The Scarlet Letter

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter: Metaphors 4 key examples

Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
The Custom House
Explanation and Analysis—Moral Stains:

Metaphorical stains appear as a motif throughout the novel, suggesting that immorality leaves traces that can't be erased. Although the scarlet letter itself is the primary example of such a mark, the narrator introduces the idea of moral stains in the "Custom House" chapter:

His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust!

The narrator describes a moral stain left on the bones of his own grandfather, Judge Hathorne, known for persecuting witches during the Salem Witch trials. The bones must not be literally stained with other people's blood, but the narrator imagines that this man's remains must bear a lasting mark of the atrocities he once committed. Hawthorne himself was descended from Hathorne and changed the spelling of his name to distance himself from this man's sins. He was thus personally familiar with the idea of being marked by immoral actions from long ago, and he felt that it was up to descendants to rid themselves of these old stains.

Pearl functions as a moral stain on Hester. Once Hester is pregnant with Pearl, it is impossible for her to conceal her adultery. But Pearl, like Hawthorne, is also a descendant who has been stained by her parents' actions. In Chapter 6, the narrator writes of Pearl's moral development:

The mother's impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally, they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery lustre, the black shadow, and the untempered light of the intervening substance.

Pearl complicates the idea of moral stains as something always to be eradicated. She is "stained" with Hester's sin, but she is also stained with rays of light that have shone on her as though through a stained glass window. Hester is a complicated person who has stamped Pearl with all kinds of marks. There is beauty in the way Pearl bears all these marks. The fact that Hester's "impassioned state" has added color and depth to the originally "white and clear rays of [Pearl's] moral life" makes for a more interesting and captivating child.

The complexity of Pearl's inherited moral stains allows the scarlet A, too, to become a complex mark of Hester and Dimmesdale's morality. The A takes many forms (the fabric letter, Dimmesdale's brand, the meteor in the sky) and is not always something the characters long to cast off. Pearl even imagines that she will inherit Hester's A one day, and that it will simply mark her passage into adulthood. The A thus comes to signify a variety of meanings, even to the townspeople. Unlike the stain on Judge Hathorne's bones, the stain on Hester and Pearl is not wholly horrifying. Rather, it symbolizes an interest in and an ongoing reckoning with the past.

Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—Pedestal of Shame:

The scaffold is a metaphor at once for shame and truth-telling. In Chapter 3, when Dimmesdale tells Hester that she ought to reveal Pearl's father to the public, he uses a metaphor to call the scaffold a "pedestal of shame:"

["...B]elieve me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so than to hide a guilty heart through life.["]

Dimmesdale metaphorically suggests that the entire scaffold is constructed out of Hester's shame. She rises up before the public not just because she is standing on a physical platform, but because her shame makes her stand out like a sore thumb. Dimmesdale, knowing that he is Pearl's father, imagines that having his identity revealed publicly would instantly place him next to Hester on the pedestal of shared shame. Dimmesdale believes he is rejecting public shame in favor of private guilt, which he suffers in secret and isolation. He imagines that it would be better to be shamed publicly than to suffer alone from guilt, but he can't bear to mount his own "pedestal of shame" without being named by Hester.

Over the course of the novel, Dimmesdale comes to realize that the scaffold is not made out of shame, but rather out of the truth. In Chapter 23, Dimmesdale asks Hester to help him onto the scaffold so that he can reveal to all that he is Pearl's father:

["]Come, Hester, come! Support me up yonder scaffold!”

Dimmesdale's decision to reveal himself has come slowly, and it is driven by a desire to stand with his family (Hester and Pearl) in public. Dimmesdale has held his secret in his heart for seven years, and it has driven him deeper into isolation from his community. He still gives sermons, but they make him feel more cut off from his community because he knows that he is a hypocrite. Although it has long been his impression that he is saving himself from public shame by living in perpetual private guilt, Hester has not been consumed by shame. She has suffered social consequences for adultery, but her openness about what she has done allows her shame to evaporate. For instance, the scarlet letter comes to be devoid of so much meaning over the years. Some people come to wonder why she even wears it.

When Dimmesdale asks Hester to help him onto the scaffold, he has finally come to the realization that standing there seven years ago is what has allowed Hester to heal from the shame of adultery. He is asking her, at last, to help him onto a pedestal of truth-telling. He stood there once before with her and Pearl, under the cover of night, and he is finally ready to stand there when the whole town can see him. By the end of the novel, then, the scaffold is not a pedestal of shame so much as a pedestal where shame can be cured through public honesty.

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Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Heart as Household:

Throughout the novel, the heart serves as a metaphor for the household. For example, in Chapter 4, Chillingworth tells Hester why he wanted to marry her in the first place:

"My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire."

Chillingworth compares his heart to a big, empty house filled with chilly drafts and no fire. He claims that he thought the much younger Hester would bring warmth and family into that empty space. As readers see from his first appearance, Chillingworth has little warmth in his heart even after marrying Hester. It is true that he feels he has been betrayed by Hester's infidelity with Dimmesdale and that this betrayal may have turned his heart cold once more. Still, before this betrayal, Chillingworth left Hester alone on a journey to New England and doesn't seem to have hurried all that much to return to her side. True to his name, Chillingworth's heart is cold and empty by nature. Marriage did not do much to change it.

Dimmesdale, by contrast, is constantly clutching at his heart, which is the true metaphorical home of Hester and Pearl. In Chapter 21, Pearl notices that Dimmesdale treats her and Hester as his family when they are in the forest, but that he pretends not to know them in public and clutches at his heart instead of kissing her forehead:

“[…] [I]n the deep forest, where only the old trees can hear, and the strip of sky see it, he talks with thee, sitting on a heap of moss! And he kisses my forehead, too, so that the little brook would hardly wash it off! But here, in the sunny day, and among all the people, he knows us not; nor must we know him! A strange, sad man is he, with his hand always over his heart!”

As is revealed by the end of the novel, Dimmesdale is clutching at a branded A to match Hester's fabric A. His chest literally bears the mark of Hester and Pearl's belonging there. Pearl's observation about the way Dimmesdale treats her and Hester in private suggests that Dimmesdale truly thinks of Pearl as his daughter, and Hester as his companion. Pearl makes the connection that Dimmesdale clutches at his heart when he is unable to acknowledge the two of them. In public, Dimmesdale seems to carry his household with him in his heart. Keeping his household in his heart and not actually in his house is a heavy emotional burden for Dimmesdale, and it eventually kills him.

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Chapter 6
Explanation and Analysis—Flower of Sin:

In Chapter 6, the narrator uses a great deal of figurative language to describe Pearl and how strange she is. In one metaphor, the narrator compares Pearl to a "lovely and immortal flower" that has emerged from the "rank luxuriance of a guilty passion":

We have as yet hardly spoken of the infant; that little creature, whose innocent life had sprung, by the inscrutable decree of Providence, a lovely and immortal flower, out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion.

This metaphor speaks to the fact that Pearl is living proof that Hester and Dimmesdale sinned (in the eyes of the Church) by having extramarital sex, even if Pearl herself is beautiful and seems as natural and innocent as a flower. She is a living contradiction, and no one is quite sure what to make of her. This is one of many instances in which the novel juxtaposes beauty and sin or wrongdoing.  For instance, in Chapter 1, the roses outside the prison door are a bit of beauty in a place where people may not expect to find it. Under the Puritan government, law and religion were fully intertwined, and there's a strong sense in the novel that the prison is a place not just for lawbreakers, but for sinners. The town tries to contain its sin in the prison, and yet flowers grow at the entrance. Like Pearl, the flowers flourish despite seemingly hostile growing conditions.

The frequency with which sin and beauty appear together in the novel suggests that, unlike Puritan society, the novel is reluctant to condemn sin outright. Pearl is the primary example of the way the novel presents sin and beauty, or sin and life, as intertwined forces. Pearl often seems to know too much. Recalling that Eve's original sin in the Garden of Eden was eating fruit from the tree of knowledge, Pearl seems strongly associated with sin. It is not just her origin story, but also an integral part of her. Still, the novel treats her as something beautiful and good, "a lovely and immortal flower" that is all the more compelling because of its connection to sin.

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Explanation and Analysis—Moral Stains:

Metaphorical stains appear as a motif throughout the novel, suggesting that immorality leaves traces that can't be erased. Although the scarlet letter itself is the primary example of such a mark, the narrator introduces the idea of moral stains in the "Custom House" chapter:

His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust!

The narrator describes a moral stain left on the bones of his own grandfather, Judge Hathorne, known for persecuting witches during the Salem Witch trials. The bones must not be literally stained with other people's blood, but the narrator imagines that this man's remains must bear a lasting mark of the atrocities he once committed. Hawthorne himself was descended from Hathorne and changed the spelling of his name to distance himself from this man's sins. He was thus personally familiar with the idea of being marked by immoral actions from long ago, and he felt that it was up to descendants to rid themselves of these old stains.

Pearl functions as a moral stain on Hester. Once Hester is pregnant with Pearl, it is impossible for her to conceal her adultery. But Pearl, like Hawthorne, is also a descendant who has been stained by her parents' actions. In Chapter 6, the narrator writes of Pearl's moral development:

The mother's impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally, they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery lustre, the black shadow, and the untempered light of the intervening substance.

Pearl complicates the idea of moral stains as something always to be eradicated. She is "stained" with Hester's sin, but she is also stained with rays of light that have shone on her as though through a stained glass window. Hester is a complicated person who has stamped Pearl with all kinds of marks. There is beauty in the way Pearl bears all these marks. The fact that Hester's "impassioned state" has added color and depth to the originally "white and clear rays of [Pearl's] moral life" makes for a more interesting and captivating child.

The complexity of Pearl's inherited moral stains allows the scarlet A, too, to become a complex mark of Hester and Dimmesdale's morality. The A takes many forms (the fabric letter, Dimmesdale's brand, the meteor in the sky) and is not always something the characters long to cast off. Pearl even imagines that she will inherit Hester's A one day, and that it will simply mark her passage into adulthood. The A thus comes to signify a variety of meanings, even to the townspeople. Unlike the stain on Judge Hathorne's bones, the stain on Hester and Pearl is not wholly horrifying. Rather, it symbolizes an interest in and an ongoing reckoning with the past.

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Chapter 21
Explanation and Analysis—Heart as Household:

Throughout the novel, the heart serves as a metaphor for the household. For example, in Chapter 4, Chillingworth tells Hester why he wanted to marry her in the first place:

"My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire."

Chillingworth compares his heart to a big, empty house filled with chilly drafts and no fire. He claims that he thought the much younger Hester would bring warmth and family into that empty space. As readers see from his first appearance, Chillingworth has little warmth in his heart even after marrying Hester. It is true that he feels he has been betrayed by Hester's infidelity with Dimmesdale and that this betrayal may have turned his heart cold once more. Still, before this betrayal, Chillingworth left Hester alone on a journey to New England and doesn't seem to have hurried all that much to return to her side. True to his name, Chillingworth's heart is cold and empty by nature. Marriage did not do much to change it.

Dimmesdale, by contrast, is constantly clutching at his heart, which is the true metaphorical home of Hester and Pearl. In Chapter 21, Pearl notices that Dimmesdale treats her and Hester as his family when they are in the forest, but that he pretends not to know them in public and clutches at his heart instead of kissing her forehead:

“[…] [I]n the deep forest, where only the old trees can hear, and the strip of sky see it, he talks with thee, sitting on a heap of moss! And he kisses my forehead, too, so that the little brook would hardly wash it off! But here, in the sunny day, and among all the people, he knows us not; nor must we know him! A strange, sad man is he, with his hand always over his heart!”

As is revealed by the end of the novel, Dimmesdale is clutching at a branded A to match Hester's fabric A. His chest literally bears the mark of Hester and Pearl's belonging there. Pearl's observation about the way Dimmesdale treats her and Hester in private suggests that Dimmesdale truly thinks of Pearl as his daughter, and Hester as his companion. Pearl makes the connection that Dimmesdale clutches at his heart when he is unable to acknowledge the two of them. In public, Dimmesdale seems to carry his household with him in his heart. Keeping his household in his heart and not actually in his house is a heavy emotional burden for Dimmesdale, and it eventually kills him.

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Chapter 23
Explanation and Analysis—Pedestal of Shame:

The scaffold is a metaphor at once for shame and truth-telling. In Chapter 3, when Dimmesdale tells Hester that she ought to reveal Pearl's father to the public, he uses a metaphor to call the scaffold a "pedestal of shame:"

["...B]elieve me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so than to hide a guilty heart through life.["]

Dimmesdale metaphorically suggests that the entire scaffold is constructed out of Hester's shame. She rises up before the public not just because she is standing on a physical platform, but because her shame makes her stand out like a sore thumb. Dimmesdale, knowing that he is Pearl's father, imagines that having his identity revealed publicly would instantly place him next to Hester on the pedestal of shared shame. Dimmesdale believes he is rejecting public shame in favor of private guilt, which he suffers in secret and isolation. He imagines that it would be better to be shamed publicly than to suffer alone from guilt, but he can't bear to mount his own "pedestal of shame" without being named by Hester.

Over the course of the novel, Dimmesdale comes to realize that the scaffold is not made out of shame, but rather out of the truth. In Chapter 23, Dimmesdale asks Hester to help him onto the scaffold so that he can reveal to all that he is Pearl's father:

["]Come, Hester, come! Support me up yonder scaffold!”

Dimmesdale's decision to reveal himself has come slowly, and it is driven by a desire to stand with his family (Hester and Pearl) in public. Dimmesdale has held his secret in his heart for seven years, and it has driven him deeper into isolation from his community. He still gives sermons, but they make him feel more cut off from his community because he knows that he is a hypocrite. Although it has long been his impression that he is saving himself from public shame by living in perpetual private guilt, Hester has not been consumed by shame. She has suffered social consequences for adultery, but her openness about what she has done allows her shame to evaporate. For instance, the scarlet letter comes to be devoid of so much meaning over the years. Some people come to wonder why she even wears it.

When Dimmesdale asks Hester to help him onto the scaffold, he has finally come to the realization that standing there seven years ago is what has allowed Hester to heal from the shame of adultery. He is asking her, at last, to help him onto a pedestal of truth-telling. He stood there once before with her and Pearl, under the cover of night, and he is finally ready to stand there when the whole town can see him. By the end of the novel, then, the scaffold is not a pedestal of shame so much as a pedestal where shame can be cured through public honesty.

Unlock with LitCharts A+