Essay: Darkness Illuminated
Since the conception of humanity, man has been fascinated with that presence which illuminates, yet cannot be touched. Mankind has brought it into his religions, giving it a great deal of importance in his creed. Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, Nathaniel Hawthorne uses light as a tool of God that illuminates the darkness of human iniquity and exposes its permanence. He studies the psychological theme of the impossibility of eradicating sin from the human heart in his novel The Scarlet Letter. The use of light in order to fortify this psychological theme confirms its significance in the novel. As though he were weaving an elaborate tapestry, Hawthorne meshes light's intense symbolism into his characters' natures until a chef d'oeuvre manifests itself upon the loom of the reader's intellect. This tapestry serves as a subtle background upon which the characters' sinful hearts are bared.
As Hawthorne navigates the reader through the passages of his dark tale, one follows Hester as she goes to Governor Bellingham's mansion. Light is reflected by almost every aspect of the extravagant dwelling. Through the narrator's words, we see the Governor's house as Hester sees it: "...though partly muffled by a curtain, it [the hallway] was more powerfully illuminated by one of those embowed hall windows..." (Hawthorne 101). One can envision the brilliant sunlight streaming though the immense window, slicing through the facade of the Governor's feigned sanctity. Is not simplicity one of the fundamental tenets of the Puritan faith? Yet Bellingham, the very person that passed judgment on Hester and her sin is laid bare to the reader's opened eye. Here, light shows Governor Bellingham to be corrupt due to his improvident lifestyle.
In his genius, Hawthorne defines light not only as a presence, but as an animate consciousness. Still acting as a tool of God, light seems to run away from Hester when she tries to touch it. Pearl, in her inexplicable intuitiveness, says to Hester, "...the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom" (Hawthorne 180). Although Pearl makes this comment concerning the scarlet "A", one may argue that the sunlight is actually afraid of Hester's sin, and not the scarlet "A". In this case, light is used to remind Hester of her sin and to bring it to the front of her mind as punishment for her adultery.
Not only does light show Hester's sin to herself, it shows her sin to others as well. Near the end of the story, Mistress Hibbins speaks with Hester, "I know thee, Hester; for I behold the token. We may all see it in the sunshine; and it glows like a red flame in the dark" (Hawthorne 237). By shining on the palpable reminder of Hester's sin, the sunlight screams to others of the scarlet letter's noncorporeal counterpart: her immorality. Though the scarlet "A" is intrinsically only a superficial indication of Hester's sin, Mistress Hibbins goes beyond this surface detail when she says, "I know thee", implying that she perceives the immutable nature of Hester's sin. Light can expose not only exterior indications of human sin, but can also make known the sin itself.
Hawthorne leaves the reader with a crystal clear picture of how light is a brutal reminder of man's permanent sin. It cuts, pierces, even shatters the masks which man tries to place over his sin. Man no longer falls on his knees in awe of the dazzling lightning bolt or the godlike rays of sunlight through misty clouds. He no longer regards light as a magical deity to be worshipped. Despite this, Hawthorne again bestows upon light its original glory as a thing of God. Its role remains constant as an exhibitor of iniquity, a spotlight lancing into the sordid darkness of mankind's damned souls.