The Symbolism of the Letter in The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter includes many profound and
important symbols. This device of symbolism is portrayed well in the novel,
especially through the scarlet letter "A". The "A" is the best example
because of the changes in the meaning throughout the novel. In the
beginning of the novel, the scarlet letter
"A" is viewed as a symbol of sin.
The middle of the novel is a transition period, where the scarlet letter
"A" is viewed differently.
In the commencement of the novel, the letter is taken as a label
punishment and sin. Hester Prynne bears the label of the letter upon her
chest. She stands as a label of an outcast in front of society. She is
wearing this symbol to burden her with punishment throughout her life. She
stands on a plank where her punishment is given, "'Thus she will be a
living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon
her tombstone'"(59). Society places its blames upon this woman. It is
because of this one letter that Hester's life is changed. The letter's
meaning in Puritan society banishes her from her normal life
. The Puritans
view this letter as a symbol of the devil. The letter also put Hester
through torture: "Of an impulse and passionate nature. She had fortified
herself to encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely
wreaking itself in every variety of insult but there was a quality so much
more terrible in the solemn mood of popular mind, that she longed rather to
behold all those rigid countenances contorted with scornful merriment and
herself the object"(54). This implies that Hester's sin of bearing a child
without the presence of a husband will always be remembered.
In the middle of the novel is a transition period where the letter
"A" is viewed differently than before. In this section of the novel,
Hester's appearance is altered to where she is no longer seen as a person
of sin. The letter changes from a symbol of sin to a more vague symbol.
Society now sees Hester as a person who is strong yet bears a symbol which
differs herself. At this point, Hester has learned to deal with the letter.
She has grown stronger from it; she is able to withstand the pressures of
society. As she grow stronger, her personality becomes more opposed to
being seen as a sinner. The letter's meaning has changed, "Hatred, by a
gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the
change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling
of hostility"(147). This foreshadows the future events of the novel.
Another view of the letter is that it portrays guilt. It portrays
the guilt of Dimmesdale, the father of Hester's child. Hester has learned
to deal with her punishment and grow stronger from it, but Dimmesdale, who
went unpunished and is a respectable man in the Puritan society, must now
live with the guilt of having a child "illegally". This guilt helps him to
become weaker as novel continues: "Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great
horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his
naked breast, right over his heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was,
and there long had been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily
After seven years of torture caused by the scarlet letter, Hester
tosses the letter aside for an hour. The return of this letter, however,
is beneficial to Hester. The letter's refusal to be swept away, Pearl's
refusal to join an unlettered Hester, and Dimmesdale insistence that Hester
do what ever it takes to quiet Pearl, force Hester to reaccept the symbol
of the sin she had wrongly divorced, and therefore allow Dimmesdale and
Hester to share a mutual public shame.
When Hester tosses her sin aside in the forest scene, she is not
successful in leaving her sin forever. "The mystic token alighted on the
hither verge of the stream. With a hand's breath further flight it would
have fallen into the water, and have given the little brook another woe to
carry onward . . ." (pg. 185) The brook does not carry off Hester's letter,
and therefore, the disgrace of her sin is still close by. When Hawthorne
says that Hester's new thoughts "have taught her much amiss" (pg. 183) he
also gives Hester one last chance to reaccept the sin that she has
committed and the Puritan Code which she has so strongly rejected. By
keeping the letter close at hand, Hester may still return to her rightful
place in shame.
Very much in tune with this letter is Pearl. Pearl immediately
recognizes that the letter has been cast aside, and recognizes that in a
way she has been cast aside too. Pearl has always been another symbol of
the sin between Hester and Dimmesdale, as much, or maybe more than the
scarlet letter itself. When Hester removes the letter from her bosom, in
Pearl's eyes, she also removes her child. "At length, assuming a singular
air of authority, Pearl stretched out her hand . . . and pointing evidently
towards her mother's breast. And beneath, in the mirror of the brook, was
the flower-girdled and sunny image of little Pearl, pointing her small
finger too." (pg. 191) This quote symbolizes the two aspects of Pearl both
commanding Hester to return the letter to her bosom. The elfish,
disobedient Pearl and the Pearl who creates beauty both point to their
mother in a mixture of shock and disgust. Pearl recognizes the fact that
Hester can not toss her sin aside so lightly, and makes Hester recognize
that fact also.
Also worthy of note, is the fact that Pearl makes Hester pick up
the letter and reattach it herself. "'Bring it hither' said Hester. 'Come
thou and take it up!' answered Pearl." (pg. 193) Pearl wants no part of
Hester's sin, and frankly tells Hester so. She knows that the sin of Hester
and Dimmesdale can only be borne by them, and reminds Hester of this fact
by making her retrieve that which she wrongly threw away. Hester finally
perceives this fact, but not in its deeper meaning. "But, in very truth,
she is right as regards this hateful token. I must bear its torture yet a
little longer - only a few days longer - until we shall have left this
region . . . " (pg. 193) Hester reattaches the letter, but mistakenly
believes that it could ever be fully removed from her. As is seen later in
the book, Chillingworth, a symbol of punishment, is intent on following
Hester and Dimmesdale to the ends of the Earth.
Hester also reattaches this letter in order to pacify Pearl, as
requested by Dimmesdale. "'I pray you' answered the minister, 'if thou hast
any means of pacifying the child, do it forthwith! . . . I know nothing
that I would not sooner encounter than this in passion a child! . . . it
has a preternatural effect. Pacify her, if thou loves me!'" (pg. 192) The
whimpering minister requests Hester to quiet Pearl by refastening the
letter of shame on her bosom. Pearl's cry remind Dimmesdale of the sin that
they are both pretending they can disown, and it bothers him.
All of these factors demand that Hester take back the symbol of her
guilt. By reaccepting this guilt, it gives Hester a chance to become the
humble and faithful ultra-Puritan that she was. Hester's reattachment of
the letter also allows Hester and Dimmesdale to share their moment of
public humiliation together in the market square upon the scaffold. When
Chillingworth, a symbol of all that is evil tries to dissuade Dimmesdale
from doing this, it further adds to the joy of Dimmesdale in being relieved
of his secret sin. " (Chillingworth) 'Madman, hold! . . . Wave back that
woman! Cast off this child! All shall be well! . . . Would you bring infamy
on your sacred profession?' 'Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art to late!'
answered the minister . . . 'With God's help I shall escape thee now!'" (pg.
230) Dimmesdale joins Hester on the scaffold, that in all truth, Hester had
been on for seven years. Dimmesdale revels in his dying gasps as he is free
from his treacherous sin. "'Is this not better,' murmured he, 'than what we
dreamed of in the forest?' . . . (Hester)'Better? Yea' . . . " (pg. 231) If
Hester had not retrieved her letter in the forest, this moment would never
have occurred. Hester and Dimmesdale would have run off, but they would
never be as close as they are in this scene. This is where the retrieval of
the letter helps Hester the most.
The actions of Pearl, Dimmesdale, and fate all return the letter to
Hester. They give Hester back both of what made her the sinner and the able.
They also gave her a chance to fully reconcile with Dimmesdale and her
community. In the end, the pain that Hester received when she refastened
the letter to her bosom was paid back in full.