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The Scarlet Letter: Plant Imagery
Throughout the novel, Hawthorne uses plant imagery to symbolize both the negative and positive character traits and to set the mood of the novel. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne takes place during the age of Puritanism in Boston where a young and attractive Puritan woman, Hester, commits adultery with the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, who had been captured by Indians, comes to town, but only Hester knows his true identity. Chillingworth vows to figure out who Hester’s lover is and he succeeds.
Ultimately, this novel contains deception and guilt which is in the form of plant imagery. Hawthorne uses many different negative variations of plant imagery to illustrate his ideas. First of all, living plant life, portraying the torturing of Dimmesdale by Chillingworth, remains evident throughout the novel. For example, when Chillingworth went to the forest to gather herbs he “dug up roots and plucked off twigs from the forest trees” (111) which symbolizes how Chillingworth was “plucking” the life out of Dimmesdale limb by limb. Also, Hawthorne describes grass as pure and without weeds to kill the grass; however, “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” (131). In addition, weeds symbolize secrecy and the impurity of society. During Chillingworth and Dimmesdale’s covert discussion about “the powers of nature call[ing] so earnestly for the confession of sin,[and discussing] that these black weeds have sprung up out of a buried heart, to make manifest an unspoken crime” (120) illustrates the idea of weeds filling the heart with sin and guilt. Moreover, “the black flower of civilized society” (45-46) refers to the Puritans’ harsh attitude towards sinners as they view Hester’s punishment.
Most importantly, the imagery used with leaves allows for different interpretations. “Thou shalt forgive me! cried Hester, flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him [Dimmesdale]” (178) illustrates that Hester begs nature’s forgiveness for her sin by falling on the leaves. Similarly, Hester “threw it [the scarlet letter] to a distance among the withered leaves,” (185) for that instant, her guilty conscience was dying along with the withering leaves. Although Hawthorne uses a great deal of negative plant imagery, the positive plant imagery balances the two. Initially, moss symbolizes the hardships that Hester and Dimmesdale have endured. Hester, “[sitting] down on the heap of moss where she and Pearl had before been sitting” (174), shows that the moss acts as a comfort to Hester, and it is a place where she can forget her guilt. Dimmesdale and Hester, “hand clasped in hand, on the mossy tree trunk of the fallen tree” (179) together rid themselves of their guilt for the time being. Furthermore, leaves also symbolize the positive aspects of plant imagery. Dimmesdale tells Hester that “the forest leaves [have] risen up all made anew” (185) meaning that their guilt was forever gone, and God had forgiven them. Similarly, “the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man’s tread” (180-181) because they cover the trail of guilt left behind by man.
Though Hawthorne places either good or bad plant images with his characters, Pearl stands as a blend of them both. Pearl possesses positive character traits exemplified by the plant imagery used. Dimmesdale perceives Pearl to be of great value because of her name and by comparing her a “Red Rose” (101) . On the other hand, Pearl remains viewed as a demon child. For no apparent reason, Pearl “threw one of the prickly burrs at the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. The sensitive clergyman shrunk, with nervous dread, from the light missile” (123). This shows Pearl’s inconsideration towards others, and it also symbolizes how Dimmesdale dodged the missile filled with guilt that would have stuck to him had he not ducked. Pearl constantly reminds and tortures Hester of her mothers’ sin by “arrange[ing] them [prickly burrs] along the lines of the scarlet letter that decorated the maternal bosom”(123) Deception and guilt remained evident throughout the novel by the use of plant imagery.
All of the characters related to at least one plant in the novel. For the most part, Pearl became portrayed by varieties of positive and negative plant images. Ultimately, the simple ideas of guilt and secrecy lead to a ruined lifestyle.