Symbolism is a strong literary tool. Let’s now explore how it is used in two great works of literature, Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley and The Scarlett letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley uses the statue in ruins as a symbol of the destructive nature of time, in the context of both life and the statue itself. The statue stands as a testament to the dynamic nature of life. The temporary state of power and the pointlessness of assuming that power is immortal. Time erodes everything eventually. The once powerful image the statue possessed has been eventually eroded along with the statue itself. The poet also does not have a concrete identity for the tyrant/the great ruler (only a self proclamation, inscribed under the statue), thus further the cementing the ideology that the pride the ruler took in his power was futile as no one even remembers him anymore.
The lines “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings… Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair” inscribed under the statue now ironically stand as the empty reflections of the ignorant nature of the ruler, who believed that the future generations would stand in awe of the power he held. The irony here is the isolation around the statue and its ruined and almost unrecognizable state. It also symbolizes the equality of treatment that time and nature bestow upon everyone irrespective of the wealth or power they possess. If even the humongous figurine made of stone is perishable, what about the pride humans take in the state of their power?
In The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s daughter Pearl stands as a symbol of preciousness. Even her name suggests the same, as she is being bought with a great price which Hester pays and so does Dimmesdale eventually. Hester’s scarlet letter is portrayed as a symbol of sin of adultery at beginning, where Hester wears is as a punishment. But, eventually she starts owning the symbol by embroidering it into her gown. The symbol now transforms into a symbol of strength and uniqueness of Hester, making her stand independently from the crowd. Later we come to know that the Dimmesdale also possess the scarlet letter on his chest, however it is quite different this time around. For him, it can be interpreted as a symbol of shame or guilt. It is very much possible that Dimmesdale himself could have carved the symbol on his chest out of his guilt. However there is no clear indication of how it occurred. But the scarlet letter of Dimmesdale is permanent, unlike Hester’s; it is his price for the precious Pearl. While the letter of Hester can be taken off once pearl grows up, he has to carry it to his grave.
Throughout the story, Nathaniel uses multiple symbols in multiple contexts and to represent multiple things. But using the daughter herself as a symbol, giving multiple meanings to the scarlet letter, which was initially just introduced as a symbol of shame/sin, is a masterstroke. Giving a transformative nature to the letter as a symbol is praiseworthy and should be studied and thought about.