The Scarlet Letter: Light vs Dark
Defined as a technique of contrasting dark and light to highlight elements within a piece of art or a story, chiaroscuro is displayed throughout The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Also prevalent in many masterpieces created by Rembrandt during the 17 century, Rembrandt uses chiaroscuro to create a focal point in his paintings and evoke personal thought. Hawthorne uses chiaroscuro to focus on the element of overall sin and to illustrate conflicts between characters.
A comparison of chiaroscuro in Rembrandts paintings and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, provides a deeper understand of how light and dark play a key role in the development of characters and theme. Sin is one of the most important themes in The Scarlet Letter. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne presents nature as being evil. For example, the forest displays a moral wilderness that is encompassed within a dark and gloomy atmosphere. However in Chapter 18, Hawthorne uses chiaroscuro as a device to show a change in the forest as Hester succumbs to the evil of nature and of her sin.
“…she undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it…All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest…” During this scene, Hester releases herself from the burden that the scarlet letter brings. As Hester gives into her natural instincts, the forest around her slowly begins to brighten and become overcome by light. This new found light in the forest that grows hand in hand with Hester’s happiness is shown to be good and/or normal based on Hawthorne’s tone.
He focuses on the beauty of the light and how it highlights every living thing in the forest, almost in an angelic way. The tone and use of chiaroscuro in this passage allows the reader to believe that giving into your natural instincts and wants is not necessarily wrong or sinful, but nothing more than a part of life. Rembrandt uses a similar approach in using chiaroscuro in his painting Nightwatch (1642). Rembrandt does not use the light to focus on a certain character or object in the painting; rather he exemplifies the different patterns of the painting by creating a battle between light and shadows.
The effect of using light and dark in this painting is not meant to provoke meaningful thought, but rather to display an almost chimerical union between the light and dark, similar to the effect displayed by Hawthorne in the forest scene. Hawthorne also uses chiaroscuro to show conflicts between characters and the difference in their personality or spiritual well-being. “Old Roger Chillingworth, throughout life, had been calm and temperament, kindly, though not of warm affections….
Sometimes, a light glimmered out of the physician’s eyes, burning blue and ominous, like the reflection of a furnace…” Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, is presented to the readers as a respectable man that was very upright and devoted to his job and those around him; however, he lacked any sense of passion or love. Once Chillingworth found out that Hester had committed adultery and would not name the father of her bastard child, it became Chillingworth’s mission to uncover the man that had lain with his wife in sin.
He must search deep within Dimmesdale, minister for the town and who Chillingworth believes is responsible, using both human and supernatural remedies to extract the secret with no intention of forgiving Dimmesdale. Whereas Dimmesdale is seen as a trustworthy man for the Puritan citizens to bestow their own sins upon, ones of which Dimmesdale helps them to repent. Dimmesdale committed a sin in the eyes of the Puritan society, one born from his need to follow his natural instinct in which Hawthorne states to be good and later admitted to the masses that he was indeed the father and the second perpetrator in this earthly crime.
“And, as he drew towards the close, a spirit as of prophecy had come upon him…it was as if an angel, in his passage to the skies, had shaken his bright wings over the people for an instant- at once a shadow and a splendor- and had shed down a shower of golden truths upon them. ” This quote displays the way that the Puritan people saw their pastor, a man that was both physically decaying before their eyes, but yet lit up by the word of the gospel. Dimmesdale would then follow his sermon with the confession of his sin, the last act of his mortal life.
Hawthorne uses chiaroscuro to depict the difference in the type of evil within the characters of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Chillingworth is a man that did not sin in the terms that Dimmesdale did, however, he searches for it without the intent to forgive. Hawthorne expresses this as true evil and sin compared to Dimmesdale’s act of following his natural instinct, which is not a sin. Rembrandt uses chiaroscuro to depict the character or personality within his paintings. In Self Portrait as St. Paul (1661), the man in the panting is lit while the background and his facial features are considerably darkened.
The dark eyes and background represent a type of detachment, whether the detachment is due to an outward or inner struggle. The light of the picture gives one the sense that the man is important or respected. However, the dark causes the audience to believe that the man is in a great deal of struggle or woe, possibly causing him to be dark and cold in the sense of personality, like the depiction of Chillingworth depicted by Hawthorne.
Nathaniel Hawthorne uses a device known as chiaroscuro, contrasting light and dark elements, to help develop the characters and theme within The Scarlet Letter. The way Hawthorne displays this development can also be viewed in pieces by Rembrandt. Sin is portrayed in many ways throughout the novel. The forest is used as a symbol of moral bareness of which Hester succumbs to when she takes off the scarlet letter and releases herself from her sin. At this moment, the dark dreary forest is flooded with heavenly beauty of light and life.
This play with shadowing and light elements can be viewed in Nightwatch by Rembrandt. This paitning expresses a link between the light and the dark and how they can exist at the same time, however one will always triumph. In the case of the forest scene, the light and the happiness of Hester triumphed over the evil that surrounds her. Hawthorne draws his characters out by having one behold elements, Roger Chillingworth, and the other character behold elements of light, Minister Dimmesdale.
Hawthorne then goes deeper to express that the darkness of one might not be of evil intention, but rather dulled by everyday sin of which the light could be redeemed. Rembrandt displays this in the paint Self Portrait as St. Paul, showing how shadows can make one look disconnected and spiritually or emotionally barren. Chiaroscuro is a tool used in both the literary and arts world that can help to evoke more emotion and audience thought. Without it, the characters and imagery would all be caught between shades of gloomy greys.