Nathaniel Hawthorne adds visual imagery with light or shadows that have deeper, even moral meaning in the book the scarlet letter. The use of light and darkness is fundamental in the novel and alludes to the larger conflict between good and evil. The light and dark imagery is present throughout the novel in the main characters yet only Hester’s character has the juxtaposition of both light and dark surrounding her, sometimes at the same time.
Hester’s secret lover Dimmesdale is dark throughout the novel and allows light into his soul only in the last few moments of his life. Dimmesdale is so full of self imposed darkness the real world does not even need to bother punishing him, he punishes himself more. Darkness provides Dimmesdale a place where he can wallow in his guilt and remorse. His characters sometimes literally lives in darkness. Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold at night hiding his sin and concealing his confession from the Puritan society. Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the dark forest and their guilt is reflected in the darkness of nature. While sitting in the forest and talking about their love for one another the sun finally reaches them. The forest is a place where they can hide from the rest of Puritan society and be honest with each other because it is dark and nobody can see them. On the scaffolding where he should have stood seven years ago with Hester a meteor lights up the sky and “they stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendor as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets “(154). Pearl asks Dimmesdale to stand together in the light of day at noon that he chooses to conceal his sin until later. Dimmesdale is described with the “glow, which they had just before beheld burning on his cheek, was extinguished, like a flame that sinks down hopelessly among the late decaying embers “(246). It is noon, in the daylight, with full exposure when Dimmesdale finally exposed as Hesters secret lover. His public confession in the broad light of sunshine is literally in the final moments of his life in the last scene. Dimmesdale helps others repent and forgive their sins in his daily life. Dimmesdale gave into a natural instinct in sleeping with Hester and he is repentant so it is not as big of a sin. The bright daylight after he revealed his sin purges his sin from him and allows him to escape Chillingworth forever. .Even Dimmesdale’s grave is dark “so somber is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow”(254)
Chillingworth has no good light, he is the only character consistently associated with darkness, as he is the only truly evil character in the book. Chillingworth even describes himself as a fiend of some kind. He turns into a devil with blue fire in his eyes because he is mining for Dimmesdale’s sin. Chillingworth is truly evil because he searches for darkness and sins with no intent to forgive. “Sometimes, a light glimmered out of the physicians eyes, burning blue and ominous, like the reflection of a furnace, or, let us say, like one of those gleams of ghastly fire”(125). Light is evil in Chillingworth’s presence. He tells Hester “let the black flower blossom as it may!” Even when he talked about telling the truth it is black and dark because in his mind the truth is a dark truth. Revenge has turned him from a boring scholar into a demon from hell fiend whose sole purpose in life is to torture Dimmesdale, and when Dimmesdale is dead he no longer has a reason to live. Roger Chillingworth is a completely dark character. He ends up being the tool for exposing the dark truths of Hester and the Reverend. Once the truths are exposed and the main characters are in light, he simply disappears.
Darkness in Pearl is not really evil; it is more about how she repels darkness with her innocent elf like behavior. Pearl is drawn to the light which shows her natural instincts tell the truth. While at the governor’s house Pearl notices the beautiful bright sunlight through the windows. She asks that “the sunshine be stripped off its front and given her to play with”(100). Her mother tells her “No my little Pearl. Thou must gather thine own sunshine. I have none to give thee!”(100). The light represents the truth. Pearl constantly reminds Hester of her darkness because she is the human proof of her sin. The sunshine flickers only on Pearl in the deep dark forest. Pearl reminds her mother that the sun will not shine on Hester. Pearl makes Hester put back on the Scarlet letter after she takes it off. Hester and Pearl are in the forests Pearl tells her mother, “The sunshine does not love you because it is a afraid of something on your bosom. It will not flee from me: for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”(180). Pearl is described as “the very brightest little jet of flame that ever dance upon this earth”(98).
Hester connects both light and dark she is often described as both good and evil at the same time. The author describes Hesters hair as “dark and abundant so glossy it threw off the sunshine with the gleam”(51). When Hester appeared the townspeople “had expected to behold her dimmed and secured by a disastrous cloud”(51) yet in reality “her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune”(51). Hawthorne goes back and forth describing Hester as illuminating and then it talking about the dark mass inside of her. The sun shines on Hester in the dark forest only when she passionately lets down her hair. In the end Hawthorne shows you that the light had outshined the darkness when she turns into a good citizen rather than as a disgraced adulterer. In the forest Hester tries to grab the sunlight that it vanishes while she reaches for it. In the forest Hester lets down her hair and throws off the Scarlet letter and the society that has shunned her and transforms the dark forest into a light filled place of truth. In the forest she throws off the Scarlet letter and the forest literally begins to brighten up. The clouds spread apart and the sun begins to shine as if nature is supporting her in her decision to throw off the letter. “She saw her own face, glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating all the interior of the dusky mirror in which he had been wont to gaze at” (56). Being with Dimmesdale was in both light and dark. “She thought of the dim forest, with its little Dell of solitude, and love, and anguish, and the mossy tree trunk, where, sitting hand-in-hand, they had mingled their sad and passionate talk” (233). Hester could easily live in the light all the time because she is a character who has repented and is now free of sin. Ultimately Hester chooses to stay in the darkness forever, feeling she deserves no better.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter daylight is the equivalent of honesty and goodness. While the nighttime and darkness represents hidden secrets and evil. After Hester commits adultery she has wrapped herself in darkness. Hester is not evil but sin made her beauty and her light hideaway with guilt. Hester had light inside of her all the time and when Dimmesdale finally confessed the whole world got to share in her lighted beauty. By the end of the novel Hester had moved back to the tiny Puritan town and had wrapped herself in sadness and gloom by choice because she believes good and evil still live inside of her and she does not deserve to live in the sun.