A bestselling story and a popular read even today, The Scarlet Letter is a marvelous story that comes from the mind of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a brilliant and legendary writer. This Penlighten article analyzes the symbolism used in this famous tale, and also provides a brief look into the characters that made it what it is.
There is still some doubt surrounding how Hawthorne had decided to write The Scarlet Letter. Some say he was to write it as a short story, but his agent James Fields convinced him to turn it into a novel. However, those claims have now been proven false. The author’s wife Sophia made a statement saying, “[Fields] has made the absurd boast that he was the sole cause of the Scarlet Letter being published!”
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a story about love and guilt. Written way ahead of its time and set in Puritan era Boston, this is a story about a woman, Hester Prynne, who lives her life like a criminal, yet never ceases to do as much good as she can. Helping the needy people of the society that once shunned her, her image is somewhat restored in society later on, although it may have been too late for that. It takes place in the 17th century, when the Puritan law was prevalent and going strong, and adultery was equated with a criminal offense.
The hardships that Hester faces, her guilt, her shame, her vengeful husband set out to find her lover, and the lover who lets her take all the blame – all these aspects are described beautifully in the tale. Fraught with astute symbolism, it takes more than one read to really do justice to the essence of the story. Discussed below in brief are some of the symbols used in The Scarlet Letter, their meanings, and before that, a detailed analysis of the characters.
Those who make up the story
Hester is the main character, who has been accused of adultery and publicly scorned. She lives with her daughter in a small hut outside town, and earns a meager living by embroidering clothes. A kind woman at heart, she helps people who are in need, as is shown by the end. Her love for Dimmesdale makes her take the entire blame for her sin and never reveal his name. She even makes a plan to run away to Europe with him and her daughter to escape from Chillingworth. Her love for her daughter Pearl is deep and true, and she does what she can to protect her. She does not let the scarlet A define her life, but resumes wearing it and helping people until the end. On her death, she is buried next to Dimmesdale, with an A engraved on their tombstone.
He is a minister in the town of Boston, and a much-loved and respected man at that. Although everyone holds him in high regard, he is living a secret till the end. He does not reveal to anyone that he is indeed Hester’s lover and Pearl’s father, and lets Hester take the blame for everything. However, guilt and shame begin to do him in soon, and their weight begins to affect his physical and mental health. Unable to bear the anguish and inner torment, he finally confesses in front of the entire town, revealing the A seared into his chest. This revelation finally sets him free, and he dies in Hester’s arms.
Roger Chillingworth is actually Hester’s husband in disguise. He is a physician, who comes to Boston to find that his wife is being tried for adultery. He then vows revenge, and sets out to find Hester’s lover. He warns Hester not to say anything, threatening to hurt her lover if she does. The brilliant man that he is, he soon figures out that Dimmesdale is the culprit. On hearing of the minister’s ill health, Chillingworth moves in as his full-time physician. He begins to torture the minister mentally to find out the truth. There is pure evil in his intentions, and he is a man set out to avenge himself. However, when Dimmesdale dies after confessing his sins, the doctor does not have any purpose left in life, and passes away soon enough.
She is Hester and Arthur’s daughter. A rather difficult child, she likes to be free and even refuses to listen to her mother at times. She likes to stay in the forest and avoids going into the town that humiliated her mother. She loves her mother, and is always trying to do things to make her happy. In the end, when Dimmesdale confesses that she is his daughter too, she is content, and becomes a quiet and calm child. However, she believes that her mother must live with the A on her dress because that is how she identifies Hester, and asks her to pick it up herself and wear it, when Hester takes it off in the forest.
The various symbols
The Scarlet A
This is the biggest symbol in the book. It signifies many things throughout the story. In the beginning, it is used as a symbol of adultery and sin, when Hester is forced to wear it and stand on the scaffold for the whole town to see. It represents shame and penance. When she goes to visit the Governor, she stands in front of a mirror and sees the letter become magnified and take up almost the entire reflection. This probably symbolizes that it has taken over her life, and governs every day of her existence. It is a constant reminder of what she has done.
However, later on, its meaning changes for Hester. She keeps on doing good for people, and soon everyone says that the A actually stands for able. She even takes it off when she asks Dimmesdale to run off with her to Europe. In the end, she returns to Boston after her daughter gets married, wears the A again, and continues to help people who are in need, because that is who she is.
When the meteor shines in the sky, taking the shape of the letter A, Dimmesdale takes it as a sign that he is meant to confess of his affair to Hester, acknowledge Pearl as his daughter, and take his part of the responsibility that Hester has been taking all these years. It symbolizes the guilt that he has been living with for the past seven years. When dying, he finally reveals the A that is marked on his chest.
For The Town
The A is actually a mark of adultery, sin, and it is used to brand Hester as an adulteress. Hence, to the town, it is a mark of shame, guilt, and punishment. However, when the meteor shines over the sky making an A, the townspeople regard it as the mark of an Angel, which is sending a message that their Governor Winthrop has passed on and reached heaven.
For Pearl, the A is a fascinating object that she has clubbed with the image of her mother. She even makes one for herself out of eel grass and puts it on her dress, like her mother does.
For Hester’s husband, the A represents the sin that his wife has committed. The scarlet color may also be a reflection of his rage towards her and the other man, and his vow for vengeance.
The scaffold was the ultimate symbol of shame and guilt. It depicts the Puritan method of punishment for breaking the law. The person who is made to stand on the scaffold is scorned and humiliated; it is someone who must not be associated with. That is the meaning it holds for Hester. As for Dimmesdale, it is a symbol of confession and owning up to his sins, and for facing his guilt. When he ultimately comes clean in front of the townspeople about his affair, he does so on the scaffold.
The author describes the scaffold as, “It was, in short, the platform of the 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 hold it up to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron.”
Pearl is both, a character and a symbol in the story. To her mother, she is a constant reminder of her sin, a very obvious reminder. However, she is also Hester’s reason to keep living; she does things to make Hester happy. She is a free spirit who likes to do as she pleases. One instance of the same is when she is reluctant to cross the brook and enter the town, where the Puritan society lives, in which she is not welcome.
The Puritan people regard the forest as something horrible and dark. It is branded as a place where witches convene, and the devil resides. There might be a symbolism that the forest is nature’s law that prevails everywhere, which was disliked by the Puritans, who were propagating their own law.
Even Hester says, “Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the forest round about us?” Here, the Black Man means the Devil.
The sunshine has been used by the author in many parts of the story, and differently with different characters. For example, Chillingworth has always been described alongside the color gray, or the word dark. Also, the sun never shines on Hester, maybe a sign that God is angry with her. However, when she discards the A and lets her hair down after meeting Dimmesdale in the forest, she is bathed in sunlight. The sun always shines on Pearl though, as she is an innocent and pure child, albeit born from sin.
Chillingworth is always identified with darkness, possibly to highlight the darkness in his heart and his intentions. It is also used to describe the jail, which is a place for punishment and gloom. The gray hats of the Puritans present in the jail, as well as the dark atmosphere of the place, are all clear symbols of heaviness, dullness, and dread.
Scarlet is the most prominent color in the story, starting right from the main character – the A. It is also seen in Pearl’s clothes, the rose bush outside the jail, and the meteor that shines in the sky. Thus, it symbolizes many different things at a time. It is also prominently used in the context of Chillingworth’s anger and actions. Other dark colors like black and gray symbolize dullness, gloom, and the Puritan way of living.
The rosebush has been described as being surrounded by weeds. This may be a symbol of the evil or bad in society, that good and bad are present together. It may also be a representation of how sometimes good people also goof up and do things that are not moral – in this story, it is Hester’s extramarital affair with Arthur Dimmesdale.
The Scarlet Letter is a very intelligent and insightful story that does require some thought. It is what can be called a masterpiece, something that comes along once in a while, a rare phenomenon.