As the novel begins, there is a dark atmosphere about the town. Hester Prynne is brought out to the scaffold that gloomy afternoon and is condemned for committing adultery. As the story progresses, the reader meets new characters, all of them with their own dilemma. The situations presented in the novel either have a light side, thus meaning good, or an evil darker side. These situations add drama to the novel, giving the novel life. The use of light and dark is frequently used to represent good and evil, in the novel The Scarlet Letter written by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The literary theme light versus dark is used by many authors to depict strong feelings in a story. The use of the light and dark settings will establish the mood for the reader depending on the description. The author could use a bright and sunny day to create the mood, in this case, peaceful, loving and happy. In contrast to this, the author could also use a gloomy and dark setting to make the mood scary and evil. Darkness is used to portray hatred and punishment, or in the puritan society sin. The novel The Scarlet Letter is mainly a gloomy, dark story because it is centered on sin in the puritan society.
Through out The Scarlet Letter, light is used to show happiness and goodness. One of the most happy and cheerful characters in the novel is Pearl, who is represented by the light. As Fogle (1969) states, “Pearl is the character most recognized for her presence in the sun (p. 38). The sun is drawn to her as she is drawn to the sun. In one scene, while in the forest with her mother, Hester, Pearl realizes that sun does not shine on her mother but it does in fact shine on herself. She thinks it may have something to do with the letter “A on her mother’s chest, but she is not certain. Pearl loves to play in the sun, as said before, she is drawn to it. She would rather play in the sun with nature, alone, than playing with children of her own age. She enjoys frolicking in the forest, just prancing around without a care having the scattered light dance over her through the trees. When Pearl and her mother are in the governor’s house, Pearl adores the sunlight shining through the stained glass windows. Subsequent to this, Pearl asks her mother for some of her sunlight. Hester simply responds, “I have none to give thee. (Hawthorne, chapter 4)
Hester has no sunlight to give thee because she has committed the sin of adultery. Through out the novel Hester is not seen much in the sun. She avoids going into the sun because it illuminates and exposes the scarlet “A on her chest. Hester used to be one of the finest most beautiful puritan women in the town. The sunlight would shine down on her almost brighter than it did on the other puritans, almost like a halo. When Hester committed the sin of adultery, her light and beauty quickly vanished. She no longer had the halo shinning over her head, but now it was almost as though a curtain of darkness fell over her soul and presence. At one point, near the conclusion of the novel, Hester redeemed her puritan soul and got her light back. She had made plans to travel to Europe, to live a peaceful and happy life, with her partner in sin, Dimmesdale, and Pearl. At that moment she took off her bonnet and ripped that lousy scarlet “A off of her chest. A beam of light then shown down upon her, upon her bosom, revealing her cleansed soul. She had now looked almost as beautiful as she did in the beginning of the novel, no longer carrying that painful weight upon her shoulders, the scarlet letter. When this was all happening, Hester called for her daughter Pearl to come to her. Pearl did not come and it was as if though Pearl did not recognize her own mother without the scarlet letter upon her chest. This symbolized that Pearl will always be a reminder of Hester’s dark life, no matter where she will go.
The man known as Reverend Dimmesdale is the person who Hester had her affair with. He was once represented by the light for he used to be a well-respected, good mannered person. He was not punished for his actions for no one knew that it was their Reverend that had had committed adultery with Hester. Although he was not punished, he brought himself down with his own guilt, which for him was a very injurious punishment. His guilt made him a darker person as the novel moved on, and this same guilt later brought about his death in the end.
Nathaniel Hawthorne uses the dark imagery many times in this novel. The darkness is used to depict many scenes in the novel mainly because there is a lot of sin occurring, and sin is represented by the literary theme darkness. Hester is the main person presented in the novel that represents darkness the best. Hester is represented by the darkness of the novel because she is the main sinner of all the characters. As Marlow (2001) states “Hester is not perceived as an evil person, but her sin makes her light hide away. (p. 1). While walking in the forest with Hester, Pearl briefly notices the sun does not shine on Hester and says, “the sun does not like you, it hides from something on you bosom. (Hawthorne, 1988) This scene emphasizes Hester’s scarlet letter upon her chest, the punishment she has been given, which is making her a darker person as she strays from the light.
Chillingworth, Hester’s husband when she was having an affair, is one of the darkest people in the novel. As Tharpe (1969) states “Roger Chillingworth is a character who is almost satin-like (p. 38). Chillingworth is described by Pearl as the black man, or the devil. Through out the novel, he is striving for revenge. He is obsessed with finding Hester’s partner in crime. It is this obsession that makes him so evil or dark. When he finds out that Dimmesdale is Hester’s partner he begins to slowly kill him as though “digging for gold in a dark mine. (Serrano, p. 6) Whenever Chillingworth is presented in the book he is always wearing dark clothes and found in dark places. When at the scaffold he is dressed in dark ragged clothes and in the dark forest he is draped in a black cloak. When Chillingworth is in the dark forest he then best resembles the black man.
The main location represented with darkness is the gloomy forest. When someone in the puritan village sins, they are exiled and sent to the forest to live on their own. This was where Hester was sent when she committed adultery. In the puritan society and in the novel the devil is called the black man. The black man is only seen in the dark forest and this is why the sinners are sent there. While in the darkness of the forest, all things said or done are kept secret from the eyes of the outside world. The forest is a very secure place to go to talk about things for there is no one there to listen to what you have to say. It is for this reason that Mistress Hibbins prefers to meet in the forest at night so people can sign away their souls to the devil without others knowing. Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest to talk as well, since it is the only safe place for the two to meet. It is only in the forest where they can talk about their future plans to leave Boston for Europe.
Dimmesdale is very similar to Hester through out the story. They both share the same crime, and like Hester, he was once light but darkness slowly took over him. “Dimmesdale created his own darkness with guilt (Light vs. Dark. p.2). His life was miserable and he could not live happily seeing Hester being punished like she was. Dimmesdale knew that he should also be going through the same punishment, which made him feel extremely guilty. The guilt that was created was so strong and sincere that Dimmesdale became very sick and depressed. As the novel continued, he got sicker and sadder, while becoming darker and darker. The people of the town thought it was Chillingworth making Dimmesdale sick and depressed and that Chillingworth himself was a messenger from the black man. Dimmesdale knew this was not true and knew he was feeling sick from the guilt. At the conclusion of the novel, Dimmesdale could no longer hold his feelings in. He stood up on the scaffold and confessed his sin, causing him to die. Dimmesdale’s own guilt killed him, and the darkness was quick to overtake him.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the literary theme light versus dark plays a very important role. The use of light and dark is used to represent good and evil, which in turn sets the mood and setting for the story. Without light and dark usage in the novel, there would be no real conflicts between the characters and their lives. The use of light and dark is what makes the story come alive and what makes The Scarlet Letter such a well-respected novel.
Fogle, Richard H. (1969). Hawthornes Imagery. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. (pgs. 23-39).
Hawthorne, N. (1988). The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press. “Light vs. Dark in the Scarlet Letter.” Essay Bank. 2002. www.essaybank.co.uk (2-28-03)
Marlow, Charles. “Scarlet Letter Light and Dark Comparison Essays” Marlow letter. 2001. T/~riley/portfolio/essays.html. (2-28-03)
Serrano, Juanita. “Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter.” 2002 www.colegiobolivar.edu.co/apenglish/documents/Scarletletteressays/serrano. (3-4-03)
Tharpe, J. (1992). Nathaniel Hawthorne, Identity and Knowledge. Illinois: Southern Illinois University press.