Honors English 10
December 11, 2015
“‘The Sunshine Does Not Love You’”: Use of Semiotics in The Scarlet Letter
The Romantic Era: an undeniably significant milestone in the transition from British-American literature to American literature. The Romantic Era broke out of the confinements of the previous Enlightenment period to use more symbolism, natural elements, and emotion. For example, in describing the scientific concept of electricity, Benjamin Franklin plainly states states, “To electrise plus or minus… the parts of the Tube or Sphere… attract the Electrical Fire” while Nathaniel Hawthorne artistically phrases “the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time.” This being said, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter perfectly illustrates Romantic techniques. In order to fully comprehend the text, it becomes necessary to consider Nathaniel Hawthorne’s implants of semiotics into The Scarlet Letter through clear symbols such as Hester Prynne’s embroidered “A”, the brook in the forest, and the use of sunlight.
Regarding the letter, Hester’s Scarlet “A” operates initially to humiliate her, with the letter representing Hester’s sin and moral failure, yet over time, it begins to have a positive connotation throughout the community. It remains to be seen that the scarlet “A” represents different concepts to different characters: to the Puritan community, it reflects their disgust with Hester’s actions, shaming her to make them look more pious; to Hester, the letter represents mere humiliation, for Hester fails to recognise what she has done as sin. Hawthorne once commented that the stigma “had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity” (41). This quote draws imagery of two worlds: one for the sinners, and one for the pure. Hawthorne’s Puritan community classically finds pride in covering up their own crimes by professing to be saints, lacking even the urge to transgress. The Puritans are so harsh on Hester because her wrong makes them look all the more holy by comparison. Hester’s “ token of infamy and sin-born infant” (48) serve as a reminder of both the consequences of sins and the sanctity of the rest of the community. On the contrary, the embroidered letter evolves into a sign of Hester’s nobility and kindness, uplifting her as an exemplary Samaritan though the “A” originally serves to isolate her from the community. To use Hawthorne’s words, it “ceased to be a stigma and became a type of something to be… looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too ” (199). The mere transition reads simply, but the warranted purpose for this transition proves more blurry. Rather heartwarmingly, Hawthorne seems to be perpetuating a “what comes around goes around” theme: despite Hester’s past actions, gender, and perspicaciousness (an ugly quality for a woman of that time), her charitable work justifies the evolution of her “A”. The original prosecutors then “said that it meant Abel… and had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token… of her many good deeds” (123). A complete analysis cannot be made without a full understanding of these essential semiotics.
To point out another dominant motif, as the epitome of Romantic Era literature, The Scarlet Letter uses nature and natural events to reflect inner feelings of and relationships between characters. Notably, Hawthorne specifically uses the brook as comparison to Pearl, symbolizing her characteristics and her relationship to Hester. Freely-interpreted metaphors aside, Hawthorne directly associates Pearl with the brook in saying “Pearl resembled the brook, inasmuch as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as mysterious” (142). This sentence serves to point out that Pearl has an equally devilish and holy origin, having been created out of wedlock but also having been created in love. Pearl has “flowed through scenes shadowed as heavily with gloom” (142) in constantly accompanying her mother in times of shame and humiliation as well as in times of praise. In making this one direct comparison, the reader automatically relates Pearl with the brook in future instances. When Hawthorne then writes that “the streamlet kept up a babble, kind, quiet, soothing, but melancholy, like the voice of a young child that was spending its infancy without playfulness, and knew not how to be merry among sad acquaintance and events of sombre hue” (142), a reader can not help but realize this refers to Pearl, limited by her mother’s reputation.
Sunlight also plays a very important role in this novel, as its presence indicates Hester’s success and/or happiness while its absence marks a time of solitude and/or discontent. You can especially visualize Hawthorne’s marks of imagery in “A Flood of Sunshine” where sunlight plays the constant role of interpreting emotion. When in the mysterious and secretive forest, Hester decides to temporarily escape from the confinement her scarlet letter provides by undoing “the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and… [throwing] it to a distance” (155) and removing “the formal cap that confined her hair” (155). All of the sudden, as if to symbolize her freedom and happiness in being free, “with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance” (155). There are more clear, representative instances. Once Hester had to repin her embroidered letter and retie her hair, “her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed like fading sunshine, and a gray shadow seemed to fall across her” (162). Hawthorne’s clear semiotic devices serve to help readers further imagine and connect to the thrill and pain that Hester feels.
In summary, as is fitting in the Romantic Era, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter relies upon symbolism, particularly in nature, to provide insight in the emotions of characters. Hawthorne was extremely effective in his techniques of conveying this. As one of the first Romantic American authors, Hawthorne not only used romantic techniques, but helped to create them. His ambiguity and his imagery fueled the imagination, causing The Scarlet Letter to be filled with emotion, opinion, and feeling, and fortunately so, for without significant symbols like Hester’s “A”, the brook in the forest, and the use of sunlight, the novel could not be read the same way.