally does confess, the sun is high in the sky. Dimmesdale may die right after he discloses his secret, but this moment still constitutes a "daybreak" because he dies in light (truth) rather than darkness (shameful secrecy). Just as the meteor promises, telling the truth allows Dimmesdale and Hester, who "belong to another," to be eternally united in a shared grave.

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Chapter 15
Explanation and Analysis—Wild Child:

In Chapter 15, Pearl tosses rocks into the water while Hester and Chillingworth have a secret conversation outside of town. The narrator uses nature imagery to emphasize that Pearl is both a "wild" creature and a human child:

One little gray bird, with a white breast, Pearl was almost sure, had been hit by a pebble, and fluttered away with a broken wing. But then the elf-child sighed, and gave up her sport; because it grieved her to have done harm to a little being that was as wild as the sea-breeze, or as wild as Pearl herself.

The images of the injured little bird and the "sea-breeze" draw on the reader's senses (sight but also sound, smell, and even touch). The reader is transported to the seaside and feels viscerally what it is like to be there. By describing Pearl as "wild"—just like the sea-breeze—the narrator transforms her into part of the natural landscape. By the end of the last sentence in this passage, she belongs to nature.

But before Pearl comes into view as a "wild" creature, the narrator first describes the imagery from Pearl's point of view. The reader sees what Pearl sees and feels her remorse at having injured the bird. The imagery thus does not conjure nature in a serene vacuum, but rather helps dramatize human contact with nature, ultimately acknowledging that such contact can be violent. After all, the bird has a broken wing because a human (Pearl) threw a rock at it. The imagery thus helps the reader see Pearl as part of both the "wild" natural surroundings and as part of the cruelty of human society. This passage highlights the novel's central critique, which is that Puritans do harm by trying too hard to "civilize" things that are "wild" (including, of course, humans themselves).

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