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The Significance of the Letter in The Scarlet Letter

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The Scarlet Letter: The Significance of the Letter            

Adultery has been around almost as long as people. It has maintained a harsh punishment, from banishment to death, but in the Puritan world of colonial America (from about 1620-1640), its punishment may have been worse than either. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne is a lonely Puritan woman who commits infidelity with a preacher and has a son from the untruthful union. To punish her for this act, the council of leaders forces her to wear a large “A” on her bosom, to let all know what she has done. She is not put to death immediately because her husband is missing and may or may not be alive. The letter “A” has different meanings for different people throughout the book. To Hester, the townspeople and Pearl the letter “A” takes on varied meanings during the course of the book.

Hester Prynne is required by Puritan dictate to wear the “A” as long as she lives in the village. Hester feels the letter to be a sign of ignominy. As she stands on the scaffold at the beginning of the story, she feels intense embarrassment and shame at having to wear the letter in public. She even drifts into a faux-reality before returning to the shame of the letter. “She turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes! - these were her realities.”(57) This is the first and least intense feeling she has for the letter. The “A” was intended to produce a deep sense of shame and disgrace, to dissuade other possible sinners. She realizes what the “A” is intended for, and stays true to that philosophy for a while. Her shame excludes her from society and normal life. S...


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...even today, with the suffering and pain humans inflict on each other. Hawthorne beautifully pieced together this masterpiece over two hundred years after the time period took place. Hester Prynne did not let shame come in the way of loyalty or love, and this is the greatest victory of all.

Works Cited and Consulted

Baym, Nina. Introduction. The Scarlet Letter. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York City: Penguin Books USA, Inc. 1986.

Durst Johnson, Claudia. Understanding The Scarlet Letter. Westport, Ct: Greenwood, 1995.

Fryer, Judith. "Hester Prynne: The Dark Lady as "Deviant"." Major Literary Characters. New York, 1990. 107-115.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.

Sewall, Richard B. "The Scarlet Letter: Criticism." Novels for Students. Ed. Diane Telgen. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 2001. 319-27.


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