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Throughout the novel 'The Scarlet Letter' there is the repeated use of symbolism. To some readers the use of repeated symbolism is Hawthorne’s way to unify the novel and add a deeper level of meaning to the story. To others this symbolism is seen as a monotonous repetition that becomes mechanical at times.
Henry James found the symbolism in the Scarlet Letter very repetitious. James states that, “…In 'The Scarlet Letter' there is a great deal of symbolism; there is I think, too much. It is over done at times, and becomes mechanical…”. To prove his point James uses an example. James states that, “ …The Idea of the mystic A which the young minister finds imprinted upon his breast and eating into his flesh, in sympathy with the embroidered badge that Hester is condemned to wear appears to me to be a case in point. This suggestion should, I think have been just made and dropped…”. The A, which is imbedded into Dimmesdale breast, can be viewed as James stated. Although, others could argue that this A which covers his heart helps the reader to see that the minister will never be able to escape his sin even if he doesn’t have the strength to admit it. Dimmesdale is forced to take the A with him where ever he goes as a remembrance. Without the A imbedded on his chest, the reader would lose the valuable connection between the agonies that Dimmesdale must face without revealing his sin. Also, the A that is on Dimmesdale’s breast is repeatedly seen in the gesture of placing his hand over his heart. This is the ministers attempt to cover his mark of sinfulness and prevent his exposure. It also suggests his nervous condition and grieved state. Two examples of Dimmesdale caught in the act of trying to hide his sin by this gesture are when Hawthorne says, “…She will not speak!” “Murmured Mr. Dimmesdale, who leaning over the balcony, with his hand upon his heart, had awaited the result of his appeal…”. This scene takes place when Hester is on the scaffold and is asked to reveal the man who sinned with her and she refuses. The second example of this repeated symbolism is when Hawthorne writes “The mostly do,” “said the clergyman, gripping hard at his breast as if afflicted with an importunate throb of pain…”. This scene takes place when Chillingworth is trying to get Dimmesdale to confess to his sin. Without the repetition of Dimmesdale grabbing at his chest or putting his hand over his heart, the reader would lose site of the agony that Dimmesdale is experiencing keeping his secret locked away from the world.
Henry James also argues that the repetition of symbolism ruins the poetic writing of Hawthorne. This is supported by the scene where Dimmesdale is on the scaffold and calls Hester and Pearl to join him. James states that, “In this masterly episode the effect is almost spoiled by the introduction of one of these superficial conceits”. Henry James is impressed that it is an imaginative, poetic scene but the red A ruins it. James concludes, “ We feel he goes to far and is in danger of crossing the line that separates the sublime from the intimate neighbour. We are tempted to say that this is not moral tragedy, but physical comedy”. Another view of this scene might be that the A helps the reader to see that neither Hester or Dimmesdale, wherever they are, can ever escape the blood red A that haunts them both because of their sin. The A adds to the pain the characters are experiencing and allows the reader to become sympathetic. Without the repetition of the blood red A it is impossible to understand how deeply it effects all the characters in the Scarlet Letter and that it is a plague that will follow all of them till their deaths.
There are three scenes in the Scarlet letter that include the scaffold. In all three scenes the scaffold is a symbol of repentance and God’s platform on the day of Judgment. It is a reflection of appearing before the almighty in one’s weakness. At first Dimmesdale experiences great difficulty in standing on the platform and confessing his sin first when he asks Hester to tell the world of the man who has sinned with her and when he stands on the scaffold at night. But in the end, Dimmesdale is able to bravely stand on the scaffold and confess his sins in the light and before the Puritan people. With out these three scenes with the scaffold and the symbolism that the scaffold holds, the reader would be unable to experience Dimmesdale the coward or Dimmesdale taking a stand for the sins he has committed.
When reading a novel there is always going to be different ways to view the author’s style of writing. In Henry James’s case he founds Hawthorne’s repetition of symbolism to be overused and took away from the poetic style that Hawthorne creates. But others might have seen Hawthorne’s symbolism as the defining quality of the book. The symbolism helped the novel define aspects of the story and repeated them so the reader would not lose sight of the importance of them.
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