Symbols and Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

:: 1 Works Cited
Length: 575 words (1.6 double-spaced pages)
Rating: Red (FREE)      
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter

   Carl Jung believed that the source of symbols is universal. Symbols arise from the collective unconscious common to all humans everywhere. Joseph Campbell's research supports this theory; he traces universal archetypes through the stories, myths, and artwork of various cultures. While most work done with symbolism has focused on the universality of symbols, Nathaniel Hawthorn focuses on their personal, subjective meanings.


A universal symbol arises from the symbol's relationship to reality; thus, such a symbol remains the same across cultures and with different individuals. While symbols can be created, such created symbols are subjective and must be given meaning within their context and because the context is different among individuals and societies and can vary over time, the meanings of the symbols are, likewise, highly variable.


In The Scarlet Letter, the symbol of most importance is the letter A which Hester Prynne is condemned to wear, having been found guilty of adultery. Literally, the letter A is an arbitrary visual representation of particular sounds used in languages. Nothing in the shape of the letter A or any other aspect of its being represents adultery. This shape is agreed upon by people who use the Roman alphabet to begin the series of marks that visually signifies the word adultery. This is not a universally symbolic relationship. The letter A means nothing in itself until the Puritans agree to a meaning in order to mark Hester and this meaning is altered according to the mindset of those interpreting it. Hester with this "mark of shame upon her bosom" is meant to "be a living sermon against sin" (59) yet the residents of Boston "had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin . . . but of her many good deeds since. . . . The scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness, which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril" (149). Some people begin saying that A stands for "able" (148).


Another example of the changeable symbolism of the letter A is the astronomical event witnessed by Arthur Dimmesdale and others on the night of Governor Winthrop's death. Dimmesdale as:


a man rendered morbidly self-contemplative . . . had extended his egoism over the whole expanse of nature. . . . Solely [due] to the disease in his own eye and heart, that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld the letter A. . . . The meteor may have shown itself at that point . . . but with no such shape as his guilty imagination gave it; or, at least, with so little definiteness that another's guilt might have seen another symbol in it. (142-143)


Dimmesdale finds the event personally symbolic of his adultery while others without guilty consciences conclude that it must relate to the governor's death, signifying the word "Angel" (145). The meteor has no significance in itself other than what is personally and subjectively assigned to it.


Hawthorn's interest in the subjectivity of symbols is apparent in his other works as well. Both "The Minister's Black Veil" and "The Birthmark" experiment with the meaning of symbols. While he utilizes universal symbols in his writing, his focus is on the universal tendency of people to discover meaning in objects according to their particular point of view. Thus, like Jung and Campbell, his study of symbolism expresses a common human experience.



Works Cited

Hawthorn, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bantam Books, 1986


How to Cite this Page

MLA Citation:
"Symbols and Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter." 27 Nov 2015

Related Searches

Important Note: If you'd like to save a copy of the paper on your computer, you can COPY and PASTE it into your word processor. Please, follow these steps to do that in Windows:

1. Select the text of the paper with the mouse and press Ctrl+C.
2. Open your word processor and press Ctrl+V.

Company's Liability (the "Web Site") is produced by the "Company". The contents of this Web Site, such as text, graphics, images, audio, video and all other material ("Material"), are protected by copyright under both United States and foreign laws. The Company makes no representations about the accuracy, reliability, completeness, or timeliness of the Material or about the results to be obtained from using the Material. You expressly agree that any use of the Material is entirely at your own risk. Most of the Material on the Web Site is provided and maintained by third parties. This third party Material may not be screened by the Company prior to its inclusion on the Web Site. You expressly agree that the Company is not liable or responsible for any defamatory, offensive, or illegal conduct of other subscribers or third parties.

The Materials are provided on an as-is basis without warranty express or implied. The Company and its suppliers and affiliates disclaim all warranties, including the warranty of non-infringement of proprietary or third party rights, and the warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. The Company and its suppliers make no warranties as to the accuracy, reliability, completeness, or timeliness of the material, services, text, graphics and links.

For a complete statement of the Terms of Service, please see our website. By obtaining these materials you agree to abide by the terms herein, by our Terms of Service as posted on the website and any and all alterations, revisions and amendments thereto.

Return to