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

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

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Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter



Symbolism plays an important role in the Scarlet Letter. The scarlet "A" is used to represent sin and anguish along with happiness. The "A" has different meanings to people other than what was originally intended. The scaffold is used as a place of repentance and judgment by God. Pearl is another major symbol used as a reminder of the scarlet letter.


The scarlet "A" is the most important symbol in the Scarlet Letter. The letter "A" does not have a "universally symbolic relationship" with adultery. The letter "A" was the first letter of adultery and the Puritans put the negative connotation on the letter. The community interprets the cosmic "A" as Angel, signifying the passing of Governor Winthrop. The letter on Hester's bosom represented the sin of adultery, yet as that it meant different things to Hester, Dimsdale, Pearl, Chillingworth and the Puritan community. To Hester it represented "alienation and unjust humiliation" .


"Hester looked, by way of humoring the child; and she saw that, owing to the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. In truth, she seemed absolutely hidden behind it."


This shows how the community saw a sinner and the "A", not Hester. The women sneered and jested at her in public and wanted to take Pearl from her. The prison also symbolizes isolation and alienation. Hester lives in a prison of alienation and Dimsdale in his guilt. Yet later as Hester shows signs of humbleness by embroidering items for others and still wearing dim colored clothing, the community says her "A" is for able. To Dimsdale, the letter represents his guilt and agony. It constantly torments him throughout the book. It reminds him of his undeclared sin and also how Hester suffers for him. For Chillingworth, the letter is his need for revenge and he wants what is on the minister's chest unveiled to the community. He did not want this to happen as fast as it happened for the letter was Chillingworth's life, and he died shortly afterward Dimsdale's death because he had nothing to do with his life.

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To Pearl, the letter was a bright and mysterious thing. It represented her existence and the meaning of her life.


"As the last touch to her mermaid's garb, Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother's. A letter,--the letter A,--but freshly green, instead of scarlet!"


When Pearl forms the letter here she forms it out of wanting to be like her mother. Here it is green for the color of life. Thus speaking of the scarlet "A" in accordance to Pearl, the letter does mean life. Pearl shows her letter to Hester in green, trying to show life and the goodness of the letter. It also represents the "innocence and the signification of Pearl's future as the daughter of a sinner."


The Scaffold also plays an important role throughout the book. It signifies the judgment of God and the Puritan community. Hawthorne uses the scaffold to divide his book into three equal parts. Whenever the scaffold is mentioned, it is part of the three major climaxes of the story. The scaffold also represents the "strict moral code" of the puritan community. It displays Hester's sin to the whole town. It offers a safe place for Dimsdale where Chillingworth cannot reach his burdened heart. It is the only place in which Dimsdale must confess his sin to God and the community. The scaffold can also be said to represent the acknowledgement of sin. Here both Hester and Dimsdale paid the price of admitting their sins. In the end, when Dimsdale takes Hester and Pearl by the hands and leads them to the top to openly admit his sin to the world, the scaffold is used to show unity. When this is done it signifies that finally Dimsdale has come to triumph over his sin and accept his daughter.


Pearl is a symbol who develops into many different thoughts throughout the story. She is used for the purpose of happiness and evil. Pearl was the only thing that Hester had to love. If Pearl was not there, Hester would have no meaning to live. Pearl is used to show the interconnectedness of Dimsdale, Hester, and their sin.


"...with the scarlet token of infamy on her breast; with the sin-born infant in her arms; with a whole people, drawn forth as to a festival, staring at the features that should have been seen only in the quiet gleam of the fireside."


This shows how Pearl is a symbol of shame and Hester won't use one to hide another. In the forest, Hester throws away her letter after reconciling with Dimsdale. Pearl comes and points an accusing figure at Hester to pick up her own letter.


"...Pearl," said she, sadly, "look down at thy feet! There!--before thee!--on the hither side of the brook!" The child turned her eyes to the point indicated; and there lay the scarlet letter, so close upon the margin of the stream, that the gold embroidery was reflected in it. "Bring it hither!" said Hester. "Come thou and take it up!" answered Pearl."


When she will not bring it to Hester, Pearl represents fate as she makes Hester pick up her own letter and to be responsible for her own burden. Pearl also is a rose to her mother. She keeps Hester content and brings joy to her life, but then she becomes evil and always reminds Hester of her sin and in these times is when she is wilting. To Dimsdale, Pearl is a constant reminder of his non repented sin and his unfaithfulness to Pearl herself. She is the constant nagging that eventually made Dimsdale confess his sin. Once Dimsdale completes his confession and he dies, Pearl kisses her father "signifying the end of his anguish."


Overall, the symbols of the Scarlet Letter help us to see the main character's emotions deeper and to understand the meaning of the book. It shows that symbols form who we are and how other people look upon us.

Sources Cited


"Symbolism of the Scarlet letter" Free Essays.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel "Scarlet Letter" New York: Bantam Books, 1986

Druett, R "Subjective Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter" Drop of Ink. <>

"Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter". Pink Monkey. <>

"Essays on Pearl" Readings on The Scarlet Letter

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