Sun as a Symbol in the Scarlet Letter
Written: (sometime during 10th grade)
Sunshine appears many times in The Scarlet Letter, and not just as part of the setting. Throughout the novel the sunshine is used to show Hesters lack of joy, Hesters lack of acknowledging the truth, and the difference between inner thoughts and what is shown to the world. Hawthorne uses sunshine in The Scarlet Letter to symbolize many different ideas. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses sunshine to represent truth and joy.
First, one could easily see how the sun can symbolize joy, or happiness. In chapter seven in Governor Bellinghams home Pearl makes notice of the sunshine on the front of the Governors house:
Pearl, looking at this bright wonder of a house, began to caper and dance, and imperatively required that the whole breadth of sunshine should be stripped off its front, and given to her to play with.
No, my little Pearl! said her mother. Thou must gather thine own sunshine. I have none to give thee! (88)
It could be that, as Pearl thinks the sun is something to play with (and hence, have fun with) Pearl thinks of the sunshine as being happiness itself. Hester refuses to give her any sunshine, and insists that she must gather thine own. This seems to point to the fact that Hester cannot give her child happiness because of her sin and her punishment she must carry out for committing that sin. Instead, Pearl must find happiness on her own, as she actually does later in life.
Another instance in which the sunshine symbolizes joy is when Hester and Dimmesdale make their plans to escape to Europe. This is in chapter eighteen, titled, by no coincidence, A Flood of Sunshine. After Hester throws off her red A and lets down her hair, the sun comes out: All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the ray trunks of the solemn trees (178). The wording of the passage shows the joyousness of the sunshine, and how it seems to have transformed the forest around Hester and Dimmesdale. Because the forest around Dimmesdale and Hester seems to be happy, and Romanticists believed that nature was almost a mirror of human emotions, it is clear that Hester and Dimmesdale are joyous, and the sunshine is the symbol of that happiness.
The sunshine can also be associated with truth, as light oftentimes is. For example, during the walk in the forest taken by Hester and Pearl. Pearl runs ahead and plays in the sunshine, but when Hester attempts to get into the magic circle the sunshine disappears:
The light lingered around the lonely child, as if glad of such a playmate, until her mother had drawn almost nigh enough to step into the magic circle too... As she attempted to [stretch out her hand], the sunshine vanished; or, to judge from the bright expression that was dancing on Pearls features, her mother could have fancied that the child had absorbed it into herself, and would give it forth again, with a gleam about her path, as they should plunge into some gloomier shade. (161)
This could mean that Hester isnt truthful with herself, or she needs to accept some truth that she previously could not, or would not accept. That truth might be the truth about Dimmesdale that she has not revealed to Pearl. It might be that Pearl can stand in the light because she does not keep a secret, but Hester will not reveal a secret to Pearl (that, almost ironically, has very much to do with Pearl herself). Or perhaps, more plausibly, the truth Hester plans to tell Dimmesdale (about Roger Chillingworth). This theory is backed up by the scene in which Hester and Dimmesdale plan to run away (quoted earlier). After Hester reveals the secret to Dimmesdale, and the full good of revealing the truth has been realized, the sun comes out and shines brightly, forming another magic circle(178). Now Hester is allowed into the suns rays of truth, meaning that she has revealed all that she must and is not keeping any more secrets that are not supposed to be kept. Hester has not, actually, revealed all of her secrets, there still remains the fact that Pearl does not know who her father is and what the A means, and the fact that the townspeople and officials do not know who the father is. Because the light still shines on Hester, it might be inferred that Hester has told all the secrets she needs to tell.
Pearl, too is a symbol of truth, and is constantly in the sun, or imagined as being in the sun: Methinks I have seen just such figures, when the sun has been shining through a richly painted window, and tracing out the golden and crimson images across the floor (93). The fact that Pearl is a symbol of truth, and seems to be spiritually connected with the sun, indicates the suns strong representative ties to truth. In examples already mentioned above, Pearl wants to collect the sun to play with it and wants to play in the magic circle of sun. The two symbols seem so connected that if one symbol were without the other, we might not be able to figure out their meanings.
Through the sunshine, Hawthorne communicates the importance of obtaining happiness, and remaining truthful. Either way, whether the sun is representing truth or joy, it certainly serves to reflect the characters emotions and thoughts. Although the sun represents truth and joy, it can also help represent the difference between inner nature, and outer appearance. Using the three scaffold scenes as examples, the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters on the scaffold are reflected in whether it is in the sunshine, or at night (where there is none). Specifically, at night Dimmesdale is allowed to reveal his inner thoughts, but during the day he cannot face the scaffold. During the day, Hester is forced to stand on the scaffold so she may feel ashamed and guilty, but she in fact is feeling anything but ashamed and guilty. We see that during the day there is a great difference between what is inside and what is shown to the public, but during the night secrets can be revealed and the innermost thoughts are allowed to show themselves. Hawthorne effectively uses the symbol of sunshine in The Scarlet Letter to represent a myriad of ideas and concepts.