The Scarlet Letter


Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter: Similes 4 key examples

Definition of Simile
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often use the connecting words "like" or "as," but can also... read full definition
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often use the connecting words "like... read full definition
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often... read full definition
The Custom House
Explanation and Analysis—Ruined Fortress:

In "The Custom House," the narrator uses a simile to describe an old general he used to see sitting by the fire:

To observe and define his character, however, under such disadvantages, was as difficult a task as to trace out and build up anew, in imagination, an old fortress, like Ticonderoga, from a view of its gray and broken ruins. Here and there, perchance, the walls may remain almost complete, but elsewhere may be only a shapeless mound, cumbrous with its very strength, and overgrown, through long years of peace and neglect, with grass and alien weeds.

The narrator compares looking at the aged general to looking at the ruins of Fort Ticonderoga, a fort built by the French in the 18th century and used during both the Seven Years' War and the American Revolutionary War. The comparison suggests that it is enrapturing to stare at the old general, but that it is difficult to fully imagine what he was like in his prime. Now that the Revolution is over, both the general and the fort have fallen out of use. In addition to injuries they suffered in the war, they also bear the marks of age and neglect. Eventually, there will be no more trace of either. For now, what is left of them requires viewers to use their imaginations to reconstruct their former glory.

This is an example of the many moments in "The Custom House" that seem like digressions but are in fact more meaningful than they first appear. The narrator goes on to describe writing the novel in similar terms to observing the Fort or the general. Reconstructing Puritan society and Hester's story out of the scarlet letter involves working his imagination to see all of the context that may once have surrounded this object. The simile comparing the general to the ruins of Fort Ticonderoga contributes to the narrator's playfulness about genre, truth, and fiction. Imagination, this passage argues, is as integral to reconstructing history as it is to making up stories. It is even more difficult to imagine what the American colonies were like in the 1600s than in the 1700s, when Fort Ticonderoga was built. The narrator's intense imagination can be said to work toward reanimating a true picture of the past at least as much as it can be said to work toward inventing a fiction.

Explanation and Analysis—Headless Horseman:

In "The Custom House," the narrator describes how he was ousted from his position as Surveyor. To make sense of what happened, he uses a simile alluding to Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow":

Meanwhile the press had taken up my affair, and kept me, for a week or two, careering through the public prints, in my decapitated state, like Irving's Headless Horseman; ghastly and grim, and longing to be buried, as a politically dead man ought. So much for my figurative self. The real human being, all this time, with his head safely on his shoulders, had brought himself to the comfortable conclusion that everything was for the best; and, making an investment in ink, paper, and steel-pens, had opened his long-disused writing-desk, and was again a literary man.

The Headless Horseman is a character in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." This character is the legendary ghost of a Hessian soldier who was killed in battle during the American Revolution; he supposedly haunts the village of Sleepy Hollow, riding around with his head detached and searching for his grave. The narrator notes that he, like the Headless Horseman, is "politically dead." He seems to be getting at the fact that neither of their political attachments matter anymore. Irving published "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in 1819, and it is set in 1790, soon after the Constitution established that the American Revolution was truly over. The Hessian army had aided the British during that revolution, but by 1790 they were irrelevant to the American political landscape. The Hessian soldier haunts Sleepy Hollow because while he should leave American soil, his death has trapped him there.

The simile that the narrator of "The Custom House" uses is, of course, a bit dramatic. The narrator is not dead, and he is not exactly bound to soil where he is not a citizen. But it is true that he suddenly finds himself in a place where he is all but irrelevant politically. The Whig government has pushed Democrats like the narrator to the sidelines. He continues for a few weeks to work as a Surveyor in the Custom House, but the newspapers are going after him to such a degree that his ousting seems inevitable. It does not matter how well he does his job if the Custom House has turned into a Whig institution with no place for him.

The reference also allows the narrator to suggest that he can be more effective as a fiction writer who analyzes national history than he can be as a government bureaucrat. The "real human being" beneath the trappings of public office is not like the Headless Horseman, the narrator writes of himself. He is not too upset about being chased out of office because the change allows him once more to embrace his real identity as "a literary man."

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Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Shame as Death:

In Chapter 2, the narrator notes that Hester's punishment for adultery (standing on the scaffold and wearing the scarlet A) is more severe than what 19th-century readers might expect her to face. Using a simile, the narrator compares shame for the Puritans to death for anyone else:

[...] [A] penalty, which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.

This simile suggests that public shaming in a Puritan context is tantamount to capital punishment. The narrator seems to be only half serious here. On the one hand, the Puritans did place enormous weight on shame as a deterrent from behavior they wanted to eradicate from society. Twenty-first-century readers, perhaps even more than 19th-century readers because of the Internet, can understand that public shaming is a very difficult punishment to bear. Although contemporary readers might not make the same comparison, it is not unimaginable that the Puritans would have equated public shame to capital punishment.

On the other hand, public shame does not seem to deter any of the Puritans from behaving in ways unbecoming to a good Puritan. Hester and Dimmesdale are far from the only sinners. The townspeople buy Hester's decadent textiles, they gossip about their neighbors' love lives, and they misunderstand the basics of Puritan doctrine, such as whether or not a Puritan minister would ever take a vow of celibacy (this is a Catholic practice, not a Puritan one). Hester, as we see, does not let public shaming end her life. She has Pearl, and she creates a life with her. Hester is ahead of Puritan ideology in the way she bears shame without letting it destroy her. Dimmesdale, the mouthpiece of Puritan ideology, cannot say the same. Ascribing to Puritan ideology about shame is Dimmesdale's downfall, but the novel is skeptical of the idea that shame is truly like death for most of the Puritans. By making fun of Puritans for failing to live up to their own ideological commitments, the narrator raises the question for readers of whether they are living up to theirs. For 19th-century American readers in the era of slavery, this meant questioning the extent to which their supposed commitment to freedom was borne out by their daily lives.

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Chapter 6
Explanation and Analysis—Pearl's Otherworldliness:

Pearl is often described as an "elf-child" and has a mystical quality about her that even Hester recognizes. The narrator uses a simile in Chapter 6 to describe Hester's thoughts on Pearl's otherworldly nature:

Hester could not help questioning, at such moments, whether Pearl were a human child. She seemed rather an airy sprite, which, after playing its fantastic sports for a little while upon the cottage floor, would flit away with a mocking smile. Whenever that look appeared in her wild, bright, deeply black eyes, it invested her with a strange remoteness and intangibility; it was as if she were hovering in the air and might vanish, like a glimmering light, that comes we know not whence, and goes we know not whither.

According to the narrator, Pearl reminds Hester of an "airy sprite" or fairy that lights up the room and evades capture or understanding of its true nature. Pearl comes from Hester, and yet Hester has the sense that she does not know where Pearl comes from. This simile, and the frequent comparisons of Pearl to an ethereal being, contributes to the sense that the novel is almost a fantasy. It draws on lore about "changelings," or fairy children who were switched at birth with human babies. This lore was important to the work of historical novelist Walter Scott, whose work Hawthorne builds on to create an American historical romance. Like Scott and other writers of historical romance, Hawthorne flirts with the possibility that magic and folklore were real in the distant past and that they are part of his national heritage.

The idea that Pearl could be magical is especially important given the novel's setting in Puritan Salem, where the most infamous American witch trials took place. Many people in Salem, especially women, were tried and executed under suspicion of witchcraft around the time the events of the novel take place. The reason witchcraft was a punishable offense is that it was equated with sin and devil-worship, which the Puritan Church saw as major threats to humanity. If Pearl seems like a magical being, it might be because she is the product of sin. But Pearl fits the description of a fairy more than she fits the description of a witch. She is associated with light and truth as much as she is associated with darkness and deception. Despite public speculation that she is a demon baby, even Governor Bellingham insists that she is a child of God. Pearl's perplexing nature challenges the Puritan binary between good Puritans and "witches" by introducing the idea that goodness and sin can be rolled up together. What seems like Pearl's otherworldly quality is simply the fact that she contains, within her tiny human body, all the complexities of human nature that Puritan ideology rejects.

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