Green in The Scarlet Letter

Quote 1

“Next rose before her in memory’s picture-gallery, the intricate and narrow thoroughfares, the tall, grey houses, the huge cathedrals, and the public edifices, ancient in date and quaint in architecture, of a continental city; where new life had awaited her, still in connexion with the misshapen scholar: a new life, but feeding itself on time-worn materials, like a tuft of green moss on a crumbling wall” (Hawthorne 53-54).


After her marriage to Roger Chillingworth, Hester visited the city where he was studying, and could potentially come live in with him.  As her mind starts to rush through her past while she stands upon the scaffold in the center of Boston as part of her punishment for adultery, this is one of the memories that comes to her, as if taunting her for choosing the path she did and mocking the situation she is now in, while at the same time defining the fault that caused her downfall to this level.  This all takes place just before she recognizes Roger Chillingworth in the crowd, and soon meets with him in her prison.  Thus, this memory further emphasizes the way she had, until now, thought of her husband, and thus accentuates the contrast with his personality when she meets him in the prison.


The first description Hawthorne uses to portray Hester’s memories of continental Europe is “intricate and narrow thoroughfares” (53).  Not only does this emphasize the claustrophobia that living in old European cities would cause, in contrast to the wide-open freedom of the New World, but it further affirms the idea that being married to Roger Chillingworth made her feel trapped and unable to live her life without feeling lost in the complexity of both her physical and metaphorical surroundings.  Following this, he writes a depiction that is seen many times throughout The Scarlet Letter in reference to the Puritans: “grey houses” (53).  As when used to explain Puritans, this, too, emphasizes the boringness of her prospects of livelihood in the Old World.  The particular contrast that could be extracted from this would be to her present situation, upon the scaffold in the middle of Boston.  While it is not at all a boring situation, her memories taunt her with the idea that she came to Boston to seek excitement which she could not find in Europe.  Perhaps now she has discovered it.  Nevertheless, the most important description written here is that of the color green: “a tuft of green moss on a crumbling wall” (54).  It is the object to which this is compared that brings meaning to this image: “a new life, but feeding itself on time-worn materials” (54).  The new life described for Hester, once again, is the prospect of life in Europe with Roger Chillingworth.  The initial connotation of “new life” is that it is, like “a tuft of green moss” (54), a sign of a chance to grow into a lifestyle that supports one’s true passions and desires.  However, the fact that this is dependent on “time-worn materials” (54), like a “crumbling wall” (54), indicates that this life has the potential of being crushed under the weakness of these systems which seek to sustain it, yet are unable to.  It is this sort constant comparison between not only the Old World and the New World, but also the negative sides of Boston that Hester witnesses, such as the condition of the jailhouse and the hostility of the Puritans towards criminals, which characterize Hawthorne’s style, particularly in his descriptions of places other than Boston.


The primary theme represented by green here, as well as at other mentions of the color throughout the story, is hope and freshness in a way that a soul tinged with passion and thus sin, or with hate and antiquated ideas, is unable to truly fathom or achieve.  Here, in contrast with the grey of its surroundings, the green moss symbolizes the potential of a new life and its capability to grow to a large extent, in a place that seems hostile to it.  Nevertheless, as most things symbolized by colorful life, this moss (and the life which it represents) is very delicate, and is quite susceptible to being damaged, if not entirely incapacitated, by the weakly structured, yet intrinsically powerful systems which surround, and thus threaten, it.

Quote 2

“As the last touch to her mermaid’s garb, Pearl took some eel-grass and imitated, as best she could, on her own bosom the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother’s. A letter—the letter A—but freshly green instead of scarlet!  The child bent her chin upon her breast, and contemplated this device with strange interest; even as if the one only thing for which she had been sent into the world was to make out its hidden import” (Hawthorne 163).


While Hester speaks to Roger Chillingworth to convince him to stop tormenting Dimmesdale, Pearl plays along the beach.  Initially, she plays with her reflection in the water, then with tiny boats from tree bark, then with many different sea creatures, progressively becoming more and more crude and violent in her play.  Eventually, after breaking a bird’s wing by throwing a stone at it, Pearl realizes the harm and she is doing and turns to doing harm in a very different way.  She uses the skills of making beautiful outfits taught to her by Hester to make an outfit out of seaweed, and puts the finishing touch on it by creating a green A on her chest.  Hester initially responds inquisitively to this, simply questioning its meaning to Pearl, but as she hears this meaning, her response changes and she becomes much more fearful of what Pearl knows/thinks.


The first interesting word used here by Hawthorne is the description of the A as a “decoration” (163).  While Pearl certainly doesn’t know about her mother’s crime and thus what the A upon her chest stands for, the fact that she relates it to Dimmesdale and the fact that he holds his hand over his heart would indicate that she sees it as more than simply a decoration, and intrinsically knows that there is some deeper meaning to it, even if this is just her devilish instinct.  Of course, it could be said that a “decoration” doesn’t necessarily indicate this cleanliness from meaning, but when the other components of Pearl’s outfit at present, such as scarves and headdresses, are taken into consideration, this isn’t the conclusion that is reached.  Once again, as Hawthorne in the next sentence specifies the color of Pearl’s A in contrast with Hester’s, he emphasizes the idea that it is “[fresh]” (163), and thus signals Pearl’s innocence, despite her devilish tendencies.  However, in this way, being a color that is still in contrast with the drabness of society as a whole, it could perhaps be intended to indicate this very devilish quality in contrast with the simple sin of Hester, who makes grandiose attempts to redeem herself.  The atmosphere presented in the next sentence by Hawthorne’s description of Pearl’s interest as “strange” (163) is also worth taking a look at.  This description of her interest would seem to designate it as unique from the interest that an ordinary person who didn’t know the significance of the letter would display.  Perhaps this is to indicate that, at least to Pearl, there is some greater significance to both her own A and that of Hester, beyond “Adulteress” and “Able.”  Hawthorne’s use of the conjunction “as” before presenting Pearl’s apparent mission seems to offer the reader a choice whether or not to believe it and thus the capability to infer that Pearl’s A means something besides an imitation of her mother.


Here, not only does Hawthorne use green do portray innocence and freshness, as symbolized by Pearl, but also the devilishness and witchcraft that she further embodies, not only in the eyes of Boston, but also in the eyes of Hester herself.  Furthermore, in Pearl’s use of the letter A in her costume, she begins to demonstrate her role not only as a personification of Hester’s scarlet letter, and thus her shame and punishment, but also a seeker of some deeper meaning behind it, and perhaps a facilitator of the reunion of Hester and Dimmesdale.  As Pearl grows older, her innocence and wildness, symbolizes by the green of her own letter, remain, but her role as what she has always been seen by Hester, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, as the witnesses of the crime for which she is a punishment, becomes more and more apparent and better explained to the reader.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s