The Scarlet Letter: A – for Adultery, Antinomian, or America Itself?

This Book is Banned - The Scarlet Letter: A for Adultery, Antinomianism, or America Itself

nlike a lot of other books, there’s no short answer as to why The Scarlet Letter was banned. Whenever Hawthorne’s work has been challenged, the objections have come from all directions. That’s because Nathaniel Hawthorne had a complicated relationship with his subject matter. Needless to say, Hawthorne is inextricably linked with Puritanism. He wrote The Scarlet Letter, after all.

When we read a book, it’s important to consider the author and their historical context.  And, when we read Hawthorne, it’s important to understand that his relationship with Puritanism falls squarely in the love/hate category. That’s especially apparent in The Scarlet Letter.

This Book is Banned_The Scarlet Letter-Nathaniel Hawthorne

It’s no secret that Hawthorne was haunted by his Puritan lineage. He was so bothered, he added the letter W to his name to separate himself from his Puritan forefathers.[1] It’s easy to see why. His great, great, great grandfather, Major William Hathorne, was infamous as a “bitter persecutor” of Quakers, having them “scourged out of town.”[2] Hathorne is mostly remembered for ordering “Anne Coleman and four of her friends” to be whipped, while tied to a cart and forced to walk the 60 miles from Salem to Boston.[3]  And William’s son, John, “made himself conspicuous” as a “witch judge” and chief interrogator during the Salem Witch Trials.[4]

Hawthorne talks about the ancestral guilt he carries as a result of their actions in The Custom House, the opening chapter of The Scarlet Letter. He ends the passage by praying that any family curse caused by their actions “may be now and henceforth removed.”[5] These feelings are undoubtedly the source of what Herman Melville described as the “mystical blackness” that pervades Hawthorne’s work.[6]

On the other hand, Hawthorne still wasn’t inclined to embrace the religious shift that had occurred in New England during the nineteenth century, toward individual experience and an optimistic faith in the perfectibility of human beings.[7] His Puritan ancestry gave Hawthorne a sense of rootedness, “a home-feeling with the past.”[8] And he may not have been a “churchly man,” but his heritage gave him an appreciation for the culture and moral foundation that emerged from Puritan doctrine.[9] His very nature, it’s been said, was imbued with “the temperamental earnestness of the Puritan.”[10]

It’s no surprise, then, that multiple and often paradoxical perspectives are common in Hawthorne’s works. In fact, Hawthorne’s technique has been referred to as “the device of multiple choice.”[11] Hawthorne himself described The Scarlet Letter as “turning different sides” of the same idea “to the reader’s eye.”[12] So, it should be even less surprising that The Scarlet Letter has been banned and challenged for contradictory reasons as well.

This Book is Banned_The Scarlet Letter-A for Adultery, Antinomian, or America Itself?

For example, one literary critic reviewing The Scarlet Letter the year it was published thought Hawthorne’s depiction of Puritanism was too severe.  He didn’t say Hawthorne was wrong. He just wondered why, “of all features of the period,” Hawthorne chose practices that “reflect most discredit” on the Puritans.[13]

Another early critic, however, thought Hester’s punishment wasn’t painful and obvious enough. Merely being condemned to wear the scarlet letter didn’t make Hester contrite. It didn’t make her repent. And Hawthorne didn’t “excite the horror of his readers” enough to keep them from following in Hester and Dimmesdale’s footsteps.[14]

So, it isn’t just the passage of time that causes contemporary readers to see oppressive patriarchy (like the Seattle teacher who tweeted he’d “rather die” than teach The Scarlet Letter), when some nineteenth-century critics found what we would call feminism.[15] It isn’t caused by cultural shift. And it’s more than Hester’s “light punishment” that lead to objections about how the book advocates women’s rights. Reverend Arthur Cleveland Coxe specifically expressed concern that Hawthorne’s book encouraged a message way too close to views expressed at the first National Woman’s Rights Convention, held in Worcester, Massachusetts the same year The Scarlet Letter was published.[16]

Granted, we’re more on the lookout for feminist themes these days. But, they were clearly in the text all along. And, they’re right beside passages that seem to say Hester should accept her fate, and fall in line with patriarchal Puritan society.

It is true, however, that the most consistent objection to The Scarlet Letter has been the topic of adultery. The notion that adultery is quite simply not a “fit subject for popular literature” didn’t begin with the 1961 challenge in Michigan, or the Arizona challenge in 1967.[17] That mindset has been around since 1850. And there’ll probably always be someone who takes offense at Hawthorne’s use of adultery as a vehicle for examining his multiple perspectives and paradoxical themes. Unfortunately, this mindset squashes any real understanding of what The Scarlet Letter has to say. And this superficial (mis)reading begins with the title.

After all, if the focus of Hawthorne’s book was the scandalous behavior of an adulterous woman, he would’ve titled it Hester Prynne, or A Fallen Woman.[18] That would have been more consistent with the novels of adultery that were popular in nineteenth-century literature, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, or Madame Bovary by Flaubert.[19] While these novels revolve around the theme of “love against the world,” Hawthorne calling his work The Scarlet Letter tells the reader that the letter’s function as symbol is actually the central subject of the book.[20]

This reading is reinforced by the fact that Hester and Dimmesdale’s adulterous act isn’t depicted (even in nineteenth-century terms), and the word adultery never appears in the text. Yes, requiring that a capital A be stitched to your clothes a historically accurate penalty for adultery in Puritan Massachusetts. But, the law is precise about its size and placement. Hester embellishing the letter with gold threat would not have been tolerated.  And other aspects of the punishment Hawthorne depicts don’t line up with the statute’s requirements.[21] Hawthorne is clearly using the scarlet letter as a symbol, a word that does appear in his book some twenty-four times, specifically in reference to the A on Hester’s bosom.[22]  The question at the heart of Hawthorne’s work, then, is “What does the scarlet A actually mean?”

This Book is Banned_The Scarlet Letter-A

The Custom House.

 The opening chapter of the book provides a cryptic key, so to speak, to unlocking Hawthorne’s symbolism, enabling readers to see that The Scarlet Letter is about more than a misbehaving minister. By locating the red cloth letter that inspired his work in Salem’s Custom House, wrapped in a package from before the Revolutionary War, Hawthorne establishes a connection between seventeenth-century Puritan New England and nineteenth-century American culture.

In this context, the A becomes a cultural artifact, one that simultaneously expresses Hawthorne’s culture as well as the one that produced it.[23] Hawthorne reaches back through the A to America’s myth of national origins and does what we continue to do, return to the Puritans to reclaim a sense of purpose, while also demonstrating progress. The A embodies the shift from Puritanism to the Revolution, as well as America’s continued development from that time forward.[24]

The American Revolution prompted social changes just as significant as the political changes it brought about. The spirit that triggered the Revolution, with its declaration of inalienable rights, self-evident truths, and the equal creation of all, undoubtedly played a role in the decline of Puritanism and its foundational Calvinist doctrine, a theology that emphasizes the depravity of humankind.[25]  Hawthorne considers this transition from the religious perspective, a psychological outlook, as well as a historical viewpoint, all of which are reflected in the book.

This Book is Banned_The Scarlet Letter-Hester is forward looking

Dimmesdale looks back,
and Hester is forward looking.

Founders of new ethics are invariably deemed sinful/heretical, because they challenge the authority of an existing/old ethic, a collective whose aim is to maintain equilibrium. And that’s the case in The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne, who is forced to literally wear a label identifying her as sinful, represents a new ethic. And Arthur Dimmesdale is a concrete expression of the American Puritanism that Hester challenges. Not only is Dimmesdale a Puritan minister, he embodies the psychological consequences associated with trying to adhere to such an authoritarian ethic. [26]

Guilt stemming from sinful acts is frequently identified as a major theme in The Scarlet Letter, but it’s more complicated than that. Two basic psychological mechanisms are at work within an authoritarian ethic like Puritanism (with its harshly implemented moral Laws and publicly enforced taboos), suppression, and repression. Suppression is the process of consciously pushing tendencies that don’t align with the ethical system out of our awareness. And the best-known forms of this technique are discipline and asceticism.[27]

Hawthorne is known as a master of psychological insight, and he tells us it’s “essential” to Dimmesdale “to feel the pressure of a faith about him.”[28] And we see Dimmesdale use both discipline and asceticism to keep himself in check. He exhibits discipline when he tells Pearl that he won’t appear publicly with her and Hester in the town square the next day:

“Nay; not so, my little Pearl,” answered the minister; for, with the new energy of the moment, all the dread of public exposure, that had so long been the anguish of his life, had returned upon him; and he was already trembling at the conjunction in which—with a strange joy, nevertheless—he now found himself.[29]

As much as Dimmesdale might wish he could claim his place alongside Hester and Pearl, he doesn’t dare fly in the face of Puritanism’s moral Law. And suppressing that impulse becomes a pleasant experience in itself. It’s also revealed that Dimmesdale’s conflicted soul not only leads him to whip himself with a “bloody scourge,” but fast to the point of collapse as “act[s] of penance.”[30]

While suppression operates on the conscious level, repression functions on the unconscious level. Inclinations that are at odds with the dominant ethic are rejected from the conscious mind. These tendencies may become unconscious, but according to depth psychology, they “lead an active underground life of their own.”[31] Needless to say, nothing good can come from this situation.

What does happen is that two psychic systems develop within the personality, one an outgrowth of suppression, and the other a byproduct of repression. Suppression leads to a “façade personality,” a mask that signals we’re conforming to the dominant ethic of the age, and hides our true nature.[32]  Though it’s easy to interpret Dimmesdale’s actions as mere hypocrisy, this is what occurs when he hides his guilt. [33]  The scene at the scaffold when Hester is first released from prison, demonstrates a façade personality at work:

“Hester Prynne,” said he, leaning over the balcony and looking down steadfastly into her eyes, “thou hearest what this good man says, and seest the accountability under which I labor. If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him.[34]

Dimmesdale makes his true feelings known. But he does so through a mask that signals to everyone but Hester that he’s conforming to the strict Puritan ethic.

This Book is Banned_The Scarlet Letter-Dimmesdales psychological bind

The other psychic system that develops is a shadow figure, which is a byproduct of repression. Taboo impulses are rejected so emphatically they become psychologically severed as “not me,” and as mentioned above, take on a life of their own. Chillingworth embodies this shadow figure.[35]  As such, he’s fully aware of what Dimmesdale is repressing. And his mission is to keep the torture of living under such an authoritarian ethic “always at red heat,” which literally drains the life out of Dimmesdale like the blood-sucking leech Hawthorne describes Chillingworth as.[36]

While Dimmesdale is an expression of American Puritanism, Hester looks toward a new ethic, and the social shifts that result from it. Like we said earlier, founders of new ethics are consistently deemed heretical. And Hawthorne associates Hester Prynne with Anne Hutchinson, who was expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony during the seventeenth century. Hutchinson was banished for her role in the “Antinomian controversy,” a theological conflict that was essentially between power and freedom of conscience.[37]

This Book is Banned_TheScarlet Letter-Anne Hutchinson statue

By associating Hester with Hutchinson, Hawthorne indicates that Hester’s real crime is indeed heresy rather than simply breaching Puritanism’s rigid moral code (though she did that as well). A passage stating that Hester “assumed a freedom of speculation” our Puritan forefathers would have considered “a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter” confirms this interpretation.[38] In associating Hester with Hutchinson, Hawthorne also characterizes her heresy as being antinomian in nature.[39]

At its root, antinomianism means “against or opposed to the law.”[40] In a Christian context, antinomianism embraces the existence of an “inner light” within every individual, which presumes a spirituality based on inner experience with the Holy Spirit rather than conformity to religious laws.[41] Hester’s antinomian tendencies are evident in her declaration to Dimmesdale, where she’s clearly judging the validity of their relationship through her conscience and inner spiritual experience rather than the Puritan power structure and religious Law:

What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast though forgotten it?[42]

Antinomianism’s “inner light” has been described as an “ancestor” to the philosophy of self-reliance held by nineteenth-century antinomians like Ralph Waldo Emerson and his circle of Transcendentalists. [43] Critics of unthinking conformity (religious or otherwise), the Transcendentalists urged each person to find, as Emerson put it, “an original relation to the universe.”[44] It’s a complex word, Transcendentalism, especially for such a simple idea – that men and women (in equal measure) have knowledge about the world around them that goes beyond what they can see, touch, hear, taste, or feel (transcends it, in other words). And, that people can trust their own intuition to know what is right.[45]  Antinomianism’s “inner light” has clearly been influenced by the post-Revolutionary spirit mentioned earlier (with its secular notion of self-evident truths, declaration of inalienable rights, and the equal creation of all), resulting in these Transcendentalist principles.

This Book is Banned_The Scarlet Letter-Margaret Fuller

Hawthorne became acquainted with the Transcendentalist circle during the years he and his family spent in free-thinking and reform-minded Concord, which brings us to Margaret Fuller and her influence on The Scarlet Letter.[46]  Fuller is best known for her feminist work Woman in the Nineteenth Century, and she inspired Hawthorne’s “dark heroines,” the first of which was Hester Prynne.[47] In the chapter titled Another View of Hester, Hawthorne follows Fuller’s description of three stages in the advancement of women toward self-realization and social equality. The first stage is legal and institutional. Second is revised concepts about gender. And the third phase is female character itself, to primarily live in and for her own development.[48] According to Hester:

As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position. Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest lie, will be found to have evaporated.[49]

Those who knew Margaret Fuller best, described her as “The Friend:”

This was her vocation. She bore at her girdle a golden key to unlock all caskets of confidence. Into whatever home she entered she brought a benediction of truth, justice, tolerance, and honor.[50]

Consistent with her forward-looking role, by the end of The Scarlet Letter, this characterization also applies to Hester Prynne, marking the acceptance of the nineteenth century’s reform-minded ethic of individual experience and self-reliance.

[Women] came to Hester’s cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy! Hester comforted and counselled them, as best she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.[51]

This Book is Banned_The Scarlet Letter-Pearl

Pearl: Transition Personified.

Symbolically speaking, children typically represent the future. Though Pearl is often associated with evil, it is the process of transition that she personifies. She embodies the chaotic liminal stage between one stable mode of being and another, when we are no longer in one mode, but not yet in another. We are “betwixt and between,” in this an old ethic and a new one. [52] Hester’s concerns about her daughter reflect the anxiety often experienced by those on the cusp of a new ethic, dreading the worst possible consequences while holding onto glimpses of the best possible outcome.[53]

[Hester] remembered—betwixt a smile and a shudder—the talk of the neighboring towns-people; who, seeking vainly elsewhere for the child’s paternity, and observing some of her odd attributes, had given out that poor little Pearl was a demon offspring; such as, ever since old Catholic times, had occasionally been seen on earth, through the agency of their mother’s sin, and to promote some foul and wicked purpose. Luther, according to the scandal of his monkish enemies, was a brat of that hellish breed.[54]

The new ethic alluded to by mentioning Luther is, of course, nothing less than the establishment of Protestantism itself. Pearl, however, specifically represents the transition between seventeenth-century Puritanism, and the new, nineteenth-century ethic. She is, after all, the daughter of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne:

Her nature appeared to possess depth, too, as well as variety; but—or else Hester’s fears deceived her—it lacked reference and adaptation to the world into which she was born. The child could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder[55]

As Hawthorne shows us, Pearl possesses Dimmesdale’s depth of character, but also has Hester’s antinomian nature. As a child, however, she’s developing and evolving, like the young country of America itself.

This Book is Banned_The Scarlet Letter - The love plot parallels the shift in American Culture

The love plot parallels the shift in American culture.

The arc of Hawthorne’s love story reflects the shift in American culture that occurred between the conflicting ethics that Dimmesdale and Hester embody. The tale begins in Boston, the very colony established by John Winthrop, and the Puritan forefathers credited with founding America, those we still envision in black cloaks and steeple-crowned hats.  And Hawthorne explicitly states that at this point in America’s history, Boston is a theocracy, a form of government where religion and law are “thoroughly interfused.”[56]

We’re introduced to Hester as she is released from prison, and crosses the threshold of its heavy oaken door, a significant symbol indicating change. Hawthorne makes it clear that her thinking (and therefore the ethic she embodies) conflicts with the strict, authoritarian Puritan doctrine. After all, Hester is being released from prison, where (not coincidently) she gave birth to baby Pearl (and all that she embodies). In this scene, we also learn that Dimmesdale is an integral part of the theocratic machinery. And Hawthorne drops enough hints that we know he’s the father of Hester’s baby.

Hawthorne spends the next segment of the narrative examining the differing ethics at work, and their psychological repercussions. The love story peaks with the scene in the forest between Hester and Dimmesdale, when she proposes that they put the past seven years behind them, leave Boston, and start a new life somewhere else:

Begin all anew! Hast thou exhausted possibility in the failure of this one trial? Not so! The future is yet full of trial and success. There is happiness to be enjoyed! There is good to be done![57]

Hester’s plan involves more than a future with Dimmesdale. Symbolically, her proposal amounts to a re-founding of America on the basis of nineteenth-century principles – development of the self, individual experience and self-reliance, as well as the new morality and corresponding social forms they give rise to.[58]

If real progress is to take place, however, Pearl must come to terms with Dimmesdale, which she finally does:

Pearl kissed [Dimmesdale’s] lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.[59]

With Pearl’s kiss, seventeenth-century Puritanism and the nineteenth-century’s antinomian ethic of self-reliance are symbolically married, if you will.[60] And with that, Dimmesdale passes away, just like the era defined by Puritanism ultimately did. Signifying Puritanism’s continued influence on America, Chillingworth bequeaths “a great deal of property, both here and in England” (the birthplace of Puritanism) to Pearl.[61] And it’s no coincidence that the top two figures of the Puritan hierarchy were executors of the estate.

In Hester’s return to Boston after many years away, she is doing what Americans continue to do (especially given that she crosses the threshold back into her old cottage wearing the scarlet letter on her bosom). She’s reaching back through the A to America’s myth of national origins, and returning to the Puritans to reclaim a sense of purpose, while also demonstrating progress.

This Book is Banned_TheScarlet Letter-Their tombstone

Finally, the tombstone Hester ultimately shares with Dimmesdale is engraved with an escutcheon, the shield that forms the foundation for coats of arms. And Hawthorne tells us that the motto etched into it serves as a “brief description of our now concluded legend:” [62]

On a field, sable, the letter A. gules [63]

Sable and gules are terms used in heraldry for the colors black and red. As coats of arms are intended to do, this phrase crystalizes the cultural history of its owner.[64] The sable/black stands for the Puritanism America is grounded in, the doctrine that produced what Hawthorne describes as “black-browed” followers, and future generations continue to associate with black cloaks and steeple-crowned hats.[65] And the A once again functions as a cultural artifact, only this time not as a token of shame, but as a crest representing progress toward the nineteenth-century ethic of individual experience and self-reliance.

In Conclusion.

So, what does Hawthorne’s A actually stand for? Is it the adultery so many parents have found objectionable in their challenges? Or is the feminist message, with its implied antinomianism that nineteenth-century critics took issue with? Or does the A stand for America itself?

Like all well-constructed symbols, there’s a lot packed into Hawthorne’s scarlet A. So, consistent with his multiple-choice style, the answer is a paradoxical yes. Hawthorne’s A is for – Adultery, Antinomianism, and America itself.

That’s my take on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter– what’s yours?
Join the conversation in the Comments section at the bottom of the page.
Check out this discussion guide to get you started.

Page Capper copy


[1] James, Henry. “Hawthorne.” In English Men of Letters. Edited by John Morley. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1879), 6.
[2] Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. “The Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne.” History of Massachusetts Blog. Sept 15, 2011; “The Paternal Ancestors of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Introduction.” Hawthorne In Salem. hawthorneinsalem.org; Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 11.
[3] Moore, Margaret. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001), 31; In 1662 “Robert Pike Halts a Quaker Persecution in Massachusetts.” New England Historical Society. https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/1662-robert-pike-halts-quaker-persecution-massachusetts/
[4] Hawthorne-The Scarlet Letter, 11; “The Paternal Ancestors of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Introduction.”
[5] Hawthorne-The Scarlet Letter, 11.
[6] Melville, Herman. “Hawthorne and his Mosses.” Herman Melville. Edited by Harrison Hayford. (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 1159.
[7] Howells, W. D. “The Personality of Hawthorne.” The North American Review. Vol. 177, No. 565. (Dec. 1903), 882.
[8] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 10.
[9] Milder, Robert. “‘The Scarlet Letter’ and Its Discontents.” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review. Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring 1996), 21.
[10] Wendell, Barrett. A Literary History of America. (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1900), 433.
[11] Matthieson, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), 276.
[12] Fields, James T. Yesterdays with Authors. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1893), 51
[13] Coxe, Arthur Cleveland. “The Writings of Hawthorne.” The Church Review. January, 1851. Vol. 3, No. 4., 506.
[14] Sova, Dawn B. Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds. (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006), 254; Brownson, Orestes. “The Scarlet Letter.” Brownson Quarterly Review. October, 1850.
[15] Gurdon, Meghan Cox. “Even Homer Gets Mobbed; A Massachusetts school has banned ‘The Odyssey.’” Wall Street Journal (Online). Dec. 27, 2020;
[16] Coxe, 510.
[17] Brownson, Orestes. “The Scarlet Letter.” Brownson Quarterly Review. October, 1850; Sova, 254.
[18] Milder, Robert. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists. Edited by Timothy Parrish. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 14.
[19] Perotta, Tom. “Foreward.” The Scarlet Letter. (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), ix.
[20] Bercovitch, Sacvan. “The A-Politics of Ambiguity in ‘The Scarlet Letter.’” New Literary History. Vol. 19, No. 3. (Spring, 1988), 631, 632; Milder- “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” 14.
[21] “Scarlet Letter.” Massachusetts Law Updates. Nov. 30, 2013.
[22] Carrez, Stephanie. “Symbol and Interpretation in Hawthorne’s ‘Scarlet Letter’.” Hawthorne In Salem. http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12218/
[23] Bercovitch- “The A-Politics of Ambiguity in ‘The Scarlet Letter,’” 630.
[24] Bercovitch- “The A-Politics of Ambiguity in ‘The Scarlet Letter,’” 630; Bercovitch – “The Scarlet Letter: A Twice-Told Tale,” 4; Bercovitch- “Hawthorne’s A-Morality of Compromise.” Representations. No. 24, Special Issue: America Reconstructed, 1840-1940 (Autumn, 1988), 12.
[25] Noll, Mark. A History of Christianity in The United States and Canada. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 148.
[26] Sarracino, Carmine. “‘The Scarlet Letter’ and a New Ethic.” College Literature. Vol. 10, No. 1 (Winter, 1983).
[27] Neumann, Erich. Depth Psychology and a New Ethic. Translated by Eugene Rolfe. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1973), 33.
[28] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 114.
[29] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 141.
[30] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 134.
[31] Neumann, 35.
[32] Neumann, 41.
[33] Sarracino, 52.
[34] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 63.
[35] Sarracino, 52.
[36] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 239.
[37] Hall, David D. ed. The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990).
[38] Hawathorne- The Scarlet Letter, 152.
[39] Khomina, Anna. “The Banishment of Anne Hutchinson.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. (Nov. 17, 2016).
[40] Hall, 3.
[41] Pokol, Agnes. “The Sociological Dimensions of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne as a Social Critic on Democracy and the Woman question.”
[42] Hawthorne-The Scarlet Letter, 181.
[43] Pokol.
[44] Pokol; Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Edited by Richard Poirier. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 2.
[45] “Transcendentalism, An American Philosophy.” U.S. History: Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium. www.ushistory.org.
[46] Milder, “Introduction.” The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), xiii.
[47] Milder- “‘The Scarlet Letter’ and Its Discontents,” 11.
[48] Milder- “Introduction,” xxiv; Milder- “‘The Scarlet Letter’ and Its Discontents,” 12.
[49] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 153.
[50] Fuller, Margaret; Channing, W. H.; Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Clarke, James Freeman. The Autobiography of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. Vol. 1&2. (Madison & Adams Press, Kindle Edition), 326.
[51] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 245.[52] Turner, Victor. “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage.” Betwixt & Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation. Edited by Lois Carus Mahdi, Steven Foster, Meredith Little. (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1987), 7.
[53] Sarracino, 57.
[54] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 92.
[55] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 84.
[56] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 47.
[57] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 184.
[58] Milder- “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” 14-15.
[59] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 238.
[60] Sarracino, 58.
[61] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 243.
[62] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 246.
[63] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 246.
[64] International Heraldry & Heralds.
[65] Hawthorne- The Scarlet Letter, 11, 217.


Cover. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1895).

Nathaniel Hawthorne portrait.  Nathaniel Hawthorne. , ca. 1860. [to 1865] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017892968/.

Anne Hutchinson Statue. Curbed Boston. https://boston.curbed.com/maps/boston-statues-of-women

Margaret Fuller portrait. Josiah Johnson Hawes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Illustrated images are taken from: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1878).

The Lottery: Who’s the Lucky Scapegoat?

This Book is Banned - The Lottery: Who's the Lucky Scapegoat?

he idea for The Lottery popped into Shirley Jackson’s head on the way home from the market, as she pushed her daughter up the hill in the stroller that also held the day’s groceries. The narrative was fairly clear in her mind, and once she got home putting it on paper went “quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause.”[1]

Jackson’s story seems to have been inspired by a typical, “all-American,” domestic situation. A mother and her young child making preparations for the family’s evening meal – what could be more benevolent than that? So, what made such a story so controversial? Why was The Lottery banned?

The story Jackson wrote that afternoon ends with a famously shocking plot twist, one that provoked controversy the instant it appeared in The New YorkerThe Lottery has been described as a story that “demands a reaction from its reader,” and boy, did readers react![2] Hundreds cancelled their subscriptions.[3] Many of them took Jackson’s story for a factual report. And vehement letters addressed directly to Jackson filled the mailroom, describing her story as “perverted,” “horrible and gruesome,” not to mention “in incredibly bad taste.”[4]

Reasons why The Lottery is routinely banned by public schools fall along similar lines. Jackson’s work was challenged at the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon for its depiction of “morbid and grotesque ideas.”[5] It was challenged in Webster City, Iowa for being “like Friday the 13th.” The school administrator specifically took offense to the story’s insinuation “that a child is stoning a parent.”[6]

Those who set out to ban The Lottery from school curriculums saw it as an attack on the family by way of undermined traditions. Challengers interviewed for an article in the journal Social Education expressed concern that reading Jackson’s story causes students “to question their values, traditions, and religious beliefs.”[7] And that instilling these thoughts in young readers’ minds is a subtle means of destroying the family unit.

These challengers may not be taking The Lottery as factual reporting, the way many who cancelled their New Yorker subscriptions did. But like those disgruntled subscribers, their objections are the result of a shallow, deficient interpretation of Jackson’s iconic story, of not thinking past the narrative much less their noses.

Though challengers’ observation about The Lottery questioning tradition isn’t inaccurate, it is terribly misguided. The point Jackson makes is more nuanced, and significantly more profound than a call to spit in the eye of tradition out of sheer defiance. The real question here is not, “how could she?!” but “why does Jackson advocate questioning tradition?” And no… it isn’t a devious plan to destroy the American family.

This Book is Banned_ The Lottery-Jackson's raw materials

Shirley Jackson’s Raw Materials.

 Who knows what was going through Shirley Jackson’s head as she walked home from the market, just before she put her daughter Joanne in the playpen, the frozen vegetables in the freezer, and The Lottery down on paper. What was so compelling that the story flowed “quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause?”[8]

It might have been the feeling of being a “frozen out” faculty wife by the townspeople where she lived, or the painful awareness of anti-Semitism Jackson had acquired from personal experience.[9] Perhaps it was the anthropology book her husband recently brought home, or the witchcraft she’d been interested in since college. Maybe the motivating factor was world events, the disturbing revelations about  the Holocaust that emerged from the Nuremberg trials just a couple years earlier.[10] These were the raw materials that went into the making of The Lottery, to be sure. And they most certainly inform the shape the work takes. But what must have really been on Jackson’s mind as this story poured forth, was the notion that ordinary people are capable of horrific acts. She as much as says so in the San Francisco Chronicle:

I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.[11]

And shock them she did. Significantly, Jackson’s story came out while American citizens were still trying to process the distressing reports about the Nazis’ persecution of Europe’s Jews, Romani people, and other victims. Many Americans were confidently insisting that nothing like that could ever happen here. Then along comes The Lottery, with a disturbing ending that blows a hole in American complacency – straight into the mailboxes of The New Yorker subscribers, no less.[12]

The juxtaposition of ritual murder with modern small-town America is pretty jarring. Especially when the ritual murder is carried out by stoning. As noted, this narrative certainly packs an emotional wallop. And when read for more than plot, when attention is paid to The Lottery’s structure and the symbolism Jackson employs, we see a summary of humankind’s savage past, as well as what her husband referred to as an “anatomy of our times.”[13] And what becomes clear is that humanity is not at the mercy of a “murky, savage id.”[14] No, we are the victim of an unexamined culture and unchanging traditions which, like the lottery in Jackson’s story, actually engenders a cruelty not rooted in our inherent makeup. [15] That is Jackson’s message. It’s also the very real horror within The Lottery.

What Does the Three-Legged Stool Symbolize?

The obvious similarity between the village’s lottery and scapegoat traditions has been pointed out on many occasions. And this parallel gives us insight into the symbolic nature of the three-legged stool that’s placed in the center of the village square. Significantly, it is on this stool that the “the black wooden box,” the mechanism for conducting the lottery, rests.[16] The three-legged stool embodies examples of scapegoating, the raw materials mentioned above that inform The Lottery and its symbolism. One leg stands for the ancient scapegoat ritual itself, which Jackson had become familiar with through the anthropology book her husband brought home. Another leg signifies the Salem Witch Trials, made all the more relevant given her interest in witchcraft and magic. And the third leg represents the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust, still fresh in the minds of the entire world.

This Book is Banned_The Lottery-Who's the Lucky Scapegoat

What are the Origins of Scapegoating?

At its root, the scapegoat tradition is about purging evil, clearing out the ills that have been plaguing the community that is performing the rite. And the scapegoat is literally the vehicle for carrying this evil away. Scapegoating rituals can be found in many cultures, but the term comes from a rite in the biblical book of Leviticus. As in The Lottery, the sacrifice is chosen by lots, in this case a goat. The animal is symbolically marked with the inequities of the people and sent off into the wilderness. Hence, “(e)scape” goat. The goat doesn’t get too far, though, because it’s someone’s job to follow him and drive him off a cliff – backwards. The poor guy never sees it coming. The goat is clearly destroyed, and with it, the evil he was carrying.[17]

But not all scapegoats are goats. In some cultures, they’re human. When it comes to human sacrifice, the first civilization that comes to mind is probably the Aztecs, but they’re certainly not the only ones. Accounts exist from around the world and across the ages, from Ancient Greece to as late as the nineteenth century in the Pacific Islands.[18]  Whatever shape the scapegoat takes, the “general clearance of evil” described above (the purpose most often associated with the scapegoat tradition), occurred periodically. For agrarian cultures, that was typically at a time that coincided with planting or harvest.[19] Though June 27th doesn’t strictly align with either of those agricultural events, Mr. Warner’s maxim “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” is clearly a nod in that direction.[20]

Though the practice of sacrificing human scapegoats is no longer ritualized, that doesn’t mean it no longer happens. The witchcraft hysteria that continues to inform New England culture, and the Salem Witch Trials specifically, are nothing if not scapegoating. Women labeled as witches (the operative word being labeled), were executed in order to purge their village of Satanic influence. And the Nazi’s effort to purify Germany by “exterminating” Jews, the Romani people and other groups, is scapegoating by industrial means. These are certainly not the only examples of human scapegoating that have taken place after the Age of Enlightenment, but they are the ones that inform The Lottery.

This Book is Banned The Lottery A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft

Scapegoating in the Salem Witch Trials.

Jackson never explicitly tells the reader where the lottery takes place. And there’s a reason for that. If she did, her story would no longer be about “anytown America.” But the clues she gives us about the village are important to our understanding of The Lottery beyond simple ambiance. It’s a small farming community of about 300 people. And most of the population has a family name with Anglo-Saxon origins. The last detail Jackson gives us is that the land yields an abundance of stones, a fact critical to the story beyond the obvious reason. These clues suggest that New England is the locale of the story. When taken in total, this information points to the region’s history of witch trials and persecutions, especially when the village’s patriarchal power structure gets thrown into the mix. And the fact that critical scenes in in a young adult book Jackson wrote about witchcraft hysteria (The Witchcraft of Salem Village) parallel scenarios in The Lottery, substantiates an intended allusion to witch trials.[21]

An important parallel between Massachusetts during the witchcraft hysteria and the village where Jackson lived is the power dynamic between genders. In both cases, the targeted women respond to the pressure of male authority by betraying other women. It’s a classic “divide and conquer” scenario. The way this plays out in The Lottery is a testament to how successfully the male-dominated order has been imposed on the village’s women.[22] Tessie’s right when she claims that the lottery wasn’t fair. But not because they didn’t give her husband “enough time to choose.”[23] It wasn’t fair, intentionally or not, because the system was designed from a patriarchal perspective.

So, how does the lottery work? The village’s lottery seems random to all but the most meticulous of readers because, by and large, we still accept being classified by surname (in other words, our father’s name) as the standard. Drawing lots according to the household/ father’s name skews the odds toward “women of a certain age,” especially those with few, or female children. In terms of avoiding the black dot, younger is better because a woman’s children are still at home. Having more children dilutes the possibility of drawing the black dot. And having a lot of boys is better still because they won’t marry out of the family and increase their mother’s risk as she ages. Tessie’s betrayal of her married daughter, by insisting that she take her chances with the Hutchinsons, is born of this inequity.[24]

Our trip through the lottery process in Jackson’s village reveals a parallel between the demographic most at risk in The Lottery, and the women most frequently persecuted as witches. The witch trials of Puritan Massachusetts were founded on a patriarchal interpretation of the myth of Eve and her role in The Fall. A second layer of patriarchal thought deems her, and by extension all women, more susceptible to the demonic than men – at least according to a couple of Dominican inquisitors from 1486. And women labeled as witches (the operative word being labeled), were executed in an effort to purify their village of Satanic influence.

The group most vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft was women between forty and sixty. That’s the same segment of society most likely to draw the black dot in The Lottery. In Puritan Massachusetts, accusations of witchcraft served to crush a particular class of women, insufficiently docile women who failed to fit into their assigned role of submissive helpmeet, those who spoke their minds or attempted to run their own affairs.[25]

So, why was Tessie Hutchinson stoned to death The Lottery? Tessie is precisely this type of woman. She shows up late and must weave her way through the crowd to reach her husband, who had been waiting quite some time for her to arrive. Tessie barks at her husband to “get up there,” when it’s his turn to select a slip of paper from the wooden box.[26]  And she certainly isn’t docile when she shouts and yells, challenging the fairness of the lottery and by extension male authority.

Unfortunately for Tessie, much like the women of Puritan Massachusetts,[27] the other women in the village seem to have internalized the ominous lesson they were intended to learn, which is to keep their places in the established order.[28] For, it’s only women Jackson calls out by name as charging toward Tessie, stones in hand as the story ends.

This Book is Banned_The Lottery-Holocaust

More Scapegoating in the Holocaust.

News from the Nuremberg trials, and revelations about the Holocaust were fresh in everyone’s mind. The horrific stories were more personal for Jackson than many Americans because, as the wife of a Jewish husband, she had first-hand experience with anti-Semitism. And though Jackson consistently refused to give a concise explanation of The Lottery, she did tell a friend that the story has to do with anti-Semitism.[29]

The scapegoating the Nazis employed on this colossal scale was an outcome of the ideological (mis)appropriation of Germany’s mythological heritage. The original concept was grounded in the idea that a proper nation, or Volk, requires a particular holistic unity. This totality must be comprised of a natural environment, a language and history rooted in a deep past and rural population, and the expression of that history in an indigenous mythology. The culture that emerged from this sentiment became radicalized, crystallizing as völkisch nationalism in the first third of the 20th century. [30] Anyone perceived as not fulfilling all aspects of this unity was painted as an enemy. And in an effort to “purify” the Volk, those deemed outsiders were targeted. Though Jews were considered the primary enemy, the Romani people and a number of other groups were also among those who collectively fulfilled the role of scapegoat.[31]

Jackson’s story echoes the reported experience of Holocaust survivors in several respects. Let’s start with the hard truth that children are not exempt in either scenario. Like the little girl who wore the red coat in the film Schindler’s List, Davy Hutchinson is at risk as much as everybody else. And that reality is about as disturbing and heart wrenching as it gets.

But more significant in terms of The Lottery’s narrative and its structure, is the fact that the ritual murder in The Lottery is alluded to, although not seen by the reader. Like the execution of survivors’ family members, the act of stoning in The Lottery isn’t witnessed directly. Consequently, in both instances, the focus becomes the very personal experience of the selection process, which needless to say determines between “death or reprieve.”[32] Which is why everyone sighs when little Davy’s paper was blank.

The Lottery’s narrative is the selection process. Jackson’s story is essentially a detailed description of the mechanics of the village’s lottery. And the following high points of that process sound an awful lot like the frequent selections that took place in concentration camps. Flanked by Mr. Graves and Mr. Martin, Mr. Summers declares the lottery open. “A sudden hush fell on the crowd as Mr. Summers cleared this throat and looked at the list. ‘All ready?’ he called.”[33] Once it was determined that this year’s victim would come from the Hutchinson household, each member of the family is called forth as they anxiously draw their individual lots.

This scenario is strikingly similar to the selection process Elie Weisel recounts in Night, the autobiographical account of his experience in both Auschwitz and Buchenwald:

 Three SS officers surrounded the notorious Dr. Mengele, the very same who had received us in Birkenau. The Blockälteste [barracks leader] attempted a smile. He asked us: “Ready?” Yes, we were ready. So were the SS doctors. Dr. Mengele was holding a list: our numbers. He nodded to the Blockälteste: we can begin! As if this were a game… I had one thought: not to have my number taken down and not to show my left arm.[34]

There are enough accounts of the numerous and varied atrocities visited upon the people that comprise the Nazis’ collective scapegoat to fill a library, and they have. Yet, Weisel’s testimony to what occurred in the camps makes it clear that the most terrible word, the one feared more than any other, was selection.[35] Jackson’s villagers must feel the same way about the term lottery.

This Book is Banned The Lottery stonehenge

The Lottery’s Deteriorating Ritual.

Jackson points out that the original box the villagers used for the lottery had been “lost long ago.” The fact that it was lost, rather than destroyed by termites for example or burned in a barn fire, suggests that over time the villagers have been turning away from the antiquated pagan beliefs this ritual is clearly grounded in. There was once a ritual salute. The lottery official no longer stands “just so.” He doesn’t sing the “tuneless chant” anymore.[36] And at one time there might have been something about him walking among the people… maybe. But these days, the lottery is something to be rushed through so everyone can “get home for noon dinner.”

This evolution of the village’s ritual reveals that the appearance of progress in society is an illusion. Letting go of antiquated pagan beliefs makes it appear that the people in the village have become more enlightened. But, they haven’t. As Jackson put it, “although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.”[37] The point being, though the villagers have let go of most aspects of this pagan ritual they are not actually more civilized. The brutality at its core remains fully intact. And to drive that point home, what the tradition has evolved into, is simply an excuse for violence.

The most damning thing about this situation is that collectively, the townspeople could bring the lottery to an end. But, like the citizens of Salem who get drawn into the cycle of accusation rather than question church tradition, they don’t. They perpetuate this annual murder by teaching it to the younger generations. Someone not only helps Davy Hutchinson draw his slip of paper, they place stones in his little hand. And they do so simply for the sake of upholding tradition. We know this is the only motivation for continuing the lottery, because Old Man Warner’s only response to Mrs. Adams’ suggestion to give it up is nothing more substantial than, “there’s always been a lottery.”[38]

In Conclusion

It’s no accident that Jackson chose stoning rather than a modern, mechanized method of ritual murder à la Nazi Germany, or the hanging employed in The Salem Witch Trials for that matter. She elected to use stoning, because pelting someone to death with rocks is as primitive as it gets. The symbolism is double-edged. Stoning not only speaks to the antiquity of the scapegoat tradition, most importantly it’s a statement about the current state of humanity. Jackson’s choice of stoning is her not too subtle way of saying we’re just as savage as we ever were.

Jackson paints a pretty dismal picture. She seems to be saying that these villagers (and by that she means the whole of humankind) will never be free of their primitive nature. At least, not until enough of them have been affected adversely enough by the horror of their tradition that they reject it and, as Mrs. Adams implies, destroy the box altogether. Or they fashion a new box, one that reflects their current social conditions and sustains them rather than pitting them against each other.[39] Until that happens, Tessie Hutchinson may be the only loser, but no one is a winner.

That’s my take on Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery what’s yours?
Join the conversation in the Comments section at the bottom of the page.
Check out this Discussion Guide to get you started.

Page Capper copy


[1] Jackson, Shirley. “Biography of a Story.” Shirley Jackson: Novels & Stories. Edited by Joyce Carol Oates. (New York: Library of America, 2010), 787.
[2] Gahr, Elton. “Criticism of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson: Reactions upon the Initial Publication & Today.” Bright Hub Education.com August 31, 2011; Jackson, “Biography of a Story;” Cohen, Gustavo Vargas. Shirley Jackson’s Legacy: A Critical Commentary on the Literary Reception. Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. July 2012, 17.
[3] Jackson, “Biography of a Story;” Cohen Shirley Jackson’s Legacy, 17.
[4] Jackson, “Biography of a Story,” 797, 799, 797.
[5] ACLU-or.org Oregon Library School Challenges 1979-July 2015.
[6] Brown, Jean E., Ed. SLATE on Intellectual Freedom. (Urbana Ill: National Council of Teachers of English,1994), 24.
[7] Brown, Bill, et al. “The Censoring of “The Lottery.’” The English Journal. Feb., 1986, Vol. 75, No. 2.
[8] Jackson, Shirley. “Biography of a Story.” Shirley Jackson: Novels & Stories. Edited by Joyce Carol Oates. (New York: Library of America, 2010), 787; Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2016), 222.
[9] Heller, Zoe. “The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson.” The New Yorker. October 17, 2016; Oppenheimer, Judy. “The Haunting of Shirley Jackson.” The New York Times. July 3, 1988.
[10] Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2016), 221, 217, 234; Hyman, Stanley Edgar. “Preface,” The Magic of Shirley Jackson, by Shirley Jackson (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), ix.
[11] Franklin, Ruth. “The Lottery Letters.” The New Yorker. June 25, 2013.
[12] Bogert, Edna. “Censorship and ‘The Lottery.’” The English Journal. Vol. 74, No. 1 (Jan., 1985), 47; Yarmove, Jay A. “Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’” The Explicator. Vol. 52, Issue 4. *Summer, 1994), 242-245.
[13] Hyman The Magic of Shirley Jackson, ix.
[14] Nebeker, Helen E. “’The Lottery’ Symbolic Tour de Force.” American Literature. (Mar. 1974, Vol. 46. No. 1), 100-102
[15] Nebeker, “’The Lottery’ Symbolic Tour de Force.” 101-102.
[16] Nebeker “’The Lottery’ Symbolic Tour de Force.” 103; Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The New Yorker. June 26, 1948.
[17] Cooper, Howard. “Some Thoughts on ‘Scapegoating’ and its origins in Leviticus 16.” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe. Vol. 41, No. 2 (Autumn 2008).
[18] Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. (New York: MacMIllan Company, 1925), 579; martin, John. An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands. (London: John Murray, 1817), 229.
[19] Frazer The Golden Bough, 575.
[20] Jackson The Lottery.
[21] Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. “The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson: Meaning and Context in ‘The Lottery.’” Essays in Literature. Vol. 15, Issue 2 (Fall 1988), 263.
[22] Oehlschlaeger, “The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson,” 262-263.
[23] Jackson The Lottery.
[24] Whittier, Gayle. “’The Lottery’ as Misogynist Parable.” Women’s Studies. Vol. 18. (1991), 357.
[25] Radford-Ruether, Rosemary. Sexism and God-Talk. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 171-172.
[26] Jackson The Lottery.
[27] In her book Sexism and God-talk, Rosemary Radford-Ruether argues that the witchcraft persecutions in Puritan Massachusetts began to decline by 1700 at least in part because they had served their purpose and were no longer necessary to enforce the patriarchal order.
[28] Radford-Ruether Sexism and God-Talk, 171-172.
[29] Franklin Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, 234.
[30] Von Schnurbein, Stefanie. Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism. (Boston: Brill, 2016), 17.
[31] “Defining the Enemy.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
[32] Weisel, Elie. Night. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 70.
[33] Jackson The Lottery.
[34] Weisel Night, 71-72.
[35] Weisel Night, 70; Dwork, Derah, and Robert Jan Van Pelt. Auschwitz.  (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 353.
[36] Jackson The Lottery.
[37] Jackson The Lottery.
[38] Jackson, The Lottery; Robinson, Michael. “Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ and Holocaust Literature.” Humanities. 8.1 (2019).
[39] Nebeker, “‘The Lottery’ Symbolic Tour de Force.” 107.
1 Cover. Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery. (New York: Popular Library, 1976). Image is supplied by Amazon.com via Internet Speculative Fiction Data Base. http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?413754 . The original image has been cropped. It is utilized under a Creative Commons license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode.

2 New England Village. Photo by Yuval Zukerman on Unsplash 

3 Mountain Goat. Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

4 Hale, John, and John Higginson. A modest enquiry into the nature of witchcraft, and how persons guilty of that crime may be convicted: and the means used for their discovery discussed, both negatively and affimatively, according to Scripture and experience. By John Hale, Pastor of the Church of Christ in Beverley, anno domini 1697. [Six lines of Scripture texts]. Printed by B. Green, and J. Allen, for Benjamin Eliot under the town house, 1702. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CB0127095065/ ECCO?u=sain79627&sid=bookmark-ECCO&xid=f70c042b&pg=1. Accessed 10 Jan. 2022.

5 Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Photo via www.auschwitz.org

6 Stonehenge. Public Domain via www.goodfreephotos.com

If You’re Not Engaging a Book’s Symbolic Language, You Aren’t Really Reading It.

Like luggage, symbolic language needs to be unpacked... here's how.

eading literature is more than being swept along by the charm of the characters, anticipation for the next shocking twist, or the thrill of the events on display. But it can be tricky.

After all, as Hermann Hesse points out, the same language employed by poets and novelists is also used in school and business, to dispatch telegrams, and conduct lawsuits. It’s easy to get stuck reading “naïvely,” to assume that a book is to be judged according to its substance. “Just as a loaf of bread is there to be eaten and a bed to be slept in.” [1]

A book’s content, however, is not the only consideration. As pointed out in a previous article, there’s more to a novel than surface narrative. One of the layers that gives meaning to a novel’s narrative is the symbolic language imbedded in it. So, if you’re not engaging a book’s symbolic language, you aren’t really reading it.

A novel’s symbolic language does indeed carry a message beyond simply what happens in the plot. But, like luggage, symbolism needs to be unpacked.  The numerous chapters of a novel, as Virginia Woolf advised, “are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building: but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing.”[2] So, no matter how enjoyable a book may be, if you’re just reading for plot and an entertaining story, you aren’t even getting half of what it has to offer. So, here are a few forms of symbolic language to be on the look-out for the next time you pick up a book.

This Book is Banned- Symbol - Scylla Charybdis

What is it and how does it work?

Strictly speaking, symbol is defined as something that represents something else by association. But, be sure not to confuse symbol with sign. Symbol differs from sign because signs are straightforward. For instance, 👈  means turn left no matter where you are in the world.  Symbols, on the other hand have more than one layer, with the literal meaning “pointing the way” to a second, fuller meaning. So, in order to really read a book, you need to unpack this second layer. Take the sea monsters in Homer’s Odyssey, Scylla and Charybdis, for instance.

In an earlier post, we talked about the fact that literature isn’t written just for our entertainment, that the story is consistently a vehicle for a larger point. And, so it is with the Odyssey. On its face, Homer’s epic is an adventure story about Odysseus, king of Ithaca, and his ten-year journey home after the Trojan War. The Odyssey is chockfull of fantastic creatures, such as the giant Cyclops, and Sirens who lure men to their doom with song, not to mention the six-headed sea monster Scylla and the whirlpool creature Charybdis already mentioned.  Now, Scylla and Charybdis live in close proximity to each other, making it nearly impossible to safely navigate between them. If you steer clear of Scylla’s cave, you get sucked in by Charybdis. On the other hand, if you maneuver away from Charybdis, man-eating Scylla jumps out of its cave and… well, you get the idea. So, what’s a Greek sailor to do?

Odysseus’ dilemma is precisely the point. The literal reading of these two sea monsters “points us” to the realization that this is a situation where there is no good choice. And that is what Scylla and Charybdis symbolizes, the impossible choice we’ve all had to make at one time or another in our lives. While Scylla and Charybdis are a fantastic pair in and of themselves, engaging the symbol, understanding the paired monsters’ deeper meaning gives Homer’s Odyssey continued relevance. Odysseus’ journey gives us insight into our own.

The important thing to remember about symbolic language is that the advent of the written word changed human storytelling. We no longer automatically engage with symbolic language like we did when we lived in an oral culture.  This is not to say the ability to decipher symbol is lost forever. But these days it takes a conscious effort to do so, to do more than simply process text.

This Book is Banned - Myth - Zeus in Olympia

What is it and how does it work?

The next form of symbolic language we’re going to take a look at is myth, and the first thing we need to do is establish what myth is not.  Myth is not folklore, legend, or tall tales, though it is often confused with all of them. If myth isn’t any of these, then what is it? Myth is essentially symbol in narrative form.[3] This form of symbolic language relates how a reality came into existence, be it the whole of creation, a specific species, or a particular human behavior.[4] For example, you’re probably familiar with Prometheus. His is the myth about how human beings acquired the ability to make fire. Though Zeus was withholding fire from humans, Prometheus stole it and gave it to mankind. Needless to say, he was punished for his trouble.[5]

While it’s important to recognize myth when we see it, the discussion at hand leads us to another important factor in the evolution of human storytelling. The recitation of myth that was prevalent in traditional societies has been replaced by the reading of prose narrative, especially the novel. In the context of symbolic language, this turn of events is significant because mythological themes and characters are frequently reflected in modern day novels. So, it helps to “know your myths,” to at least have a passing acquaintance with the classic catalog.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a perfect example of the convergence of myth and literature. In fact, the full title of Shelley’s work is Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus. While the plot does indeed revolve around a “monster,” there is much more to it than that. The parallel drawn to a myth about forbidden technology stolen from the gods transforms Shelley’s work from a sleep-over worthy horror story to a narrative that speaks to the ethics and morality of scientific experimentation. And we haven’t even gotten to the consequences of “playing God” yet. Clearly, engaging Frankenstein’s symbolic language results in a more profound reading of Shelley’s work, one more pertinent than ever.


This Book is Banned - Allegory - Hare and Tortoise

What is it and how does it work?

Like myth, allegory is both representational and in narrative form. While myth is a means of understanding the world and how it came to be, allegory’s purpose is rhetorical in nature. By employing allegory, the author transforms a phenomenon they wish to address into figural narrative.[6] This of course begs the question, if the author transforms the target of their commentary, how does the reader know what the actual subject is?  For starters, the novel’s structure is itself a guiding principle. And ultimately, the author’s message emerges from the details of the text.

Allegory functions on a this equals that formula, and unlike symbol, the secondary meaning is directly accessible. In short, allegory functions rather like a cryptic key. And, knowing at least a little about the author is beneficial. An awareness of the political environment and significant events that occurred during the period the work was written, also helps crack the code.

George Orwell’s commentary on Communist Russia, Animal Farm, is a prime example of allegory. It is highly unlikely that a reader would mistake this book as actually being about talking farm animals in conflict, so what is it really about? The political environment of the period, combined with the character traits of the work’s personified animals, enable the reader to understand the novella as the criticism it is. And Orwell’s choice to convey his political warning through fiction rather than a straightforward political essay conforms to the principle that narrative is the most effective way to circulate critical information. Case in point, a story about authoritarian pigs definitely holds our attention better than straightforward political commentary.

Allegory’s defining this equals that formula is reflected in the direct correlation between Orwell’s farm animals and specific Russian political figures. Old Major, the oldest boar on the farm, embodies Karl Marx. A younger pig named Snowball, represents Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin’s second-in-command. And Joseph Stalin is clearly recognizable as the ruthless boar named Napoleon.[7] In addition to the animal-politician overlay, frequent use of the term “comrades,” makes the theme difficult to miss.[8]

This Book is Banned - Metaphor - Black Butterfly

What is it and how does it work?

The last symbolic device we’re going to consider is metaphor. Like myth and folktale, metaphor and simile are often confused. Though they seem similar, the difference is significant. To help clarify between the two devices, let’s take a look the following excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which includes both. While setting a book-filled house aflame, the fire chief directs Bradbury’s protagonist to:

 Sit down, Montag. Watch. Delicately, like the petals of a flower. Light the first page, light the second page. Each becomes a black butterfly. Beautiful, eh?[9]

The way simile works is quite simple. It directly states that one thing is like another thing, that this is like that. But simile is descriptive and nothing more. And as much as simile indicates likeness, it also acknowledges difference. If one thing is like another thing, then these two things cannot be identical. Bradbury’s simile exemplifies this formula, suggesting that the pages of a book Montag and Beatty just set on fire are like the petals of a flower.

Metaphor, on the other hand, functions on a double intentionality much like symbol does. But they too are very different from one another. The distinguishing factor between metaphor and symbol is that rather than having a primary layer that points the way to a second meaning (as in symbol), the concepts at work in metaphor overlap (rather like a Venn diagram) and a new entity is born of the common characteristics.

Bearing this in mind, let’s return to the Bradbury quote. In the metaphor he employs, each page of the burning book becomes a black butterfly, each page is a black butterfly. Clearly, a charred page being a black butterfly is a much more powerful image than if the page just looked like a butterfly. But the reason metaphor is more potent than the other devices we have talked about, is because of the way our brain processes them.

Through what is known as “cross-domain mapping,” information stored in our brain about one concept (in this case charred paper) crosses from its original domain to a different area in the brain, where information about the second element of the metaphor (in this case butterflies) resides.[10 This overlap of domains allows us to utilize what we know about butterflies to think about the charred pages Bradbury refers to.Tapping into our “butterfly information,” we envision each burned page transform (like caterpillars do), emerging from its chrysalis/book, in its new delicate form to waft away on the air. As a result of cross-domain mapping, we relate to metaphor in a way that doesn’t happen with simile. We engage the image invoked rather than merely visualize it.

As you can see by the literary devices we have examined, a novel’s symbolic language does indeed carry a message beyond merely what happens in the plot. And more often than not, it’s hauling a significant load. So, I’ll wrap up this excursion into symbolic language where I began, with the admonition that if you are not engaging a book’s symbolic language, then you aren’t really reading it.

But now you know what is meant by “symbolic language,” and you have a few tools to unpack it with.


Be sure to check out these companion articles:

We May Read for Enjoyment,
But Literature Isn’t Written Just to Entertain Us.

Novels are Like a Layer Cake,
Be Sure to Get Every Bite.

Page Capper copy

#literary criticism     #The Art of Reading      #symbol


[1] Hesse, Hermann. “Language.” and “On Reading Books.” in My Belief: Essays on Life and Art. Edited by Theodore Ziolkowski. Translated by Denver Lindley. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), 26, 101-102.
[2] Woolf, Virginia. “How Should One Read a Book?” The Common Reader, Second Series. (1935). (Gutenberg of Australia eBook. 0301251h.html).
[3] Ricoeur, Paul. Symbolism of Evil. (Boston: Beacon, 1978), 18.
[4] Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. Translated by Willard R. Trask. (Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press, Inc., 1963), 5.
[5] Hansen, William. Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 48.
[6] Johnson, Gary. The Vitality of Allegory: Figural Narrative in Modern and Contemporary Fiction. (Columbia: Ohio State University Press, 2012), 8.
[7] Orwell, George. Animal Farm. (New York: Penguin, 1996), vi.
[8] Johnson, 25.
[9] Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 72.
[10] Lakoff, George. “Contemporary theory of metaphor.” Metaphor and Thought (2nd edition). Edited by Andrew Ortony. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 203.


[1] Introductory Photo. Photo by Koala on Unsplash . https://unsplash.com/photos/P0NuBF6nA7A?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditShareLink

[2] Scylla and Charybdis. Gillray, James, Artist. Britannia between Scylla & Charybdis. or – The vessel of the Constitution steered clear of the Rock of Democracy, and the Whirlpool of Arbitrary-Power / Js. Gy. desn. et fect. pro bono publico. Great Britain, 1793. [London: Pub. by H. Humphrey, April 8th] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/94509857/

[3] Standbeeld van Zeus in Olympia. Anonymous, after Philips Galle, after Maarten van Heemskerck, 1638. Public Domain via Rijksmuseum.nl   http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.114919

[4] Aesop, Walter Crane, Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Collection. The baby’s own Aesop: being the fables condensed in rhyme, with portable morals pictorially pointed. London ; New York: George Routledge & Sons, 1887. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/04017584/.

[5] Black Butterfly. Photo by Millie Greaves on Unsplash.