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Light and Dark in The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter employs dramatic clout within the characters with the light and dark contrast. The “blackness” did not allude to race. The dark colors underline sin and their evil, distraught intentions while the lightness emphasizes innocence and exposure. Hawthorne implies Calvinist beliefs of Innate Depravity within the color of Hester Prynne’s Scarlet Letter, the reactions of Pearl, Prynne’s daughter, depiction of the forest and the “Black Man”.

Hawthorne manipulates the lighting to enforce emotions, depravity, and power. This idea is especially evident with Hester Prynne and Pearl, emphasizing the contrast yet recognizing the irony. Prynne did bear an illegitimate child with Dimmesdale. Based on the idea of Innate Depravity, everyone is born sinful. Pearl was spawned from sin, born a sinner, therefore, she symbolizes sin. Chapter two emphasizes one of the many lights that Pearl is portrayed in. “She bore in her hands a child who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of the day…acquainted only with the gray twilight of dungeon” (36). The image evokes empathy for Pearl’s predicament and Prynne’s imprisonment, as well as revealing her powerless state as she is publicly bared in the day in front of the people in the market-place. The Scarlet Letter was traced with gold thread thus creating an illuminating appearance. Further on, while the stranger gazed at her, “The hot, midday sun burning down upon her face, and lighting up its shame: with the scarlet token of infamy on her breast,” (44). Although she was vulnerable, the “A” was being displayed in power. The Scarlet letter was like the tormenting fire of hell, “Flaming on her breast, to depict the reality of sin” (54).

In addition to the situating of light, Hawthorne illustrates intents with the physical appearance of the characters. Although Pearl is the result of sin, she exhibited rich beauty, “With deep and vivid tints; a bright complexion, eyes possessing intensity both of depth and glow, and hair already of a deep, glossy brown, which will be nearly a kin to black. There was a fire in her,” (69). Hawthorne emphasized the gloss and brightness allude to her negligence in regards to her being a product of sin. The dark hair emphasized her soul being unredeemable from a sinful state. The fire inside of her could possibly be an ambiguous reference to her forever depraved self or the sin that has yet to flourish; sin to flourish could be a result of her solitude leading to her depth in understanding and reliance on self. That idea is an implied concept of anti-transcendentalist. However, others, such as the old minister, relates Pearl’s appearance to that of the Scarlet Letter; “Pearl?—Ruby rather!—or Coral!—or Red Rose, at the very least judging from thy hue,” (75). The different shades of red are darkened with black hues, or thus reiterating depravity and darkness. Old Roger Chillingworth in contrast resembled qualities like that of the devil. Hester was indeed startled by his shaping appearance. “How much uglier they were—how his dark complexion deemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen—since the days when she had familiarly known him.” (77). Further, in the novel, Chillingsworth evil appearance is described the color of his eyes; “A light glimmered out of the physician’s eyes, burning blue and ominous, like the reflection of a furnace,” symbolizing his intents for revenge thus illuminating his soul and personality to some sort of “blackness” (88). His appearance begins to augment his metamorphosis as he begins to “leech” onto Dimmesdale and tortures him slowly. In regards to Dimmesdale, he is described as, “A subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that loved the truth, and loathed the lie; he loathed his miserable self,” (99). His “blackness” was reflected not only by his soul, but by the markings upon his chest and through his physical self-torture. (101-8)

The Black Man that constantly appears in the forest is symbolic of the devil in disguise. Just as the other kept dark secrets, Dimmesdale being the black man, as told by Hester, illustrates disguise, especially when in the forest because it is easy for one to camouflage in the dark. In the forest is also where the witch almost persuaded Prynne to sign her name in the book although she later refused. Black is the most dominant color used to describe sin. Although, “The sunshine does not love Hester, hiding away from the letter upon her bosom,” the deep red hue represents poignancy therefore illuminating overruling power of her sin (126).

By Hawthorne illustrating emotions, power, and sin by colors, it thoroughly connected the plot and created a vivid image of freedom from society. Although Hester was socially outcast for her sin, the social solidarity allowed her to define the whole race of womanhood, developing her feminist/ antinomian beliefs. Society was focused on refining a faith that was already determined, according to Calvinists as well as anti-transcendentalist beliefs, Hester was able to accept her faith rather than ponder on her sin. Besides being a free thinker, intuition over reason was also reiterated; “If the latter possess native sagacity, and a nameless something more, let us call it intuition…bringing all its mysteries into the daylight.” (85). Intuitive reasoning occurred to the characters rather than being practiced by them. In contrast to Hawthorne and Melville, Emerson, a transcendentalist, believed that an individual was guided by reason rather than in control of it. Mr. Dimmesdale experienced spiritual intuition (89) because he did not follow through with, “Publicly addressing the whole human brotherhood in the heart’s native languages,” (97). Therefore, the characters—Dimmesdale especially—“strike the uneven balance” because he remained a hypocrite to his religion and to himself, consciously. Hester and Chillingworth “strike the uneven balance” because Chillingworth was an imposter to others and Hester was becoming too dependent on self-reliance. They were the enemies of the “perfect” society entrusted by the Puritans.

Work Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Dover Publications, 1994. Print.

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