Symbolisms in Nathaniel Hawthorne`s ”The Scarlet Letter”

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Nathaniel Hawthorne was on born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts.  Hawthorne’s long line of Puritans forefathers (one of his forefathers was a judge during the Salem witch trials) left a marked influenced in a number of his books.  Puritan beliefs on the subjects of guilt, repression, original sin, and discipline laced his books. This observation is particularly significant in his work The Scarlet Letter.

The story of The Scarlet Letter revolves around a woman named Hester Prynne.  The tale took place in New World particularly in Massachusetts Bay in the late 17th century. Hester Prynne, against the teachings of her Puritan community, committed adultery with someone whose name she did not disclose at the start of the story.  The Puritan society believed that the Bible is the ultimate source of law, punishment was meted on Hester. Hester is made to wear a scarlet “A” (for adultery) on her attire at all times, as a sign to everyone that she has sinned deeply. And so she must carry out the rest of her life this way.

It turned out that Hester Prynne had an affair with a man esteemed by all, the local Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Roger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband while the affair takes place. Because of the affair, Hester and Arthur have a daughter named Pearl. Towards the end of the story while Dimmesdale was dying, he stepped forward and admitted his sin against Hester, against their daughter Pearl and to the community.  The people of course were taken aback and did not know how to respond. But as the realization dawned, acceptance came with it.
The story touches very delicate matters – sin and adultery. This topic is highly unpopular yet Hawthorne manages to get away with its obvious flaws. The conclusion of the story thought does not enlighten the readers if Hawthorne approves or disapproves the Puritan society.  Even his views on adultery or how he finds it do not register.  The moral of the story is subject to the reader’s interpretation.  


Hawthorne uses symbolism in the The Scarlet Letter to make it more significant.  The Scarlet Letter showcases Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ability to depict the Puritan’s way of life. Hawthorne’s story is in agreement with the various historical accounts on life of a Puritan from historians. There are a few differences though.  For instance, many of the women had a desire to kill Hester.  This is not a Puritan way of thinking. Killing people merely for the desire to do so is not acceptable in Puritan teachings.  The community then decided to punish Hester by a less severe punishment.  They humiliated her by forcing  her to wear the scarlet letter “A” on her chest.

A striking similarity between Puritans and their counterparts in Scarlet Letter is having their lives centered on God. This coincides with “The Puritan Way” in that just as they obey Gods laws and abide by them, they also have an enforcer and a leader of these laws: the minister.
The seventeenth century does not tolerate adultery as shown by their laws. In 1641, Boston law provides that death should be meted for those who commit adultery.  In 1644, John Winthrop reported that a certain Mary Latham and her partner James Britton were put to death due to adultery.  English law was more lenient as they demanded only a small crime from adulterous couples. But the usual order of the day to address adultery was public whipping as imposed by Puritan Massachusetts.

One of Hawthorne’s ancestors Major John Hathorne was the magistrate in Salem in 1688.  He ordered whipping for Hester Craford when she was found giving birth to an illegitimate child. In 1964 Plymouth law required that adulteress should wear the letter A on the dress. This is probably where Hawthorne found his inspiration for The Scarlet Letter story.

The sin that Hester commits in the story is adultery. Hester Prynne as a punishment is made to wear the embroidered scarlet letter “A… in fine red cloth, surrounded with elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread…” (58). Hester Prynne, is looked on by many Puritans in her place as a sinner.

Hawthorne uses several symbols throughout The Scarlet Letter. Even the scarlet letter “A” which was worn by Hester symbolizes several things and not just adultery.  Puritan community regarded letter “A” as a sign of punishment. The red “A” is put on the chest of the offender’s clothing. The “A” may mean adultery, Angel and Able.

Hester Prynne had a relatively light punishment as compared to others.  The main objective of Hester’s humiliation was to force her to name the father of the child so he could share in the responsibilities of rearing the child. They believed that women and children should not be exploited by men.

When the townsfolk required Hester to show her scarlet letter, the symbol of this action is that the punishment would be helpful if the shame caused by public appearance with the letter worn on her chest would enable Hester to repent and name the father of her illegitimate child.  As the story unfolded however, they found it was more difficult to do that than to punish her.  The letter “A” on Hester’s chest no longer bears the same weight as it had the first time she wore it.  Hawthorne mentioned that Hester had fancy embroidery of the letter. But the purpose of such act was not explained. It could symbolize two diverse things, one is to conceal the letter “A” the other is to make it more plain to see as a sign of defiance on Hester’s part.

As the story progressed, we see Hester slowly but surely gained the people’s trust once again.  After years of rendering valuable service to the townsfolk, she earned their respect as exemplified by the fact that people no longer see the “A” on her chest as to mean “adultery” but this time it means “Able”; “so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (186).  “Such helpfulness was found in her, -so much… that many people refused to interpret the scarlet “A” by its original signification” (186).

“A’ for Puritans  could also symbolize “Angel”.  “A great red letter in the sky, Ñthe letter A…” showed up at Governor Winthrop’s death in the sky” (182). “For, as our good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night…” (182).

“A” is subject to various interpretations to the different characters in the story. For Helen, it serves as constant reminds of the sin she committed and the ensuing humiliation it caused.  Dimmesdale, being a party to the crime of adultery, “A” represents his own guilt, and his inability to forgive his own shortcomings.  

Hester opted not name Dimmesdale as Pearl’s father. She did not want to wreck his reputation since the Puritans see him as holy, not capable of committing sin. The Puritans even instructed their children to bury them next to Dimmesdale’s grave because “he would go to heavenward before them…” (164). Knowing this only compounded the guilt Dimmesdale felt.  He even “questioned…whether the grass would ever grow on it, because an accursed thing must there be buried” (164) on his final resting place.

For Pearl, “A” means something that is an object of curiosity.  Because of youth, Pearl has no idea what the “A” that her mother wears on her chest means. Somehow her innocence spared her from the stigma attached to her mother’s sin. “In the afternoon of a certain summer’s day, after Pearl grew big enough to run about, she amused herself with gathering handfuls of wild-flowers…flinging them, one by one, at her mother’s bosom…” (110).

Hawthorne’s Romantic philosophies when Hester gained redemption through forgiveness for her sins.  Hawthorne portrays Hester as “divine maternity,” and she can do nothing wrong. ‘The image of Divine Maternity’ which was mentioned in Chapter 2 of the book symbolizes Mary, mother of Jesus. It should be noted that Puritans do not believe in the Virgin Mary.  As a matter of fact, the  Puritan’s subjected the icon to violent attacks.  In the same way, Hester was subjected to intense disliked when she was first found out to have sinned. Hawthorne
The townsfolk soon forget Hester’s sin and the meaning of the “A” she wore. Hester works overcome the humiliation of wearing the “A.” Many Puritans forgot about the “A” Hester wears.


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