In The Scarlet Letter, first published in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne introduces many ideas in a fashion evident of an allegory.
His book is set in 17th century Boston, Massachusetts. An allegory is a mean of representation that means something that is different than the literal meaning. Dante Allighieri explains many ideas behind the interpretation of allegories in his “Epistle to Can Grande”, which explains the four levels that exist in an allegory. They consist of the literal level, the political level, the moral level, and the spiritual level. The Scarlet Letter is an allegory about how one deals with the truth defines who one is in life.
The Scarlet Letter introduces many characters, whose actions occur on a literal level inside the novel. Hester Prynne commits one of the most terrible sins that could be thought of in the community at that time, adultery. She may commit the sin in lieu of her true husband, but that does not lessen the magnitude of the wrong doing in the eyes of the public. When she refuses to say the name of her lover, in order to protect him, her protection is taken as defiance, and her sins seem all the more magnified. Her punishment is to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her bosom for the remainder of her life. Reverend Dimmesdale, her accomplice in infidelity, also keeps silent, mostly out of fear, and suffers more than Hester due to extreme guilt. Robert Chillingworth wins on a greater scale than either of them by exacting his revenge upon Dimmesdale. These occurrences can be viewed as they are, in their literal meaning, or viewed on Dante Allighieri’s other levels.
An example of an occurrence on a different level, the political level of an allegory is the reaction of the congregation to Dimmesdale. The townspeople all but worship their preacher. When he tries to say that he is the worst sinner in the town, they “heard it all, and did but reverence him the more.” (144) Even after many years pass, Hester still wears her letter because she believes she deserves penance for her ancient sin. People begin to say the A stands for able instead of adultery because she is so uplifting in the community. These two aspects of the couple’s life after their sin show that the two were not completely bad or evil, or even very much so. The way that each dealt with their sin, with Hester showing open penance, and Dimmesdale feeling intense guilt, show that they were god fearing and strong. These feelings of the general public lead to more psychological observations of the story.
The psychological, or moral, aspects of an allegory are evident in the novel. Roger Chillingworth condemns the remainder of his life, as well as his immortal soul, when he takes his revenge on Dimmesdale. He sins on a magnitude greater than either of the couple despite the fact that he is not involved in the original sin, and is, in fact, sinned against. When Dimmesdale dies, free from Chillingworth, Chillingworth’s life has no more purpose, and he dies because of it. After viewing the novel on the first three levels, many symbols can be realized.
On the most general and symbolic level of an allegory, the spiritual level, many characters are symbols for aspects of Christianity. Dimmesdale is the spiritual symbol of truth or honesty. While he hides the truth for the majority of the novel, his suffering is truly ended when he confesses his sins, and he passes to heaven. Hester is the symbol of penance for deep sin. She shows that, if one feels forgiveness and shows it, and takes repentance, sins are forgiven. These are the positive aspects of Christianity, despite both of the characters involved being the original sinners. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Roger Chillingworth is the symbol of the man in black, or the devil. As he is not a bad person before the novel begins, he becomes possessed by evil and devotes his life to hurting others. In this way he is reminiscent of Satan. His truth is never put forth, that he is Hester’s husband and he knows who her lover is, and as such, he cannot go to heaven.
These levels explain much of Hawthorne’s ideas in his process of writing the book. He planned to make a statement through the theme; truth is required to soothe suffering. Literally, Hester tells the truth and is, at first, punished, but then begins to wear the letter proudly. She is upstanding and good, and people begin to love her for it. Politically, the townspeople of Boston begin to value Hester as one of the most caring members of their community. Morally, Hester is a strong person who is on the side of god, despite the fact that she has made mistakes and sinned in her life. Symbolically, Hester is penance, teaching that those who taste suffering will eventually taste sweetness. Hester shows that how one deals with sin and truth defines who one is as a person.