Symbols and Symbolism - The Letter A in The Scarlet Letter


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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 of

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

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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

pain"(136).

 

          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.

 

 

 

 


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