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Symbols in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, “The Scarlet Letter” identifies a symbol that is meant as a punishment and an outward display of sin, guilt, shame and disgrace. Hester Prynne is publicly exposed and punished for her sin of adultery, evidenced by the newborn baby girl she carries as she is led out of the prison amidst the townspeople who surround her with their unforgiving and intolerant stares. She is forced to sew a scarlet-colored letter on the front of her dress in plain view of anyone who might encounter her. The letter “A” stood for adultery and was a punishment meant to degrade, humiliate and shame the young woman compelled to wear it.

However, as time goes on, this same symbol becomes to Hester more than something she wears on her person externally. The letter transforms Hester internally and shifts from a symbol of stigma and dishonor to one of strength and character. Hester derives her sense of self-identity from the Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne is a young woman who married a much older man and was sent to a foreign country without the companionship of her husband. Early adulthood is a time when we begin to form an identity that is unique. We become more independent, separate from our families of origin, and begin to define our own individuality.

The story suggests Hester was a strong-willed, impetuous girl. Nathaniel Hawthorne does not tell us many details of Hester’s early childhood or how she came to marry Roger Chillingworth. Did his advantage in years give him an upper hand in his relationship with Hester? Did she go directly from a dependent relationship with her mother and father to a marriage of subordination with Roger? Clearly something was lacking in Hester’s marriage to Roger. The fact that she chooses to engage in a sexual relationship with another man exposes a weakness in her relationship with Roger.

Perhaps this was Hester’s first experience with absolute independence. Perhaps her marriage to Roger was arranged by her parents or was entered into as a marriage of convenience or as a means of financial gain or social status. Could the lust for social status and financial security at this time have contributed to Hester’s later lust for Reverend Dimmesdale? Perhaps Hester gained a sense of boldness at her first taste of freedom and independence which caused her to tread down a path that perhaps in another place or another time she never would have considered.

Hester’s emerging sense of identity begins with the imposition placed upon her to fashion her own punishment, the scarlet letter “A”. She does not sew a piece of cloth that is dreary, colorless, plain or somber. This would have been fitting for a Puritan society concerned with propriety and decency. Instead, Hester produces a creation of beauty on fine, red cloth with elaborate embroidery and gold threading. “It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a lasting and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore-

Hester emerges from her confinement in the prison proud and defiant. Her fabrication of the Scarlet Letter evokes indignation and resentment from the townspeople. “She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain,” remarked one of the female spectators; “but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! – The Scarlet Letter served to separate Hester from the rest of the Puritan society in which she lived and had formerly been a part.

Nathaniel Hawthorne states, it had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself. ” Another aspect of developing one’s self-identity involves communicating assertively who one is and what one believes. Hester was making a bold statement of who she was and what she believed in the way she carried herself in front of the townspeople, in the way she created the Scarlet Letter with such striking colors and in the way she stood fearlessly before the crowd on the scaffold.

Because this punishment separated her from society and the townspeople who were once her friends, Hester is constrained to living a life alone with her daughter Pearl on the outskirts of town. Once an impetuous, passionate young woman, Hester begins to metamorphose into a responsible, contemplative mother. Hester becomes active in serving the needs of the poor and sick in her community. Developing a sense of identity requires opportunities to self reflect about what is important to you and what kind of person you want to be. Hester was afforded this time of self reflection in the years following her sentence.

Wearing the symbol of the Scarlet Letter became an integral part of who Hester believed herself to be as a person. Her own daughter Pearl does not acknowledge Hester when she takes the symbol off her dress as she sits and converses with Arthur Dimmesdale in the forest. Pearl demands that Hester put the letter back on and will only interact with her mother once Hester complies. After seven years, the symbol of the Scarlet Letter transforms from one of ill repute to one of respect and regard. Hester has lived a blameless, pure life without contention amongst those who formerly condemned her.

Hawthorne states, “As is apt to be the case when a person stands out in any prominence before the community, and, at the same time, interferes neither with the public nor individual interests . a species of general regard had ultimately grown up in reference to Hester Prynne. ” Nathaniel Hawthorne states that “the letter was the symbol of her calling. ” Why did Hester stay in a town that had ostracized her? Why did she not leave and begin her life anew without the stigma of the Scarlet Letter? Hester connected her identity to the letter.

Her sin of adultery became, for her, an impetus to change who she was and become more conscious of society and its inequities. The townspeople watched her minister to the sick and less fortunate and began to see her in a different light. The letter, no longer viewed as a badge of shame, became a symbol of courage and power. The townspeople began to refuse to interpret the letter by its original connotation. “They said it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength. ” Hester and her daughter Pearl leave the town and move to England. Pearl culminates her childhood in England and eventually marries.

Does Hester finish her years in England with new acquaintances that know nothing of her sin in the New England town she came from? The answer is no. Hester returns to the very town that marked her an adulteress and changed her life forever. One would reasonably question such a seemingly unprecedented response. What would cause a woman to create a new life far removed from the one she escaped only to return to that old life years later? “But there was more a real life for Hester Prynne, here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home.

Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. Hester’s very sense of self was coupled with the Scarlet Letter and everything that it represented, which, for her, included the adverse consequences as well as the eventual approval she obtained by virtue of her quiet endurance. Upon her return to New England, Hester once again fastened the symbol of her identity, the Scarlet Letter, on her person. The letter “A”, worn like a banner, announced Hester’s heart to everyone that she encountered. Hester reveals who she is and who she wants to be, she confesses her sin and proclaims her triumph, all without speaking a word.

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Symbols in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. (2018, Mar 03). Retrieved from

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