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

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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Hawthorne referred to Hester's letter as, "its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one"(p.156). Hester new how to sympathize and was always helping the sick and others in need. The villagers now saw Hester's letter as goodness and Hester as a nurse. The "A" also came to be associated with a woman's humility. Hawthorne brought this up then he mentioned, "Meeting them in the street, she never raised her head to receive their greeting. If they were resolute to accost her, she laid her finger on the scarlet letter, and passed on. This might be pride, but was so like humility, that it produced all the softening influence of the latter quality on the public mind."(p.156). Villagers chose to believe that the "A" represented goodness and womanhood. Ironically they were blinded and their perception of Hester as prideful changed into one of Hester being humble.


As the story came to a close, Hester's letter was seen again in a different way. The "A" was perceived as something to be honored or almost as a legend. Hawthorne made this evident when he stated, "the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over and looked upon with awe yet with reverence too"(p.244). The village had changed and so had many of its values. Women looked to Hester for help. The scarlet letter now attracted the warmth of hearts looking for love rather than the vengeful cold hearts it had once attracted Hester became a sort of counselor that people looked to for advice. They admired her for the hardships she had survived. The villagers' view of Hester and her letter had transformed into the total opposite of their original perceptions.


The Scarlet Letter's symbolism brought out the villager's view on Hester Prynne. The Letter was first seen as a symbol of shame which led the villagers to believe Hester was lucky and even proud. Hester was later seen as strong after her "A" was seen as "able" from the villagers point of view. Finally at the end of the novel, Hester places her letter back on and is seen as honorable. The villagers' perception of Hester changed many times throughout the novel, but in the end, gave Hester the respect she deserved.

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