Light at Play in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Hawthorne and the Visual Arts
2.1 Portraiture
2.2 The Daguerreotype
2.3 The Pieta

3. Color or the Lack thereof

4. Light at Play
4.1 The Moonlit Parlor
4.2 The Bright Morning Sun
4.3 The revealing midday sun
4.4 Utter Darkness
4.5 The Valley of Darkness
4.6 Opposites Attract
4.7 The Glow
4.8 No Sun for Hester
4.9 The Flood of Freedom
4.10 Love Shines Through
4.11 Artificial Light
4.12 The Meteor

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

When he was engaged to marry Sophia Amelia Peabody, a painter who copied the works of famed contemporaries with “widespread praise”, Nathaniel Hawthorne was awaiting two pictures she had produced “expressly for him.” (both Gollin 2001: 114)[1] In a letter he assured her:

I never owned a picture in my life; yet pictures have always been among the earthly possessions (and they are spiritual possessions too) which I most coveted. (…) I have often felt as if I could be a painter, only I am sure I could never handle a brush;– now my Dove will show me the images of my inward eye, beautiful and etherealized by her own spirit. (Gollin 2001: 115)

This essay will first try to outline whether these lines are just flattery or in how far the visual arts really played an important role in Hawthorne’s life, and since Hawthorne was of course quite able himself to lay out before the world the images of his inward eye with great success, it will then try to show what visual techniques Hawthorne incorporated in his work, particularly in his classic The Scarlet Letter. It will be seen that, rather than creating a colorful tableau, as Hawthorne was also capable of doing in other tales (Gollin 1991: 53)[2], he creates an atmosphere in The Scarlet Letter in which “the color pattern (…) is essentially a contrast of red against black” (Matthiessen 1945: 265)[3], while the truly dominant technique Hawthorne puts to use is chiaroscuro, the application of light and shade.

2. Hawthorne and the Visual Arts

2.1 Portraiture

“Portraits were part of Hawthorne’s environment from his childhood on. Miniatures of his father and his father’s father were among his family’s prized possessions, and ancestral portraits were on prominent display in many of the houses he visited.” (Gollin 2001: 112f.) Dolis (1984: 363)[4] quotes an entry from Hawthorne’s American Notebooks about portraits, where the latter writes: “The pursuit has always interested my imagination more than any other; and I remember, before having my first portrait taken, there was a great bewitchery in the idea, as if it were a magic process.” Levin (1970: 38)[5] goes so far in his interpretation of Hawthorne’s notebooks that he claims that they “attest his belief in pictorial art as a form of magic more potent than poetry.” It is not surprising, therefore, that The House of the Seven Gables, another one of Hawthorne’s masterpieces, “centers on truths that portraits can convey.” (Gollin 2001: 116) Williams (1997: 5)[6] draws our attention to the “very etymology of the word portrait,” which stems from the Latin word protrahere, meaning to draw forth, to reveal, to extend. With this thought in mind, the entire plot of The Scarlet Letter can be seen as one giant portrait, since it is the story of the gradual revelation of a sin. This power of revelation was what impressed Hawthorne most about portrait painting: “he admired the painter whose eye searched beneath surfaces, who painted ‘not merely a man’s features, but his mind and heart.’” (Matthiessen 1945: 267) So the numerous portraits and allusions to portraits in The Scarlet Letter are accounted for: the images that come to Hester’s mind on the scaffold are called her “memory’s picture gallery,” (44) Reverend John Wilson is described as looking like “one of those darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed to old volumes of sermons,” (49) and the row of portraits in Governor Bellingham’s house is “characterized by the sternness and severity which old portraits so invariably put on; as if they were the ghosts, rather than the pictures, of departed worthies.” (79)

2.2 The Daguerreotype

When Hawthorne was born in 1804, portraits were as accurate a representation of a face as possible. During his lifetime, however, photography was invented. While the first techniques did not have a great impact on the public, since they were not easily accessible for a wide audience, “the advent of the daguerreotype in 1839 marked a fundamental shift in the production and popularity of images, especially portraits.” (Williams 1997: 1) Citing Ivins, Williams goes on to say that “[t]he shift was so profound that (…) ‘the histories of art, of science, and of thought, can be quite properly and cogently divided into their pre- and post-photographic periods.’” (Williams 1997: 1) And since “[a]ll the arts of a given period spring in a sense from the same cultural milieu,” (Matthiessen 1945: 266, italics in the original) Hawthorne was influenced and fascinated by the daguerreotype. Williams (1997: xi) adds that “these portraits provide a lens through which to view not only the historical reception of photography but also the construction of authorship in mid nineteenth-century America.” Just how impressed Hawthorne and his contemporaries were becomes clear in an Edgar Allan Poe quote from 1840: “The instrument itself must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science.” (William 1997: 35) “What he [Hawthorne] most admired in the Rembrandt-like achromaticism of the daguerreotype was its ability to suggest a hidden psychological drama or intuition.” (Dolis 1984: 362) What had fascinated Hawthorne most about portraits, was exactly what fascinated him most about daguerreotypes: the hidden truths, the aspects of characters that can be found beneath and beyond the surface. We can safely say that Hawthorne was drawing written portraits, which is exactly what Dolis (1984: 371) means when he says that “[Hawthorne’s] gaze is most intriguing whenever he applies this technique [fragmentation in this case] specifically to the human face in order to disclose the whole ‘person.’” In turn, this means that no photograph, no matter how sharp the image, can ever be true to reality. Hawthorne notes: “In fact, there is no such thing as a true portrait; they are all delusions. . . . a bust has more reality,” (Dolis 1984: 363) a quote that may have pleased artists like Rodin, who defended his own work against photography, saying that “[i]t is the artist who is truthful, while the photograph is mendacious; for, in reality, time never stops cold.” (Dolis 1984: 370) Romanticists like Hawthorne could have defended their art against realist tendencies with this quote as well.

2.3 The Pieta

There is a clearly deliberate example of Hawthorne making use of art history in The Scarlet Letter. During the first scaffold scene, the narrator supposes that

Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity, which so many illustrious painters have vied with one another to represent; something which should remind him, indeed, but only by contrast, of that sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem the world. (Hawthorne 1999: 42)[7]

Nathaniel Hawthorne has entered this circle of illustrious painters and sculptors and is creating a Pieta. Hester is “presented as a virtual Madonna.” (Levin 1970: 74) “The allusion to the pictorial tradition of the Madonna and Child is arresting, thought-provoking, functional,” (Gollin 1991:50) because the reader is forced to both compare and contrast Hester with the Virgin Mary. To make sure that the image stays with the reader, Hawthorne presents Hester much like a sculptor would: after the first scaffold scene, she is called a “statue of ignominy” (56)[8] by Chillingworth, later she is presented as “majestic and statue-like,” (122) and finally, in the third scaffold scene, Hester is once again standing there “statue-like.” (182)

3. Color or the Lack thereof

Obviously, when we look at the title, The Scarlet Letter is not entirely devoid of color. But apart from a few scattered greens of plants, one or two yellows, the blue of a servant’s uniform and the gold around the scarlet letter and in other embroideries, The Scarlet Letter is characterized by a very limited selection of color: it is a clear case of red. “Or rather,” as Schubert[9] specifies, “it is scarlet.” (Schubert 1963: 156) Schubert adds that “Hawthorne should be praised for his choice of words. ‘The Red Letter’ would be less effective than ‘The Scarlet Letter.’” (1963: 156) In the course of the book, variations of the color come up more than 150 times.[10] As Levin notices, “[t]he color-scheme is all the more arresting because the spot of flaming red is set off against the usual background of somber blacks and Puritan grays.” (1970: 74) This opposition is a variant of the opposition of light and dark, which will be discussed below. By opposing red and black, Hawthorne also sets a mood of fire, danger and alert against the black of sadness, evil and death – a diabolic mixture. When Chillingworth is described as a “devil,” his face is sheer “blackness” and “[e]ver and anon, too, there came a glare of red light out of his eyes.” (127) Similarly, the people who sign themselves over to the Black Man in the forest do so with their blood (which is of course red). (139)

And yet, red does not stand for danger throughout the novel. As Levin (1970: 78) remarks, “the color of the lovers is red, which stands for blood, for life instead of death.” The same can be said for the rosebush that grows against the prison, “the black flower of civilized society.” (35) Pearl, whose character is ambiguous in many ways, presents a mixture of red and black, often wearing red garments that her mother made for her, garments that stand out against the blackness of her eyes and her hair.


[1] Gollin, Rita. 2001. “Hawthorne and the Visual Arts.” A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Larry Reynolds. Oxford: OUP.

[2] Gollin, Rita. 1991. Prophetic Pictures: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Knowledge and Uses of the Visual Arts. Westport: Greenwood.

[3] Matthiessen, F.O. 1945. “Review: Hawthorne, the Artist: Fine-Art Devices in Fiction.” The New England Quarterly 18.2: 265-268.

[4] Dolis, John. 1984. “Hawthorne’s Metonymic Gaze: Image and Object.” American Literature 56. 3: 362-378.

[5] Levin, Harry. 1970. The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville. New York: Knopf.

[6] Williams, Susan. 1997. Confounding Images. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

[7] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. 1999. The Scarlet Letter. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth.

[8] All further quotes from The Scarlet Letter will only be accompanied by the page number

[9] Schubert, Leland. 1963. Hawthorne, the Artist: Fine-Art Devices in Fiction. New York: Russell and Russell.

[10] 116 occurences of scarlet, 30 of red, 8 of crimson. These and all following numbers were extracted using the search function of Digitale Bibliothek Band 59: English and American Literature.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Light at Play in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'
University of Freiburg
HS American Classics of the 19th Century
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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I discuss all the different effects of light and lighting in the novel - broad daylight, the meteor, morning light, artificial light etc. Professor's comment: Your observations about Hawthorne's use of light and rendering of a chiaroscuro effect are brilliant. Your English is impeccable.
Light, Play, Nathaniel, Hawthorne, Scarlet, Letter, American, Classics, Century, Hester, Shadow, Dark, Black, Red, Visual
Quote paper
Michael Helten (Author), 2006, Light at Play in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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