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