The Scarlet Complexion in The Scarlet Letter
A simple blush can mean an abundance of things. One’s rosy complexion could signify emotions and thoughts, passion and frustration. Embarrassment, bashfulness, shyness, anger, pain, and joyfulness can also be included in the range of things just a blush can illustrate. It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but any rosy check is just as informative. The symbolism of blushing can be seen throughout Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to mean different things for different characters. This includes Hester’s recognition of her shame regardless of her pride, Hester’s sin in the views of society, the minister’s internal suffering for his abashment, and Hester’s happiness at the reunion with her youth and innocence.
One’s shame for a transgression they committed is often eclipsed by the contradicting pride they have for that transgression, odd as it may be. One instance where blushing can be seen as one of Hawthorne’s symbols, is at the start of the novel, when Hester Prynne is on the scaffold before the Puritan town to be scrutinized and ridiculed. “In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours.” (47) Here, Hester is blushing, in what is implied to be embarrassment, but still remains proud in the presence of her judgmental spectators. This indicates that even though she does not outwardly express her shame and desire to be forgiven, Hester does recognize that she committed a crime and that she should be punished.
This symbolism is significant because it shows that even though Hester has an “unabashed” air about her and holds herself bold and proud, she feels the imprint of the shame and letter A on her soul. The blushing here represents Hester’s acknowledgement of the disgrace her restrictive society branded her with, which sets the mood for how she will carry herself throughout the rest of the novel. In Puritanical communities such as the one in The Scarlet Letter, adultery was a taboo, and mention of such an act of sinfulness would often cause pure and unadulterated people to blush in embarrassment to be discussing such a brazen topic. In The Scarlet Letter, the crime Hester committed was so disgraceful that Hester could not be put in a position to relate herself to anything pure, such as a bride. “But it is not recorded that, in a single instance, her skill was called in aid to embroider the white veil which was to cover the pure blushes of a bride.
The exception indicated the ever relentless vigor with which society frowned upon her sin.” (74) Here, the significance of the blush is that maidens would color with their naivetes at anything as filthy as Hester and her dishonor, so that Hester would never be asked to sew for them. Sewing was Hester’s profession, and she was known to be quite talented at it; she even sewed for esteemed people like the governor himself, however, never for the brides. The rosy visage indicates that Hester’s skills and reputation could be summoned by the town for anyone, with the exception of someone who represented anything and everything unadulterated. The pious members of Hester Prynne’s society made sure her filth did not stain the fair and flawless maidens that represented the heart of purity. It always takes two to participate in the disreputable act of adultery, of which Hester was known be guilty of with her accomplice remaining anonymous.
In Hester’s case, the minister was her partner in crime, but dealing with his iniquity proved not to be as easy as for Hester. “His [the minister’s] form grew emaciated; his voice, though still rich and sweet, had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay in it; he was often observed, on any slight alarm or other sudden accident, to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of pain.” (108) Hawthorne uses the minister’s blushing as a symbol here to highlight the minister’s inward suffering. Unlike Hester, the minister was left to repent for his sin alone, drowning in self-guilt, without the rest of society knowing. The personal infamy drove the minister to poor bodily and mental conditions, often causing him to be in pain, which he felt both in his body and his soul.
The reddening of the minister’s pale features symbolizes his inward sorrow he feels while suppressing his darkest secret. The minister’s blush is followed by him clutching his hand over his heart, which the reader finds out to imply to be the minister’s own personal symbol such as Hester’s scarlet letter; the fact that no one else can witness his marking of shame makes him suffer ever more deeply. Many a time, it is thought to be one of the most satisfying feelings to be set free, as from responsibility or guilt. Hester and the minister both experience this sensation of being released from their oppressive society, their polluted dishonor, and anguished pasts while they sit in the forest and talk of forgiveness and escaping; escaping both the town and their inhibitions, that is. “A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek that had long been so pale.” (186) This reddening, unlike the others, appears in a time of joy and euphoria.
The significance of this symbol and its placement here is that Hester finally feels free, unchained from the fierce grip her past held on her. Here, the blush portrays her youth and beauty at last returning. Hester’s own happiness at feeling forgiveness and realizing she can escape and forget about her miserable past causes the rosy tint to explode upon her face, her body and her presence of mind. The blushing, along with her rich, shining hair and the burst of sunshine, all epitomize Hester setting herself free from her sin and becoming content once again. Passion and emotion are the foundations of a successful civilization. A simple blush or scarlet tint to one’s face depicts those underlying feelings that make emotion so powerful.
In The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, blushing can be seen throughout the novel to symbolize such strong feelings, either by individual characters or even the Puritan society as a whole. This symbolism helps us to understand that not everyone conforms to the roles they are carved out to play, such as Hester with her role as a Puritan woman and the minister as a pure and pious man. We can also appreciate the personal struggles people went and go through, especially when influenced by a repressive society, such as the Puritan one in the novel. Lastly, the simple blushing in a certain situation, as shown in Hawthorne’s writing, can illuminate the importance of forgiving and moving on, putting the past behind us and letting go.