Allusion in The Scarlet Letter
There are multiple allusions throughout the novel from religious texts, other writers, and historical figures. A few examples include Thomas More’s “Utopia,” and Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan spiritual advisor and critical figure in the Antinomian Controversy during the 1630s.
Allusion Examples in The Scarlet Letter:
The Custom-House 1
"Simon Forrester..." See in text (The Custom-House)
A New England ship owner of high repute who went from being a poor ship boy to a grandiose owner and became an iconic figure for a “rags to riches” American story. The allusion to Simon Forrester is ironic because while he is an example of rising success, his mention is meant to emphasize the decline of Salem’s port trading. The slow business of the Custom-House gives the narrator a lot of free time to write.
Chapter III 1
"ike a snake gliding swiftly over them..." See in text (Chapter III)
In the Bible, the devil comes to Adam and Eve in the form of a snake and tempts them to betray God. This simile could be an allusion to that story, representing the presence of the devil in the crowd and the evil influence spreading among them.
Chapter IV 2
"Nepenthe..." See in text (Chapter IV)
In Greek mythology, Nepenthe is an elixir that uses forgetfulness to numb sorrow. By saying that he doesn’t know Nepenthe, Chillingworth is telling Hester that the sorrow she has caused him cannot be cured by forgetting.
"Lethe..." See in text (Chapter IV)
In Greek mythology, Lethe is one of the rivers in Hades and was known as the river of forgetfulness. Chillingworth probably says this particular river to allude to the fact that although while he was gone, he did not forget about her, and she ended up, in a way, forgetting about him.
Chapter V 1
"branded the brow of Cain..." See in text (Chapter V)
This is a biblical allusion. According to the Book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, Cain was the first child of Adam and Eve, thus the first person to ever be born. Cain killed his younger brother, Abel, out of jealousy and rage, and then lied to God about the murder. As punishment, God gave Cain a mark so that all the other worldly inhabitants would not harm him, so that he would have to suffer from his guilt for the rest of his time on earth and never be saved by a premature death.
Chapter VI 4
"Tell me, then, what thou art, and who sent thee hither?..." See in text (Chapter VI)
This could be a literary allusion to William Blake’s poem “The Tyger,” which asks, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” In this poem, the “Lamb” is a symbol for good and the “Tyger” is a symbol for evil. In this context, it seems that Hester asks Pearl who sent her to earth: God or Satan?
"to be swayed by her own impulses..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Hawthorne alludes to the story in the Book of Genesis, where God tells Adam and Eve what they are not allowed to do, but does not prevent them from doing it. In this way, Hester is a symbol of God by allowing Pearl, a symbol of freedom of humanity and freedom of choice, to listen to her natural “impulses.”
"after the world's first parents were driven out..." See in text (Chapter VI)
This biblical allusion refers to original sin. Original sin was created by Adam and Eve when they broke the one rule given to them by God in the Garden of Eden: do not eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden. Satan came to them in the form of a snake and tempted Eve to take a bite of the forbidden fruit, and then Adam tried the fruit at Eve’s request. For disobeying Him, God banished the two from the Garden of Eden and humans were to be plagued by sin forever.
"Eden..." See in text (Chapter VI)
This biblical allusion refers to the Garden of Eden from the Book of Genesis. The Bible says that God created the first humans, Adam and Eve, and placed them in the Garden of Eden. By saying Pearl is worthy of the Garden of Eden, Hawthorne argues that Pearl is a child who looks of great purity and worthiness for the kingdom of God. This is an ironic reference because her birth was the result of great sin in the eyes of Puritan society.
Chapter VIII 1
"who made thee?..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Recall in chapter XI when Hester asks Pearl a similar question, "who sent thee hither?" The repetition of this question and allusion to William Blake’s “The Tyger” makes this question a leading point of conflict in the story. The general inquiry has shifted from who slept with Hester to who the creator of the child is. In this way, the man is dehumanized as some sort of Satan.
Chapter IX 2
"Sir Thomas Overbury's murder..." See in text (Chapter IX)
Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613) was an English writer and historical figure. He was murdered in 1613, which led to a highly popular and scandalous trial. He had a poem, titled “A Wife,” that claimed men had the ability to demand certain virtues of women, and this poem is said to be the reason for his murder. Again Hawthorne makes historical reference to a notorious adulterous scandal.
"Scriptural story of David and Bathsheba, and Nathan the Prophet..." See in text (Chapter IX)
According to the Book of Samuel in the Bible, Nathan was a court prophet who addressed King David, due to instructions from God, about his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba while she was a married woman. Hawthorne specifically chose this biblical allusion because it addresses the issues of adultery, even amongst the respected citizens in a society.
Chapter XIII 1
"Abel..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
This alludes to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve. Cain kills Abel out of jealousy, and Abel traditionally represents the righteousness of being a martyr. Hester is compared to Abel as a martyr because of her wearing the scarlet letter for her own and the townspeople’s sins.
Chapter XXII 1
"Prince of the Air..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
In the biblical book of Ephesians 2:2, Satan is referred to as “the prince of the power of the air” because Satan has true power in both the mundane and spiritual worlds. In this context, Mistress Hibbins uses the “Prince of the Air” to allude to the fact that Dimmesdale is evil, and his evilness is disguised by his holy appearance in their society.