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Metaphor in The Scarlet Letter

Metaphor Examples in The Scarlet Letter:

The Custom-House

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"tarnished mirror..."   (The Custom-House)

This metaphor explains the difficulty the narrator is having trying to write the story. One would expect a mirror to be clear, but because he says that the mirror is “tarnished” we can understand that the narrator is dismayed and discouraged by the fact that he can’t write the story.

"not of red cloth, but red-hot iron..."   (The Custom-House)

Although the cloth did not literally burn him, the burning feeling the narrator gets from the A is a metaphor for the power of the red cloth.

"stored their memory with the husks..."   (The Custom-House)

Hawthorne uses wheat as a metaphor for the wisdom of the veterans: The “golden grains” are the knowledge the men have gained from so many years of life, and by saying they “have stored their memory with the husks” the narrator says all the wisdom is now unused.

"we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader..."   (Chapter I)

The rose-bush is a symbol of hope in the story and a metaphor for the natural-born goodness in humanity. By presenting a metaphorical rose to the reader, Hawthorne tells us that in the midst of a tale of suffering, we can learn a moral lesson about humanity, allowing something good to come from a story of suffering.

"Nature..."   (Chapter I)

This personification of Nature suggests that conflict amongst humans is the sole result of humanity, and that the natural world has nothing to do with human conflict. Here, Hawthorne suggests that to prisoners, locked up by society, Nature can offer kindness and pity.

"glowing all alight..."   (Chapter V)

Notice again how Hawthorne uses the symbols of lightness and darkness. By saying that it glows “in the night-time,” Hawthorne creates the metaphor of how light (goodness) can shine even in the dark (in the face of evil).

"sterile for cultivation..."   (Chapter V)

Hawthorne uses this as a metaphor for Hester. After bearing the mark of the scarlet letter, in this religious society, men will be unlikely to want to marry her. Hester has chosen to live a quiet life and wear the scarlet letter to save herself in the eyes of God.

"to cover her bosom..."   (Chapter VI)

This metaphor shows how Hester may sometimes try to hide her past sin. However, it is important to note that Hawthorne goes on later to say that she resists the impulse. This could be for two reasons. First, hiding her sin is a way of displacing the blame from herself, which would make forgiveness from God a harder task. Second, with Pearl in her life, there is no hiding the affair that put the scarlet letter on her breast.

"black shadow, and the untempered light..."   (Chapter VI)

Notice again how Hawthorne uses the comparison between lightness and darkness. This metaphor, which stands for good and evil, has been used multiple times already in the story. When an author continuously uses the same image, we know to pay close attention to find the metaphorical significance that the author is creating in his or her repetition.

"she seemed absolutely hidden behind it..."   (Chapter VII)

Notice how the scarlet letter has consumed Hester’s reflection in the mirror, a metaphor for how it has consumed her own view of herself. We have noticed how Hester’s greatest goal is personal salvation, rather than forgiveness from the townspeople, but in this process she has created a diluted image of herself that consists mostly of the darkness of the scarlet letter.

"trial and warfare..."   (Chapter VIII)

Recall from the first chapter how Hawthorne made the point that every new colony set aside space for a prison and a cemetery. This creates the idea that two of the only constants for society are criminals and death. Here that point is made again, and seems to take shape as a theme to look out for later in the story.

"while the shadow of his figure, which the sunlight cast upon the floor..."   (Chapter VIII)

We have noticed several times the theme of light coming from darkness, but here that theme is turned around and we notice the sunlight creating a shadow. This metaphor shows how evil can come from good--in this case, the light..

"had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses, that grew by the prison-door..."   (Chapter VIII)

The use of flowers is one of the most common symbols in the story. This metaphor represents the most enduring theme: the idea of beauty and goodness coming from evil and darkness. Hawthorne uses this theme to argue against the strict and unforgiving beliefs of religious societies.

"his life was wasting itself away, amid lamp-light, or obstructed day-beams..."   (Chapter IX)

The theme of contrast between the natural and the unnatural has been represented by the conflict between the strictly governed religious society and the innate human desires embodied in Hester’s sin and Pearl’s character. Here, by explaining that Dimmesdale’s life is being wasted “amid lamp-light” and “obstructed day-beams, Hawthorne presents a metaphor for how perhaps unnatural “goodness” (like that represented in the religious society) is not equivalent to the light, the good, of the natural world.

"the processes by which weeds were converted into drugs of potency..."   (Chapter X)

Hawthorne uses weeds as a symbol of sinners and sins multiple times in the story. This is an interesting activity for the minister to take part in. By watching Chillingworth literally use weeds as medicine, Dimmesdale is figuratively seeing how evil can turn to good.

"when poor Mr. Dimmesdale was thinking of his grave, he questioned with himself whether the grass would ever grow on it, because an accursed thing must there be buried!..."   (Chapter XI)

This sentiment recalls the last chapter when Chillingworth tells Dimmesdale about how the weeds in his hands were all that grew from an unmarked tombstone. Dimmesdale knows that he is a weed, and wonders if he will ever be cleansed of his sins.

"meteors, which the night-watcher may so often observe burning out to waste..."   (Chapter XII)

The meteor flashing through the night sky and “burning out to waste” is a metaphor for how sometimes goodness can last for only a short while. This is a metaphor for Dimmesdale who starts out as a holy and respected man, but he has quickly burned out from sickness and guilt in the years since Hester stood upon the scaffold.

"aiding his footsteps with a lighted lantern..."   (Chapter XII)

This metaphor expands past merely walking home at night. The metaphor stands for trying to move through life, even amongst evil, by following or living a life guided by light.

"I hate the man!..."   (Chapter XV)

Even though Hester has grown into a symbol of holiness, she has also grown to hate Chillingworth. Hawthorne uses this line to draw attention to how hate change people on the individual level and grows in communities, among people like weeds in a garden.

"gait..."   (Chapter XVI)

Walking has been used several times as a metaphor for progressing through life. By noting Dimmesdale’s “gait,” Hawthorne presents to the reader how the injury of his guilt has impeded his life’s progress.

"and catch the sunshine! It will soon be gone...."   (Chapter XVI)

This metaphor represents the idea that joy and goodness don’t always last forever. Hester knows this concept very well, and has lived her life according to it over the past seven years.

"beneath the open sky..."   (Chapter XVI)

This is a metaphor for the eyes of God from heaven. Hester knows this is the best place for them to meet alone because they would be able to be watched by God from above, and avoid any drives of passion or act on the feelings they once had for each other.

"No golden light had ever been so precious as the gloom of this dark forest..."   (Chapter XVII)

Light and darkness have been in constant conflict representing the battle between good and evil. In this context, the forest symbolizes the freedom of the human spirit, so the darkness is overcome, metaphorically, by the light of their love.

"the gloomy sky, the threatening storm, and, next, the health of each..."   (Chapter XVII)

While Hester’s health has not been worrisome, Dimmesdale’s failing health has been one of the major plot points of the story. In this context, health most likely refers to Hester’s spiritual well-being. The contrasting ways in which they have each bore the scarlet letter on their chests has affected them extremely differently: For Hester, the worst part of the storm has passed and she is able to look towards the sun. For Dimmesdale, “the gloomy sky” always hangs over his head.

"they glided back into the shadow of the woods..."   (Chapter XVII)

Shadows have been a recurring motif for shame and sin. By going back into “the shadow of the woods” Hester and Dimmesdale decide to face their guilt and shame together for the first time.

"Shame, Despair, Solitude..."   (Chapter XVIII)

Hester’s metaphorical teachers (“Shame, Despair, Solitude”) all represent the rigid religious society she lives in. Hawthorne is likely showing that even though strict laws have the ability to mold people to a government’s liking, they are not always best for the people.

"in desert places, where she roamed as freely..."   (Chapter XVIII)

Hester desires to live in “desert places” because they don’t have the moral clutter or confusion of the forest and the town. In the desert, Hester can look all around her with no physical, nor metaphorical, obstacles in her path, and she can live the unfearful life she hopes for.

"Seen in the brook, once more, was the shadowy wrath of Pearl's image..."   (Chapter XIX)

This metaphor illustrates how looking into a mirror (in this case the water) forces a person to see one’s true self. A theme in the story has been people presenting themselves in a false light, but here Pearl is unable to escape who she truly is—-a child of freedom constrained by the rules of the society in which she was born.

"drop into her tender bosom a germ of evil that would be sure to blossom darkly soon..."   (Chapter XX)

Dimmesdale’s urge to spread evil results from the evil he feels has been done to him. His innocence has been tainted by learning of Chillingworth’s ill intentions, and he is losing control of the dark passageways of his mind. What has been consistently a metaphor for good in the novel (the growing of flowers) now grows with evil connotations.

"as if the travel through the wilderness had been too sore for you..."   (Chapter XX)

Chillingworth presents this literally. However, because the forest symbolizes moral wilderness, we interpret this figuratively to mean that Dimmesdale's internal guilt and shame (over the past seven years) has been morally taxing and made him weak and sick.

"to drop down dead, at once, as by the effect of an intensely poisonous infusion..."   (Chapter XX)

Dimmesdale’s bizarre actions in this part of the story can be attributed to the inner conflict he experiences in the forest between wanting to follow his religious path or his love for Hester. For the first time since his affair with Hester, he is following the passion of his heart and not his passion for God. He lashes out in these strange ways to represent how repressing a person’s desires breeds a sort of madness.

"We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest...."   (Chapter XXII)

In the forest, Dimmesdale and Hester were able to honestly discuss their emotions, but in the market-place they would be shamed for displaying the feelings they have for one another. Hester’s response to Pearl is a metaphor for how society forces people to hide who they really are.

"The sun, but little past its meridian..."   (Chapter XXIII)

In this context, “meridian” refers to the highest point that the sun reaches in the sky. The sun being just past its peak height is a metaphor for how Hester’s chance at happiness with Dimmesdale has likely passed because they waited too long.

" he bequeathed a very considerable amount of property, both here and in England, to little Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne..."   (Chapter XXIV)

Chillingworth’s character achieves a small amount of redemption with this. There have been a number of times where Hawthorne includes images of light coming from darkness (both metaphorically and literally), and this instance shows that metaphorical light of compassion coming from darkness of Chillingworth’s character.

"a SCARLET LETTER—the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne—imprinted in the flesh..."   (Chapter XXIV)

Hester wore her scarlet letter on her chest, so the townspeople, Pearl, and the light from the sun could see it. Since her scarlet letter was worn in the light, she was able to grow (just like the rose-bush from Chapter I. Dimmesdale bore the mark directly on his flesh, and because it was in the dark, instead of growing it shriveled up and died.

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