Characterization in The Scarlet Letter Characterization in The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804. After his graduation from Bowdoin College in Maine, he quickly became a well-known author of literary tales concerning early American life. Between 1825 and 1850, he developed his talent by writing short fiction, and he gained international fame for his fictional novel The Scarlet Letter in 1850 (Clendenning 118). Rufus Wilmot Griswold stated, The frivolous costume and brisk action of the story of fashionable life are easily depicted by the practised sketcher, but a work like “The Scarlet Letter” comes slowly upon the canvas, where passions are commingled and overlaid with the masterly elaboration with which the grandest effects are produced in pictural composition and coloring. (Griswold 352) Throughout the novel, Hawthorne reveals character through the use of imagery and metaphor. In the first Chapter of The Scarlet Letter, “The Prison-Door”, the reader is immediately introduced to the people of Puritan Boston.
Hawthorne begins to develop the character of the common people in order to build the mood of the story. The first sentence begins, “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes” (Hawthorne 45). Hawthorne’s use of vivid visual images and his Aaccumulation of emotionally weighted details” (Baym xii) creates sympathy for the not yet introduced character, Hester Prynne, and creates an immediate understanding of the harshness of the Puritanic code in the people. The images created give the freedom to imagine whatever entails sadness and morbidity of character for the reader; Hawthorne does not, however, allow the reader to imagine lenient or cheerful people. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s eloquent contrast of the jail and its captive, Hester Prynne, also creates a sympathy for the emerging prisoner. The “ugly edifice..was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browned and gloomy front” (Hawthorne 45).
The depiction of the jail emphasizes its ugliness, and the mental pictures formed in the mind of the reader suggest an aspect of gloom and suffering. However, Hester Prynne’s initial description brightly contrasts the jail’s. Hester “was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance..she had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off sunshine with a gleam” (50). Her face was “beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion” (50). In all physical senses, Hester was a beautiful woman possessing dignity and grace.
The stark contrast between the ugliness of the jail and Hester’s radiant beauty not only brings the reader to feel sympathy for the beautiful woman who was forced to suffer in such an awful place, but it also creates curiosity as to why such a woman of apparent gentility was confined to the prison at all. Hawthorne’s description of Governor Bellingham’s mansion uses words to create vivid images within the reader’s mind. The intricate description of the inside of Bellingham’s mansion not only defines the appearance of the house, but also the inner character of the resident. The house was “now moss-grown, crumbling to decay, and melancholy at heart with the many sorrowful or joyous occurrences, remembered or forgotten, that have happened, and passed away, within their dusky chambers.” As the reader proceeds through the text, he or she learns of the character of Bellingham as one of inner turmoil that masks itself with outward beauty, eccentricity, and style. The splendor of the mansion also inadvertently indicate the personality of Governor Bellingham, in respect to his materialism and his quickness to flaunt his possessions.
The face of the mansion had been fashioned “so that, when the sunshine fell aslant-wise over the front of the edifice, it glittered and sparkled as if diamonds had ben flung against it by the double handful” (90). Later in the novel, the reader encounters Bellingham dressed in very contemporary, decorative garb indicative of his high social status, but his inner self is in a state of unrest. Hawthorne’s skillful use of metaphor throughout The Scarlet Letter greatly emphasizes the dynamics of the characters. By comparing the traits of the characters to things completely unrelated to them, Hawthorne composes messages that are verbally inexplicable by common descriptions. The use of metaphor allows the reader to develop a deeper emotional understanding of the psychological and physical traits of each character.
For example, Pearl is referred to as “one of those naughty elfs or fairies or..a little bird of scarlet plumage” (97). The comparison of Pearl to a fantastic creature such as an elf adds a sense of alienation and mystery to her personality, and it creates a feeling of strange confusion toward her. When she is compared to a scarlet-hued bird, the emphasis of color increases the visual sense of Pearl’s character, and the comparison to a bird indicates that she is full of wild energy. Pearl is also described as “a lovely and immortal flower” (80). By correlating Pearl to a soft, delicate flower, Hawthorne develops and emotional aura of Pearl’s frailty, femininity, and flawless beauty that overshadows her chaotic temperament.
Hawthorne’s effectuation of characterization by using imagery and metaphor to his advantage greatly increases the caliber of The Scarlet Letter. He uses imagery to form mental pictures within the mind of the reader that carry certain connotations of dread, egotism, mystery, or any other range of emotion. The scene-painting is “pure, severe, and truthful” (Smiles 266) and adds great depth to the novel. Hawthorne’s use of metaphor adds dimension to the novel by abutting unlike things to create new meaning and appreciation of qualities of characters, and hence, a deeper understanding of underlying motives and psyche. Intricate and methodical characterization is crucial to grasp the full meaning of a narrative.
Works Cited Baym, Nina. Introduction. The Scarlet Letter. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York City: Penguin Books USA, Inc. 1986. Clendenning, John.
“Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The World Book Encyclopedia. 1989 ed. Griswold, Rufus Wilmot. “The Scarlet Letter.” The Library of Literary Criticism of English and American Authors. Ed.
Charles Wells Moulton. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith Publishing, 1959. 341-371. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1986. Smiles, Samuel.
“The Scarlet Letter.” The Critical Temper. Ed. Martin Tucker. New York City: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1962. 266.