The Scarlet Letter


October, 2003


Many great works of literature are filled with material symbols that are meant to represent other deeper more meaningful things, none more so than the letter “A” in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”. In this book, Hawthorne provides us with an intricate plot that takes the scarlet letter through a rollercoaster of ups and downs, spanning the spectrum of positive and negative connotation throughout the course of the novel. While the sense of the meaning "adulteress” is constant, The metaphoric, emotional and moralistic meanings are ever changing. While not distinctly nor directly stating these changes, the author expertly employs the turmoil of the situation to illustrate that in the ever changing scope of life, honesty is the best way to overcome adversity.


At the outset of the novel, the scarlet letter is meant to symbolize of course, crime and punishment. The Puritan community was a dark, strict society, feeling indifferent to the humanity of the woman standing before them on the scaffold, with her infant daughter against her chest. The beautifully embroidered letter does not glow in the eyes of the people. The letter shapes the way they look at Hester and the way they treat her. They isolate Hester not only socially but also through her location, which ultimately causes her own emotional isolation. “It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.” (39) Hester receives her punishment and is placed on display for the harsh eye of the Puritan community. And much of the community, this public display of humiliation not being enough, wished even more recompense upon her, as testifies the words of the towns-wives: “What think ye gossips? If the hussy stood up for judgement before us five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not!” (37)


At the same time, the scarlet letter represents the shame of the community. This shame is shown by the reactions Hester receives around the community such as when “Clergymen paused in the street to address words of exhortation, that brought a crowd, with it’s mingled grin and frown, around the poor, sinful woman.” Likewise, if Hester “entered a church, trusting to share the Sabbath smile of the Universal Father, it was often her mishap to find herself the text of the discourse.” The letter therefore becomes an illustration of evil and acts as a deterrent for others in the community.


Throughout the initial chapters Hester is isolated and looked down upon by the Puritans. However, during the chapter entitled “Another View of Hester,” Hawthorne explains to the reader that the scarlet A has yet another layer of meaning, which is in fact another view of Hester. The very townspeople who once condemned her now held her scarlet letter to stand for her ability to create beautiful needlework and give unselfish assistance to the poor and sick. They now saw it as a “symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her--so much power to do and power to sympathize--that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification,” (110) and now believed it to portray the concept of “able.” Many of the townspeople realized what a high quality of character Hester possessed. They would call to each other; “Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge? It is our Hester- the town’s Hester….” (111). The changing attitudes of the people in her society did eventually acknowledge the brave, strong woman Hester had always been. However, they never would appreciate what it was like to be the person who bore that scarlet letter. Hester knew the A’s significance in her own life to be much different from what was viewed by others. Only Hester herself felt the letter on her chest. Only Hester knew the change that had come over her in those seven years. Walking out to the scaffold that first day, Hester behaved as the confident, integrity-filled woman that she knew she was. She did not endeavor to conceal the mark that she wore, for she knew there was nothing to hide. And although Hester is clearly not