Symbols and Symbolism Essay - Changing Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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Changing Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter

In the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne was forced to wear an "A" on her chest. Hawthorne related the villagers' changing perception of Hester Prynne to the changing symbolism of the scarlet letter from a symbol of shame, ability, to honor.

In the beginning of the novel, the "A" symbolized shame and punishment. One villager voiced his opinion on the "A" when he stated, "At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead"(p.59). The villagers saw the "A" as public punishment. They saw Hester as lucky because her punishment was not harsh enough. Another villager saw Hester in a new light when she said, "She hath good skill in her needle...but did ever a woman...contrive such a way of showing it!...What is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen meant for punishment?" The "A" made clear what the villager's Puritan principles were and showed the Puritans judicial system in action. When Hester embroidered the "A" beautifully, she mocked their judgment. Thus, the villagers saw Hester has prideful. The "A" also exposed the Puritan's hidden shame. Hester recognized this when Hawthorne said, "She felt an eye- a human eye - upon the ignominious brand, that seemed to give a momentary relief, as if half of her agony were shared."(p.89). A few villagers saw the letter and Hester as a constant reminder of their own sin. Hester was the torturous representation of the lust that they kept hidden inside. The Scarlet letter was seen as a symbol of shame yet caused the villagers to see Hester as fortunate, boastful, and as a symbol of their own faults.

Later in the novel, the "A" came to show a woman's ability. The villager's said now, "it meant "Able"; so strong was Hester Prynne with a woman's strength"(p.156). The villagers realized that Hester endured all their stares and tormenting without ever saying or doing anything in return. They were impressed by her ability to be strong and raise a child and help many others at the same time.
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