Thursday, March 12, 2020
Signs, Symbols and Portents Essay Example
Signs, Symbols and Portents Essay Example Signs, Symbols and Portents Essay Signs, Symbols and Portents Essay Essay Topic: Literature Signs and symbols can be seen in all kinds of literature. Simply put, they are a concrete representation of an abstract concept. What they represent is not always obvious: they can have one or several meanings, and their meaning can change throughout the story. Sometimes, they are used by the author to foreshadow an event. Interpreting signs and symbols can be a challenge for a reader, but it is a rewarding one: it makes for a more profound and interesting reading. In this essay, I will discuss the role of signs and symbols in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter was first published in 1850. It is set in Boston, in the 17th century. It is the story of a woman, Hester Prynne, who has been punished by society because of her adultery. She has been forced to wear a scarlet A on her chest as a reminder of the sin she has committed. This scarlet letter, a written sign, is the novels main subject: it is also its main symbol. Charles Feidelson writes: The symbolistic method is inherent in the subject, just as the subject of symbolism is inherent in the method (Feidelson 1953: 13). Hawthorne also uses the main characters as symbols, pointing out the ways in which the scarlet letter affects them. Hester Prynne is condemned to wear the scarlet letter for the rest of her life because she has given birth to a child, Pearl, who is not her husbands. The fact that she has been punished in such a way tells us much about Puritan society: people were generally very pious and prude, and adultery was considered to be a great sin (Durst Johnson 1995). Hester could easily have fled from Boston and thrown away her scarlet letter, but she chooses to stay put and serve her punishment. The red A represents her sin, but it also symbolises the features of human nature that are not socially acceptable in Puritan America, such as passion (Feidelson 1953, Durst Johnson 1995). By continuing to wear it, even when she is told that she is allowed to take it off, she is making a statement. She is showing that she does not intend to change, and that she believes that the society around her should change, instead. She makes no excuses for her behaviour and devotes herself to humanitarian work. Eventually, people see her under a different light: the red A that they used to associate with something devilish acquires a much more positive meaning. Hester is now seen as an Angel, or as Able. Soon after her condemnation, Hester embroiders the scarlet letter with golden thread. Doing so could mean two things: either she is mocking her punishment, or she could be trying to embellish the truth. She does not want to accept her passionate nature. This is very Puritanistic of her: the 19th century was the Age of the Euphemism (Durst Johnson 1995: ix) in America. People did not die, they passed away; a man was not drunk, he was unwell. Though Hester appears to accept her punishment, it can sometimes becomes a hard cross to bear. Hester herself is a symbol: she represents human nature. She is passionate, not infallible, and acknowledges it. At the same time, the way she has been raised has shaped her personality. It sometimes keeps her from fully embracing the aspects of her character that society finds objectionable. Nevertheless, her punishment has made her stronger, and more understanding of humanity. Her charitable work is a proof of this. Hester is a survivor. Dimmesdale, Pearls father, is a young minister in the community. The red A on Hesters chest could stand for Arthur, his first name. He also has a scarlet letter on his heart, a psychosomatic mark (Feidelson 1953: 11), but refuses to acknowledge it. He is a pious man who believes that there should be no room in his life for passion, but his scarlet letter is a permanent reminder that he cannot escape this trait of his personality. The letter tortures him, and he constantly seeks to punish himself. His health deteriorates throughout the novel. He refuses to acknowledge Pearl as his daughter until the very end, and when he does, he proclaims himself to be the one sinner of the world (Hawthorne 2002). He dies minutes after having shown his scarlet letter to the world. Dimmesdale is a symbol of Puritan society and its unwillingness to accept all aspects of human nature. Pearl, Hester and Dimmesdales daughter, has a symbolic role until the very end of the novel. She is an uncontrollable and mischievous child, and she is described as an demon offspring by the narrator. Comparisons between Pearl and the scarlet letter are numerous and obvious. Feidelson writes: Pearl, as Hawthorne reiterates at tiresome length, is the scarlet letter both physically and mentally (1953: 11). Pearl is obsessed with her mothers scarlet letter. In Chapter XV, she makes a green A out of eelgrass and puts it on her own chest. To Pearl, the letter is natural, and does not represent anything evil. She seeks the truth about it, and is constantly asking her mother questions, something that makes Hester uncomfortable. She is also the hardest truth-sayer in the novel (Durst Johnson 1995: 6), and knows the truth about Dimmesdale instinctively. Until he confesses to being her father, she calls him Mr. Black and refuses to kiss him. Throughout the novel, there is an intense connection between Pearl and truth. This indicates that the scarlet letter, which is symbolised by Pearl, represents the whole truth about human nature. Hawthorne writes: Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred! (Hawthorne 2002: 269). By using the scarlet letter and his characters as symbols, Hawthorne is urging people to acknowledge every aspect of their own humanity (Durst Johnson 1995). Moby-Dick was published in 1851. Its author, Herman Melville, dedicated the novel to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who he admired greatly. In his tale of a whaling expedition gone wrong, Melville makes extensive use of signs and symbols. Ishmael, a member of the ships crew and the storys narrator, is a visionary (Feidelson 1953). He transforms the physical world into a symbolic world for the reader. The symbols used in Moby-Dick are most often more complex and ambiguous than the ones used in The Scarlet Letter. One of the major symbols in Moby-Dick is the whaling ship, the Pequod. It has been painted black, and is decorated with bones and teeth that have dissected out of dead whales. In addition to this, it has been named after an extinct Native American tribe. Though Ishmael seems to be very satisfied with the Pequod, the way he describes it makes it sound spooky. The Pequods appearance symbolises death, and its name makes the reader realise that the ship is doomed to sink. Ishmael says of the ship that it is a cannibal of a craft (Melville 1998: 61): much of the components of the ship are taken from whale parts, and it is a ship whose main purpose is killing whales. He is pointing out how men use nature for their own ends, and have no moral qualms about using a whale to kill another whale. The crew of the Pequod is made up of a variety of people from all over the world. Ishmael notes that most of the crew is made up of men who were born outside of America, but that the officer positions are generally occupied by Americans. He says: the native American liberally provides the brain, the rest of the world generously supplying the muscles (Melville 1998: 106). Melville could be commenting on social class differences between Whites and Blacks in the United States, or even on slavery. Though Ishmael seems to believe that the rest of the world is generously providing the muscles, it is probably fair to speculate that many of them would rather be given the chance to use their brains. Moby-Dick was published just ten years before the American Civil War broke out, and racial issues were extremely relevant. In spite of all this, the members of the crew seem to be getting along, and work well as a team. This could represent the American melting pot: people from every corner of the world having come to build a country and pulling together to make it happen. Melville had great hopes for American democracy, and this is one of the reasons why he wrote Moby-Dick (Selby 1998). Ahab, the ships captain, embodies an extreme version of a classic American type: the monomaniac, who has only one interest and devotes all his energy to it (Brodhead 1986). He dedicates his ship and his whole crew to his own personal mission: killing the great white whale, Moby Dick. He does not care whether lives are lost in the process, and he rules his ship like a tyrannical dictator would. D. H. Lawrence said of the sinking of the Pequod that it was the sinking of the white American soul (Selby 1998). By making Ahabs plan fail, Melville is showing the public what can happen when a monomaniac type such as Ahab goes too far. Moby Dick is central in Melvilles novel. It is a white whale of an extraordinary size: it is the most solid of physical things and the most meaningful of symbols (Feidelson 1953: 184). Moby Dick means something different to every character in the novel. To Starbuck, the first mate, it is just another whale, though a very dangerous one. He is irritated at the vendetta Ahab has against it, and wishes that the crew could work on its true mission, which is to hunt whales for their oil. Ishmael is fascinated by the whale, and terrified by its whiteness, as white is the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors (Melville 1998: 175). Ishmael does not know whether the whale is just a meaningless big fish colorless or a mystical being full of complex meanings, at once good and evil. To the rest of the crew, tales about the white whale are a diversion from their dangerous jobs, and a way to confront their own fears. Finally, to Ahab, it is the ultimate symbol of evil in this world. Moby Dick is the reason why he has lost a leg, and he is determined to seek revenge. D. H. Lawrence has suggested that the white whale could be some kind of a phallic symbol (Selby 1998). The whale has such strength and power that Ahabs desire to kill the whale could be a quest for acquiring absolute potency (Brodhead 1986). Ahab never succeeds in killing Moby Dick: instead, it is Moby Dick that sinks the ship. It is the revenge of nature over men, who keep trying to destroy it. After discussing the role of symbols and signs in The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, I must agree with Nick Selby, who writes that symbolism, and the loose romanticism upon which it depends, is the key expressive tool of the American Renaissance' (1998: 55). There is more symbolism in these two literary works than in any other works I have studied this year. The symbols are rich in meaning and are given great importance. Spending time to interpret them is essential to a proper understanding of the text.