Symbols and Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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Symbols in The Scarlet Letter

In nearly every work of literature, readers can find symbols that represent feelings, thoughts or ideas within the text. Such symbols can be found in The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne's book about an affair between a woman named Hester and a minister named Arthur Dimmmesdale is full of feelings of sin, guilt, hate, secrecy, and honesty. There are many symbols within the novel that can be interpreted to represent the key topics of the book. Each of these symbols is an important part of the story, and connects to the situations that occur around them. The main ideas of the novel are represented by recurring symbols in the text; the scaffold, scarlet letter, and forest.

The scaffold is a platform in the center of town, where criminals are put to death, and people guilty of minor crimes, put to shame. "It was, in short, the platform of pillory, and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp and thus holding it up to the public gaze." (p.56) In the beginning of the story, Hester Prynne is forced to stand on this platform for several hours as her sin is made publicly known. Hester "sustained herself as best a woman might under the weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes."(p57) Because she lives in a puritan society, Hester becomes an outcast after her sin is made known. She has to live the rest of her life in shame and guilt because everyone now knows that Hester has committed adultery. Later in the novel, Dimmesdale comes to stand on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl. He is quite literally deteriorating from feelings of remorse and shame for what he did t...

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The main topics of The Scarlet Letter are depicted in three major symbols, the scaffold, scarlet letter, and the forest. These symbols play important roles throughout the story and represent the emotions they inflict upon the characters. Symbols can be found in nearly every book ever written. Perhaps the author chooses to place distinct symbols within his writing, or maybe symbols form through coincidence. Either way, it is up to the reader's judgment on how to interpret the symbols that he or she may find.


Chase, Richard. "The Symbols of the Scarlet Letter." Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne (pp. 145-152). San Diego: Greenhaven. (1996).

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: St. Martins, 1991.

Scharnhorst, Gary. The Critical Response to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. New York: Greenwood, 1992.
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