The Scarlet Letter and The Symbol of It
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne has many symbols, but none of them really stand out as much as the one the book is named after, the Scarlet Letter. While The Scarlet Letter has many meanings, the most common known one is that it stands for adultery, the sin that occurred between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, how the meaning changes over the course of the book; it also appears as different things such as the meteor, the A pierced into Dimmesdale’s chest, when pearl created a green scarlet letter out of eel grass.
The symbol of the Scarlet letter, scarlet A, is something that people all over the world know, even without reading the book. They know that the A stands for adultery, what they don’t realize if they hadn’t read the book is that the scarlet A has a lot more meanings than that. To Hester the scarlet letter is a burden and a reminder of the fact that she is a sinner as is Pearl. But she does not show disdain towards her child, she loves the child deeply. The scarlet letter reminds Dimmesdale of the guilt he has had over the past seven years. The guilt that he hadn’t stood on the scaffold, by Hester and their child’s side, and share Hester’s burden. It shows in chapter two, The Market-Place; that “People say that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.”(Hawthorne, page 43) To Chillingworth it reminds him of the fact that his wife cheated on him, and it also reminds him of his revenge. In the mind of Pearl –the child who grew up around the letter- it was something she is so used to seeing on her mother, that in chapter 19 The Child at the Brook Side, when she see Hester without it she refuses to go to her. But in a way Pearl herself is a personified version of the scarlet letter, beautiful, strange, and alluring. Especially since Hester “arrayed her in a crimson velvet tunic, of a peculiar cut, abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of gold tread……it was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life! (Hawthorne, chap.6, pg.86)
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In the beginning of the book it was meant as a symbol of shame, a sign that she had committed an unforgivable sin. A sign so people would know who she was and what she had done. It made people shun her, as shown in Chapter two, The Market-Place, where the women are gossiping about Hester and her scarlet letter. But toward the middle of the book, the meaning changes in the minds of the townspeople and it becomes an indicator of Hester. The townspeople would point her out to outsiders and say “Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge? It is our Hester, who is so kind to the poor and so comfortable to the afflicted.” The scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom. (Hawthorne, chap.13 pg.142) By the end of the book the letter took on a much deeper meaning. It is revealed how Hester feels about the scarlet letter after those seven years. In chapter 18, A Flood of Sunshine “The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,-stern and wild ones,-and they had made her strong, but taught her amiss.” (Hawthorne, pg.175) In simpler terms, through all the hardships, she had to face it made her emerge so much stronger. Arthur Dimmesdale’s reveal showed that even the “purest of hearts” aren’t untouched by sin, and that is the final meaning of the scarlet letter.
The scarlet letter appears in many forms throughout the book. One of them being a meteor that creates a giant red A in the sky on the night of governor Wintrop’s death, another being pearl herself and the green letter A she makes out of eel grass, and all of their meanings. The old sexton at the end of chapter 12, The Minister’s Vigil, says “that the great red letter in the sky must stand for Angel, because our Good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night, it was held doubtless held fit that there should be some notice thereof!” (Hawthorne, pg. 138) Being that Dimmesdale had just been talking to Hester and Pearl, and then was told of this occurrence. This says that it was not for the governor meaning angel, but as a sign to Arthur Dimmesdale. As stated earlier in the paper about Pearl being the personified version of the scarlet letter, she was always looked at as not human, a fairy, elf, demon offspring. “….Art thou a Christian child,-ha? Dost know thy catechism? Or art thou one of those naughty elfs or fairies, whom we thought to have left behind us, with other relics of Papistry, in merry old England?”(Hawthorne, pg. 93, chap.8) She was the personified who had only became human after her father’s death. “The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.” (Hawthorne, chap. 23, pg. 226) The scene where Pearl creates an eel grass letter A, can be seen as making this symbol of sin into something pure and childlike.