Light and Darkness in the Scarlet Letter

Mitchell Hochberg
Light and Darkness

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is one of the most analyzed and most discussed literary works in American literature and for good reason. Hawthorne’s ambiguity and his intense use of symbols have made this work incredibly complex and incredibly bothersome. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne uses many symbols to give insight into characters and promote his views on society. The scaffold scenes in The Scarlet Letter tell the reader exactly what is to come, and the presence of light in those scenes gives the reader insight into the characters.
The scaffold scenes establish a pattern of what is to come in the novel through a common tie prevalent in the three different scaffold scenes. The tie is that of creation and release. In the first scaffold scene, Hester releases not only her guilt about her crime, but, she also releases Pearl to the society and creates in Pearl the need for strength and determination that she will need to overcome the legacy of her creation. In this scene she also creates the need in Dimmesdale to absolve himself of his guilt. The second scaffold scene is the opportunity for Dimmesdale to attempt to release his guilt from the first scaffold. However, Pearl creates a need in Dimmesdale to repent in front of the town. During the third scaffold scene, Dimmesdale is able to release his guilt about his crime and his lack of strength. He is also able to complete his obligation to accept the hands of Pearl and Hester on the platform from the second scaffold scene. Through his confession, he creates a sense of reality for the entire town. It can be clearly seen that what is created in the first scaffold is released in the second scaffold; while, the things created in the second scaffold are finally released in the third and final scaffold.
There is another complexity to the scaffold scenes in the presence, or lack there of, of lighting. The first scaffold scene is in the sunlight. The sunlight in this novel is a symbol of disguise. In the sunlight of the first scaffold, Hester is shown as strong and determined. She gives the appearance that the letter does not bother her. However, later in the novel we learn her true feelings as to the letter:
The effect of the symbol--or, rather, of the position in respect to society that was indicated by it--on the mind of Hester Prynne herself was powerful and peculiar. All the light and foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and had long ago fallen away…

The darkness in this book is a symbol of reality and truth. The second scaffold scene is a perfect example of this symbol. In the first and third scaffold scenes, Dimmesdale gives the appearance of a devout holy man who, although not physically strong, is emotionally pure. In the second scaffold scene, Dimmesdale’s inability to confront the people that trust him, his absence of strength, and inability to admit to his guilt are clearly shown. This is the real Arthur Dimmesdale. This use of lighting is prevalent in other Hawthorne stories as well.
In Hawthorne’s short story "Young Goodman Brown," Similar lighting and darkness symbols are used. In the darkness of the forest, the true nature of the people that Goodman Brown looked up to and respected was revealed to him. He is only capable of seeing their hypocritical flawed nature when in the darkness. When he had encountered them in the light of day, he believed the others in the town to be unadulterated, and strong of character. In this way, Hawthorne has used darkness to say to the reader that the way the characters are perceived in darkness is who they really are.
Hawthorne foreshadows exactly what is to come in The Scarlet Letter through the scaffold scenes. He creates problems in one scene that he answers in the next scene until the conclusion in the final scaffold scene. Also, Hawthorne cleverly adds lighting and darkness to give insight into each character. It is interesting how this seems to diverge from the contemporary stereotypes of light and darkness. Contemporary stereotypes would suggest that truth is light and darkness is deceit.