Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter

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Cursed with the permanent mark of adultery upon her bosom, Hester Prynne, the main character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book, The Scarlet Letter, faces many hardships and disgrace. Referencing these hardships, Hawthorne portrays the scarlet letter as the forbidden mark of adultery. Upon first meeting Hester, the scarlet letter is a symbol for adultery and disgrace. As the story progresses, the scarlet letter evolves into a symbol of wisdom and identity. Hawthorne utilizes each different meaning of the scarlet letter to make a commentary on the Puritan society. While many readers view the scarlet letter as simply a mark of adultery, it is really a symbol of Hester’s identity.

In the beginning, the scarlet letter obtains a negative connotation. In the prologue of the novel, while exploring the attic of the Custom House, the curator finds the scarlet letter, “my eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter…certainly, there was some deep meaning in it…as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron” (Hawthorne 31). Even years after Hester Prynne’s death, the scarlet letter continues to have a negative impact on anyone that views it. Originally, the scarlet letter is meant to put Hester to shame. While initially being publicly prosecuted for her crime, a young wife in the crowd mentions, “let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always on her heart” (49). This immediately sets Hester apart from the rest of society and employs that the letter will be a part of her for the rest of her life. During her public prosecution, Hawthorne depicts Hester’s elegant, dignified beauty and the crowd’s eyes being drawn to the scarlet letter by stating, “it had the effect of a spell, taking her out of th...

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While many readers view the scarlet letter as a mark of adultery and Hester Prynne as a sinful woman. Nathaniel Hawthorne evolves the scarlet letter into many elements that transform it into a prideful symbol. In doing so, Hawthorne makes a social commentary on Puritan society by implying they view things in one way. Additionally, he uses the scarlet letter to show good and evil are essentially the same. Although the true story of Hester Prynne, Pearl, and the scarlet letter may still be unknown, Hawthorne’s use of symbolism causes the reader to view Hester in a new light. In the end, he uses the scarlet letter to express to the reader that humans can be misunderstood and the individual cannot be defined by society.

Works Cited

The Scarlet Letter

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Clayton, DE: Prestwick House Literary Touchstone, 2005. Print.
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