Top Ten Allusions in The Scarlet Letter
Throughout The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne uses many different historical as well as biblical allusions to provide a deeper meaning to the novel as well as a connection to other events and works outside the novel.
10. Ann Hutchinson: “This rosebush by strange chance, has been kept alive in history… [it is believed] it had sprung up under the sainted steps of Ann Hutchinson, as she entered the prison door” (46). Ann Hutchinson is a historical allusion; she was banished from her colony for holding private Bible studies within her home making her own interpretations of the sermons given at their church. This was something that her colony did not approve of. I think that Hawthorne makes use of this to foreshadow the upcoming events in the book. Hester, like Ann, will be exiled from her community because she acted in a way her society did not approve of by committing adultery.
9. Enoch: “I, whose daily life you discern with the sanctity of Enoch”(140). Dimmsdale is attempting to tell all of his parishioners that he is not the man that they all think he is. This religious allusion helps to get his point across, as Hawthorne intended. Enoch was a man who in Genesis: 24 “…walked with God: and he was not; for God took him to heaven without death.” It was said that he was favored so much by God that he simply took him to heaven without death. Using this allusion helps Hawthorne enforce Dimmsdale’s point when he is trying to convince the people who think he is sacred and holy that they only see the facade, not the real him.
8. Babylon: “Nay, we might have judged that such a child’s mother needs be a scarlet woman, and worthy type of her of Babylon!”(106). Babylon was an ancient city city that is characterized for its pride, cruelty, greed. The Governor is comparing Hester to a woman that belongs there, because of her pride in the way that she dresses her daughter in non-traditional Puritan clothing, but clothing that is much more elegant than that of the others. Again, Hawthorne uses this allusion to make the Governor’s saying have a greater impact on Hester.
7. Sir Thomas Overbury:“There was an aged handicraftsman…who had been a citizen of London at the period of Sir Thomas Overbury’s murder…he testified to having seen the physician…in company of Doctor Forman…who was implicated in the affair…”(123-124). Overbury was an English poet that was believed to have been poisoned by Doctor Forman when he disapproved of a marriage. Hawthorne is comparing that situation to the situation with Dimmsdale and Chillingworth by having someone claim they saw Chillingworth with the doctor who killed Overbury. Hawthorne also possibly uses this to show the extremely negative effects that Chillingworth’s presence will have on Dimmsdale’s health.
6. Image of Divine Maternity: “Had their been a Papist here among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman…an object that reminded him of the image of Divine Maternity”(54). In this Biblical allusion Hawthorne is comparing Hester and Pearl standing up on the scaffold to Mary and the baby Jesus. I think that Hawthorne uses this allusion in almost an ironic way because Hester and Pearl seem like a complete juxtaposition of the ‘Divine Maternity’. Unlike their completely sin free situation, Pearl has been born of and into sin.
5. Adam and Eve: “…the infant was worthy to be brought forth in Eden…after the world’s first parents were driven out”(86). Once again Hawthorne is using another biblical allusion, this time it seems as if he is using this to give a deeper meaning to Hester, Pearl, and Dimmsdale’s situation. Like Adam and Eve, Hester and Dimmsdale face suffering as a consequence of their sin; however, they both gain knowledge because of their sin. In Hester’s case, her sin led her to do things that other women would dare not do, but it also led her to perform acts of charity within her community such as caring for the sick. Lastly, like Adam and Eve, she was cast out of her society just like they were cast out of their paradise.
4. Lethe:“‘I know not Lethe nor Nepenthe….Drink it! It might be less soothing than a sinless conscience. That I cannot give thee”(70). Lethe is a river in the underworld whose waters, when drunk, make the person forget about their past. In this situation, it helps better explain Chillingworth’s purpose in the beginning. He is telling Hester that he cannot make her forget her sins, but he can give her medicine to calm her. In the beginning of the novel his purpose was not to harm Hester in his revenge against the man who she committed adultery with her, but just to find revenge on said man.
3. Cain and Abel:“[The Scarlet Letter] could not entirely cast her off, although it had set a mark upon her more intolerable to a woman’s heart that that which branded the brow of Cain”(81). Hawthorne uses this biblical allusion to describe the severity of Hester’s feeling of sadness and guilt when she first receives her letter. When it refers to the mark that is branded to Cain, Hawthorne is referring to when Cain killed his brother Abel. The reader can infer that Hester’s feeling must be extremely intolerable if Hawthorne is comparing them to Cain’s feelings after he killed his own brother.
2. The Holy Spirit: “All they lacked was the gift that descended upon the chosen disciples at Pentecost…”(138). Hawthorne, once again, uses a religious allusion to describe the magnitude of effect that a person or item has on characters within the novel. In this case he is referring to Dimmsdale, and what made his speeches better than all of the other priests within the community. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave each of the disciples the ability to preach in a way that everyone would be able to understand them in their own language. He is comparing Dimmsdale to them because Dimmsdale found a way to communicate better and really relate to his parishioners because of all of the guilt and sin that he felt.
1. The Pearl of Great Price: “‘Pearl,’ said he,’…thou mayest wear in thy bosom the pearl of great price’” (107). The pearl of great price is a biblical allusion to a parable in Matthew 13:45-46 saying: “Again, thy kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Whom when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Hawthorne uses this literary allusion to describe what Hester gave up for Pearl. Just like the man in the parable, she gave up all that she had, basically her whole life, considering she was ostracized from the community for Pearl.