The Scarlet Letter


Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter: Personification 4 key examples

Definition of Personification
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down on the wedding guests, indifferent... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the... read full definition
Chapter 5
Explanation and Analysis—Vanity in Clothes:

In Chapter 5, the narrator describes how Hester makes money by sewing clothing, including quite ornate clothing that may not be strictly in keeping with Puritan ideals. The narrator uses personification to describe how her clothing brings the vanity of the townspeople to life:

Vanity, it may be, chose to mortify itself, by putting on, for ceremonials of pomp and state, the garments that had been wrought by her sinful hands.

The narrator claims that Vanity is "mortifying" itself by wearing the clothes Hester makes. This does not mean, as it might in colloquial speech today, that Vanity is embarrassing itself. Rather, it means that it is giving itself an embodied form: Vanity walks upright when the Puritans don Hester's garments "for ceremonials of pomp and state." There is a sense of vengeance in this passage. Hester has been treated horribly by the Puritans, but she can get back at them by making their hypocrisy evident. The Puritans ought not to be vain, and they ought not to do business with Hester if they truly believe she is not fit to be a full member of society. When they buy and wear her clothes, they reveal that they have just as many human flaws as she does.

Hester's hands are also personified in this passage. Hands on their own cannot really commit sin because they do not have their own soul or conscience. Her hands metaphorically stand in for her entire being, but it is worth considering why the narrator makes this substitution. In this case, her hands are "sinful" not necessarily because of her adultery but because of the work they are doing. Her hands are making fancy clothes, and they are accepting money in exchange for these clothes. Hester's willingness to work for money is completely understandable, given that she is supporting herself and Pearl on her own, but women's participation in the economic sphere was nonetheless seen by many early Americans as a moral tragedy. The need to work was what separated many American women from true aristocratic "ladies" in England, and many people believed that working for pay corrupted women's souls.

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 16
Explanation and Analysis—Inconsolable Brook:

Hester and Pearl go into the forest in Chapter 16, and Pearl is disturbed by the fact that the brook seems to be crying rather than laughing. The brook's personification as an inconsolable being foreshadows the difficult meeting Hester is about to have with Dimmesdale:

But the little stream would not be comforted, and still kept telling its unintelligible secret of some very mournful mystery that had happened—or making a prophetic lamentation about something that was yet to happen—within the verge of the dismal forest.

Pearl has a history of personifying inanimate objects in nature, and she seeks a playmate in the brook. She wants it to make happy sounds; after all, Hester has told her to stay where she can hear the brook "babbling." In this instance, the little stream resists the kind of personification Pearl wants to project onto it. Rather than babbling happily, it seems to blubber unceasingly about a secret, dark prophecy of what is to come in the forest. Hester is about to reveal to Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her estranged husband, and she does not know how he will react. Of course, the brook is just a brook and is likely making some version of the noise it always makes. The figure of speech in this passage helps emphasize that the forest is a mysterious and sometimes dangerous place where secrets are kept. It also gives a sense of the emotional atmosphere. Pearl, whose imagination is behind much of the personification in the novel, seems to sense the tension her mother is feeling about her meeting with Dimmesdale. Her frustration that she can't do anything about it manifests as frustration that the brook won't be cheered up.

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Chapter 18
Explanation and Analysis—Bad Teachers:

An instance of personification occurs in Chapter 18, when the narrator reflects on how wearing the scarlet letter has prepared Hester to flee Boston with Dimmesdale:

Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.

The narrator figures shame, despair, and solitude not as mere feelings or experiences, but as "stern and wild" teachers. This personification allows the narrator to comment on flawed teachers and on flawed ways of learning from teachers. Following the teachings of shame, despair, and solitude has taught Hester how to tolerate a lonely existence on the edges of society and how to tolerate her own failure to adhere to the rules of Puritan society. These teachers have thus prepared Hester to run away from Boston, even if that is not what the Puritans want her to do. Nonetheless, uncritically following the teachings of shame, despair, and solitude has led Hester to put up with seven years of suffering that she need not have endured. She could have left Boston long ago with Pearl and made a life for herself in a community that could make room for flawed people. She and Pearl both could have led a less painful and no less moral existence if they had left.

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