Symbols, Society and the Individual

Symbols, Society and the Individual

Hester Prynne vs. the Puritan Community

A Proposal and Essay

Concering Freudian and Literary Symbolism
in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter


Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter overflows with "dream-like" symbols from the namesake "A" to the "wild rose-bush...covered with its delicate gems" (The Scarlet Letter, 54), this series of symbols places images, ideas, emotions, and sensations onto a backdrop of reality that becomes almost muted by the striking color of Hawthorne's metaphoric language. Freud suggested that dreams merely consist of unconscious desires brought on by human instinct, which due to social and cultural restrictions are "repressed" into the unconscious during childhood development. Freud further proposes that artists tap the wealth of the unconscious infantile instincts through their artistic creations. Since these repressed desires cannot be completely understood or expressed by the artist in their entirety, symbols will serve, as they do in dreams, to represent the concealed or held back emotions, and the desires that stem from these emotions. Many critics, such as Joanne Diehl, propound that The Scarlet Letter provided Hawthorne with a way to cope with the grief of the loss of his mother. Diehl and others further suggest that Hawthorne displays some of his infantile desires towards his mother through this novel. The scarlet "A" and the black flower of society make clear the failure of the fulfillment of both Hawthorne's and the character's desires.

Taking a psychoanalytic approach, influenced by Freud's theories concerning the creation of symbols by artists to express repressed emotions, I will examine the character of Hester Pryne as an artist. I will explore the ways in which she uses her needle work to express her desires, which are pressed back by Puritan social constructs. Also I will differentiate between "Freudian symbolism" and "literary symbolism", and explore how these two types of symbolism are reflected in the scarlet "A". To conclude I will try to discern what Hawthorne communicates about the role of powerfully romantic symbolism in the novel. I will veer away from any arguments concerning Oedipal desires. Instead I wish to focus on the female's, not the male's, appetence.

Link to Essay

Annotated Bibliographic Resources

Brodhead, Richard H. "New and Old Tales: The Scarlet Letter." Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel. Chicago: U of Chicago P., (1973): 43-68.

In this chapter Brodhead examines the dual natures of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Brodhead begins exploring the "skill of Hawthorne's narrative exposition" (Brodhead, 47) by exposing the blend of drama, history, and personal insight, which sets forth Hester Prynne's history and character within the opening chapters of the novel. Especially impressive to Brodhead is Hawthorne's ability to combine the external and internal spheres within these chapters. Hawthorne roves from one perspective to another and thus presents a multitude of pre-novel events within one scene. The tight-woven duality of the external and internal, social and personal, according to Brodhead, help to promote the "economy" of the novel. Brodhead then looks at the "realistic" versus "romantic" traits of the story. By exploring the play between these two genres within the text Brodhead provides an explanation for the importance of the facts and symbols entangled within it: "It is not enough to describe it as economical or compact: in fluid interelatedness of parts and its supresaturation with significant patterns give it the quality of overdetermination that Freud ascribes to dreams" (Brodhead, 53). Brodhead shows how this dream-like quality informs the characters' repressed desires. Brodhead concludes with an explanation for Hawthorne's almost "coy" closure in the final scaffold scene. Brodhead suggests that after he has provided the reader with the appropriate patterns and symbols to create an informed opinion, Hawthorne leaves the interpretation open to the onlooker.

Diehl, Joanne Feit. "Re-reading The Letter: Hawthorne, the Fetish, and the (Family) Romance." The Scarlet Letter: Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York, New York: Bedford Books of St. Martins P., (1991): 235-251.

Diehl presents a traditional psychoanalytic reading of Hawthorne's novel, with the slight twist of a deeper explanation of the function of the scarlet "A." Diehl suggests that this novel is a part of Hawthorne's mourning process for his mother, and an expression of his repressed feelings for her. According to Diehl Hester combines the qualities of beloved and mother. Arthur Dimmesdale plays the role of the son who cannot bring to fruition the relationship he desires with his mother because of the ominous father figure, Robert Chillingworth. Diehl intertwines the sexual symbolism of the scarlet letter into this argument, and propounds that it rawly symbolizes Hester's own female sexuality, especially through a comparison of the shape and ornamentation of the letter to the unadulterated female reproductive organs. In her conclusion Dielh states that the "fetishitic" scarlet "A" both points to and breaks the "silence" surrounding the "incestuous obsessions" of the son, the woman is silenced and "[i]mprsoned in her maternal identity while protected by it" (Diehl, 51).

Weiss, Daniel. "The Black Art of Psychoanalytic Criticism." The Critic Agonistes: Psychology, Myth, and the Art of Fiction. Ed. Stephen Arkin and Eric Solomon. Seattle: U of Washington P. (1985): 33-54.

Weiss presents an overview of psychoanalytic practice, "its relevance to literature" and its "association" with "reality," "the artist [and] the creative process" (Weiss, 33). Weiss begins by illustrating the long history of the associations of the artist's work with a "cathartic...purging" of emotion. Weiss draws the development of this association from the classic Greek poets up to the time of Freud and William James (the brother of the author Henry James). Weiss suggests that these two minds helped to guide thoughts about the human mind away from the purely biological or chemical notions which arose after Darwin's publication, back into the realm of conscious control. Weiss describes Freud's theories on the developmental stages of the child, and the unconsciousness into which much of our infantile knowledge falls. Weiss then explores how these repressed emotions help to spur the drive of the artist, and helps the artist to combine the real and the imagined to form art which can express the underlying desires of a whole culture. Weiss concludes by stating that psychoanalytic critics are not merely interested in pointing out the neurosis of the artist, rather these critics "become experts in the natural history of the mind" (Weiss, 54).

Other Web Resources Concerning Topics Found in this Essay

A Silly Link

Work I've Done for English 341

Link to English 341 Web Page

Questions? Contact Lisa Marie Wierenga at

Lisa.Marie Revised: 5/10/98
Reed College