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The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Summary Chapters 7–8
Summary Chapters 7–8

Governor Bellingham’s mansion is rich in symbolic detail. The narrator tells us that it replicates an English nobleman’s home, and Bellingham proudly displays his ancestors’ portraits. Puritans certainly didn’t seek to reject English culture as a whole, but it is nevertheless important that Bellingham has chosen to re-create a piece of the old world in the new. Bellingham’s ties to the world that the Puritans supposedly left behind suggest that he has brought with him the very things the Puritans sought to escape by leaving England: intolerance and a lack of freedom. The state of the governor’s garden implies that such translations of old into new may not be as seamless as the governor wishes. The garden, planted in the English ornamental style, is in a state of decay. The decorative plants have not taken root, and the garden’s creator appears to have given up. Cabbages, pumpkins, and a few rosebushes are all that has grown there. The English ornamental plants serve as symbols of the principles and ideals of the old world, which cannot be successfully transplanted to America.

The decaying garden can also be read in other ways. Its need of maintenance suggests that Bellingham is not capable of nurturing things—including the society he is supposed to govern. The fertility of the cabbages and the pumpkins hints at the fundamental incompatibility of ideals with the necessities of life. The garden was intended to provide a pleasing aesthetic experience, but it ends up serving only a practical purpose by growing food. The one aesthetic object that does grow in the garden is a rosebush, which explicitly links ideals to pain—every rose, after all, has its thorn.

The governor’s suit of armor is another meaningful item. It is suggestive of war and violence, but while describing the armor, the narrator takes the opportunity to mention that Bellingham trained as a lawyer. In the same way that war requires soldiers to leave their jobs and fight for their country, the “exigencies of this new country” led Bellingham to take on the roles of statesman and soldier. Such a comparison suggests that Bellingham may be incompetent in his newly adopted careers, or at least that he has overextended himself. The armor also functions as a distorting mirror, and Hester’s out-of-scale reflection signifies her unnatural place in society.

The final paradox of the governor’s house is Mistress Hibbins, the acknowledged witch who is Governor Bellingham’s sister. Something is clearly awry in a society that allows a woman who admittedly engages in satanic practices to remain a protected and acknowledged member of the community, while it forces Hester, who has erred but once, to live as an outcast and in danger of losing her child.

It is Pearl who points out many of these disturbing and significant images. In these scenes, she shows herself to be not only a spiritual help to her mother but also a kind of oracle of truth. Accurately sensing the sinister aura of the place, she tries to escape out a window. Most important, she shuns Wilson and clings to Dimmesdale, exhibiting what we will later understand as a profound subconscious insight: her instinct leads her away from the representative of her “heavenly father” and toward her true, “earthly” father. Her impulse also reflects on the relative characters of the two men. Wilson, as she senses, is not to be trusted, while Dimmesdale, although he refuses to acknowledge his guilt, will ultimately remain loyal to her and her mother.