Rosebush and Black Weeds: Botanical Metaphors in The Scarlet Letter
Nature. It is a word that seems so expansive and all-inclusive. Within a novel, elements of nature and setting often become so expected and mundane that they are easily glossed over in order to get to the “more important” elements of a story-the plot, characters, and events. Occasionally, however, an author makes calculating and blatant references to the setting, thus thrusting the background into the foreground. Throughout Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, several plants serve to symbolize characters in their actions as well as in their attachment to the community-a representation nearly unfeasible were they described in mere words. In likening Hester in the first chapter to the rosebush that grows just beyond the prison door, Hawthorne implies that Hester possesses all qualities that are commonly associated with the flower without ever having to reveal her personality through conventional forms of exposition. Furthermore, Hawthorne proceeds to compare Dimmesdale to black weeds growing from a grave just outside his window. Subtly different than the comparisons for Hester and Dimmesdale, the author chooses a unique flower to exemplify the enigmatic Pearl-the aquatic eelgrass. In using this symbolism, Hawthorne creates a parallel dimension between the plants and the characters
A rose, perhaps the most basic and simplistic image, embodies a wealth of connotations. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne continually and indirectly relates Hester to this very distinct flower through his juxtaposition of its description followed closely by hers. The wild rosebush exists as a “hearty plant,” often able to “withstand even the most severe frosts” (Audubon Society). Although this plant grows wild in nature, many people seek to cultivate it because of its resilience against environmental opposition such as drought and frost. Like the rosebush, Hester displays a strength that withstands the pressures of her environment, namely the citizens of Puritan Boston. Despite the ministers’ threats against her “soul’s peace” and “salvation,” Hester attests that she will never reveal the identity of her fellow adulterer, resolutely accepting to “endure his agony as well as [her own]” (53, 54). Although its blooms can survive a frost, rose petals are both vibrant color and delicately intricate in their arrangement. Like these petals, Hester possesses many beautiful qualities ranging from her delicate embroidery talent to the “generosity and charity of her heart” among her community (Ringe 90). She is a woman of many layers-at times feminist, servant, punished, liberated. Her beauty, both inward and outward, enables her to be the rose amongst the “burdock, pig-weed…and such unsightly vegetation” surrounding her (Hawthorne 41). Coupled with this inarguable beauty, however, lies a necessary outgrowth that is far less appealing that the blossom, and once touched breeds painful repercussions: the thorns. Although Hester strives to serve her community and become a good citizen, deep within her lies a passion and willfulness that may be considered her tragic flaw. This “passionate nature inevitably leads her to sin” with Dimmesdale, initiating punishments that shall haunt her for her entire life (Ringe 90). Through both positive and negative attributes, Hawthorne adequately compares Hester to a rosebush-physically enduring, aesthetically appealing, but dangerously thorny.
Throughout Chillingworth’s stay with the ailing Reverend Dimmesdale, the doctor frequently collects various specimens of weeds and herbs from the nearby forest, possessing impressive botanical knowledge. By again employing the subtle method of indirect comparison, Hawthorne links Dimmesdale with one of these leafy discoveries. Upon the minister’s inquiry regarding the original location of the “unsightly plant,” Chillingworth replies that topically it arose from a grave without a tombstone, but that its roots stem from deep in the heart of a man with a “hideous secret that was buried with him” (94). Presenting both the physical heart and the concept of dying with a guilty conscience strikes a profound cord within Dimmesdale. Throughout the stressful times in the novel, the young minister “keeps his hand over his heart,” thus further emphasizing that connection (126). Furthermore, like the plant itself, all of Dimmesdale’s actions (and inactions) are founded and take root in a guilty heart because of his unwillingness to confess. Even the appearance of the “dark and flabby leaf” hearkens back to the sickly minister (94). Evidently this weed suffers from poor health, perhaps even near death, due to its environment-lack of water, nutrients, sunlight, etc. Likewise, Dimmesdale’s “form grew emaciated,” his sonorous voice possesses a tinge of “decay,” and his countenance often grows “flush” with a “paleness, indicative of pain” (87). Beyond these somewhat concrete qualities of the plant lies an interesting acknowledgement: despite Chillingworth’s expansive knowledge and interest of botany, this grave-sprung weed is “new to [him]” (94). In that same vein, Chillingworth looks continually for Hester’s fellow sinner, but that sinner’s identity (Dimmesdale) is yet unconfirmed to Chillingworth at this point in the novel. Through the subtle links such as the foundation in the heart, sickly appearance and unknown origin, Hawthorne creates an unmistakable comparison between the black weed and Dimmesdale.
As Hester comes upon Pearl playing in the tide pool, she discovers that Pearl has created a “freshly green” letter A out of eelgrass to fashion upon her dress. Here, Hawthorne only makes a brief reference, though a lasting impression, with this organic representation. Eelgrass, a pure water aquatic grass, grows from the sand beneath the water level but its flowers actually float on the water’s surface (Audubon). Somewhat unique in nature, this plant survives in both worlds: the aquatic and the earthen, belonging no more to one than the other, but rather drifting somewhere in between the two. Similarly, Pearl never quite takes on black and white characteristics of being either angelic or demonic, “treasure” or “emblem of sin” (67, 70). The female flower reaches the surface of the water upon a twisted and jagged stem. This twisted stem results from the undulating current of the water while the plant is still forming. Like this winding stem that exists as a product of its environment, so too does Pearl reveal the stresses and confusion of her childhood in her behavior. Because “Pearl was born an outcast…she had no right among christened infants,” she developed a strange and pronounced animosity towards them (70). Her impish and evil tendencies strayed far from the straight and moral path she is expected to follow. Beyond its actual growth, the eelgrass is an incredibly “vigorous grower and not suitable for the average water garden” but is much more suited for “natural growth, uninhibited by artificial environments” (www.botany.com). Pearl develops with remarkable abilities to assess and comprehend; in fact, the age at which she was capable for social interaction came soon, and with “strange rapidity” (70). Also because of its excessively strict codes and close-mindedness, the Puritan environment suffocates Pearl. Eelgrass embodies much of the essence of little Pearl, despite being mentioned briefly-it represents her state of limbo between moral rights and wrongs, her abnormal upbringing and her need for greater freedom.
Because these characters mold somewhat too seamlessly into the plants used to describe them, there still remains some aspect of the puzzle that calls to be articulated. Each separate plant is but a small portion of the whole. In chapter seventeen, Hester and Dimmesdale plot to board a ship and set sail for Europe where they will be free to live with Pearl as a complete family. While he had been sickly and frail heretofore, Dimmesdale’s face glows with a new-found sense of hope and joy for their promising future (139). While Hester had remained reserved and resolute to bear her punishment, she suddenly and carelessly casts of her public shame and embraces a new life of freedom from the stigma, albeit momentarily. The fulfillment of this dream, however, is not in the stars for the lovers because “they cannot escape from time or society” (Swann 86). Because both the rose bush and the weed growing from the grave (symbols of Hester and Dimmesdale respectively) are firmly rooted in the Puritan and New England soil, neither is destined to permanently leave. Hester’s wild rosebush, while resilient to the environment, is not highly receptive to transplanting. Although Hester momentarily disappears after the final scaffold scene, she inevitably returns to the land where her roots are so firmly planted in its soil. When Dimmesdale reveals his secret before the entire community, he symbolically purges the sin from the guilty heart, thereby extracting the weak plant from its foundation. Evidently unable to survive the long journey to be “replanted,” Dimmesdale and his black weed wither and die without ever having left the town. Pearl, however, remains as the ray of hope. Unlike her parents, she can “go to Europe because she has no historical ties [roots] with New England” (Swann 89). Unlike the rosebush and black weed, the eelgrass does not have a firm root structure embedded in soil. As mentioned previously, the eelgrass grows from the sand/silt in ponds and rivers. Therefore, because of this difference in growing environment (soil versus water) of the respective characters, their ability to leave New England for Europe is predetermined.
Throughout this novel, innumerable references to the setting and nature add a whole other dimensions and levels of interpretation for the text. From the very onset of the novel, this symbolism takes root and proceeds to blossom into an essential aspect of the Scarlet Letter.
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