The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Main Ideas

Metaphors & Similes

Main Ideas Metaphors & Similes

The Custom-House, Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

Nevertheless, vixenly as she looks, many people are seeking, at this very moment, to shelter themselves under the wing of the federal eagle . . .  

In this metaphor, the narrator describes a statue of an American eagle displayed over the entrance to the Custom House, comparing the eagle’s fierce look with that of a vixen, which is defined either as “female fox” or as a “shrewish or bad-tempered woman.”  

My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it.  

In this metaphor, the narrator compares his poor ability to accurately portray his characters to a dirty, damaged mirror that produces only dim reflections.  

Chapter 5

The very law that condemned her—a giant of stern features, but with vigor to support, as well as to annihilate, in his iron arm—had held her up, through the terrible ordeal of her ignominy. 

In this metaphor, the strict, unforgiving Puritan laws that kept Hester in prison are symbolic of a strong giant that protected her from the repercussions of the townspeople; now that Hester was released, the giant was no longer there to protect her and she had to fend for herself.  

Chapter 7

“No, my little Pearl!” said her mother. “Thou must gather thine own sunshine. I have none to give thee!” 

The sunshine is a metaphor for Pearl’s happiness; Hester tells Pearl she has no happiness to share, so Pearl will have to find ways to make her own. 

Chapter 9

Not the less, however, though with a tremulous enjoyment, did he feel the occasional relief of looking at the universe through the medium of another kind of intellect than those with which he habitually held converse. It was as if a window were thrown open, admitting a freer atmosphere into the close and stifled study, where his life was wasting itself away, amid lamp-light, or obstructed day-beams, and the musty fragrance, be it sensual or moral, that exhales from books. 

In this simile, the narrator compares the opinions of Roger Chillingworth to fresh air that comes in through an open window, giving Dimmesdale a perspective that is different from his own.  

Chapter 12

. . . he beheld the appearance of the old magistrate himself, with a lamp in his hand, a white night-cap on his head, and a long white gown enveloping his figure. He looked like a ghost, evoked unseasonably from the grave.

While standing on the gallows platform late one night, Dimmesdale sees the governor in his long white nightgown and cap, looking like a ghost who has just risen from the dead

So powerful was its radiance, that it thoroughly illuminated the dense medium of cloud betwixt the sky and earth. The great vault brightened, like the dome of an immense lamp.  

In this simile, the narrator compares the light of the meteor to a huge lamp that lights up the great vault, which is the entire night sky.  

Chapter 16

‘But, mother, tell me now! Is there such a Black Man? And didst thou ever meet him? And is this his mark?’

‘Wilt thou let me be at peace, if I once tell thee?’ asked her mother.

‘Yes, if thou tellest me all,’ answered Pearl.

‘Once in my life I met the Black Man!’ said her mother. ‘This scarlet letter is his mark!’

The Black Man is a metaphor Nathaniel Hawthorne uses for sin, wrongdoing, and corruption. Pearl has overheard some of the adult women talking about “the Black Man” and Hester admits that she has met him; she is referring to her sin of adultery with the minister.  

Continually, indeed, as it stole onward, the streamlet kept up a babble, kind, quiet, soothing, but melancholy, like the voice of a young child that was spending its infancy without playfulness, and knew not how to be merry among sad acquaintance and events of sombre hue

In this simile, the narrator compares the sorrowful, gloomy sounds the brook makes to the sounds that an unhappy, friendless child might make.   

Chapter 24

For many years, though a vague report would now and then find its way across the sea—like a shapeless piece of drift-wood tost ashore, with the initials of a name upon it—yet no tidings of them unquestionably authentic were received.  

The narrator uses a simile to compare news about Hester and Pearl to a piece of driftwood because driftwood has no origin or identity, in the same way that the news the people receive about Hester and Pearl can never be verified.