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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - the most famous symbolic novel in American Literature

Updated on August 24, 2012
The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet letter - the great novel of American Literature

The Scarlet Letter summary

A detailed study of the characters of The Scarlet Letter

Hester Prynne the central character from the novel The Scarlet Letter went through a path of solitude in her life. Hester Prynne gives birth to a baby after committing adultery. She struggles to build a new life of dignity and repentance. In the case of Hester Prynne also society inflicts her with isolation and discrimination. As she committed adultery she was forced to wear a scarlet “A” which is a punishment for her. She suffered complete isolation as society considered her as nothing but a adulteress. As she had to wear the scarlet “A” she remained fully ostracized from the community. Hester’s inner longings never confirmed to the rigid laws of the puritan society. She was thus secluded from the society that made her contemplate the sin and other events in her life. Solitude made her make an attempt to free herself from the pricking of the sin. Hester is publicly humiliated and thrown to isolation by the people ofBoston. She carries the badge of humiliation and isolation. Hester could escape from the solitude by leaving the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She could remove the scarlet letter and lead a normal life if she had left the place. Hester, however, behaves indifferently as Chillingworth informs her that the town leaders are planning to relieve her from the scarlet letter. The solitude did not deprive Hester of her clear thoughts and determination. She desired to determine her own identity rather than allowing others to determine her identity. Hester never desired a mercy from others. She rather effectively used the life of isolation to realize her mistake and rebuild her life again. Isolation produced a positive effect on Hester. As far as Hester is concerned running away or removing the letter would be an acknowledgment of society's power over her: she would be admitting that the letter is a mark of shame and something from which she desires to escape (Baym, 1986). Hester considers the scarlet letter as a symbol of her sin and painful experiences. She doesn’t want to escape from her past and rather desired to learn from her past failures. Solitude is no longer a curse for Hester. Her past sin is a part of who she is; to pretend that it never happened would mean denying a part of herself (Baym, 1986). Thus, Hester very determinedly integrates her sin into her life rather than escaping from its consequences. Solitude never leaves her to desperation. It rather strengthens her to evaluate her characters, sin and past experiences. The life of Hester reveals that individuality and strength are gained from solitude through quiet self-assertion and reconfiguration, not a rejection, of one's assigned identity (Baym, 1986). Because of solitude or alienation from society, Hester has taken an “estranged point of view toward human institutions (Baym, 1986).” She has been able to think for herself, thanks to the scarlet letter and its dose of “Shame, Despair and Solitude (Baym, 1986).” She seems to have developed an understanding of a sort of “natural law,” and it is according to her instinctive principles that she decides that she, Dimmesdale, andPearl should flee toEurope (Baym, 1986). A distinction is made between “sin” and “evil (Baym, 1986).” Sin, as represented by Hester's past, constitutes an injury against the social and moral order but not against other human beings directly (Baym, 1986). Although it leads to solitude and alienation, it also leads to knowledge (Baym, 1986). It is a breaking of the rules for the sake of happiness (Baym, 1986). Evil, on the other hand, can be found in the hearts of those like Chillingworth, who seek no one's happiness—not even their own—and desire only the injury of others (Baym, 1986). As far as Hester is concerned solitude turned out to be a boon for her that she may chew over her past actions and its consequences.

The Scarlet Letter Analysis

Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter

The meaning of scarlet letter

What is symbolism?

Symbolism is nothing but employing concrete symbols to display a detailed and deeper meaning. Symbols sometimes present a moral belief, religious belief or value. Literature works are never rich without the use of symbolism. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, the novelist lavishly uses symbols that have a deeper meaning. This can be considered as the most symbolic piece of literature that the American literature has ever seen. The splendid use of symbolism in this works has contributed much to the rise of American literature.

The Scarlet Letter themes and symbols

The symbol scarlet letter A

The most obvious symbol in the work is the scarlet “A” that the main character is required to wear. The novelist makes use of symbolism to explain how the Puritans and their people dealt with sin and how that affects sinners. The meaning of scarlet letter is sin. The scarlet letter ‘A’ shows sin Hester performed and the way Puritans treated Hester’s sin. The entire story is centered on this symbol Scar “A”. Hester Prynne gives birth to a baby after committing adultery. She struggles to build a new life of dignity and repentance. In the case of Hester Prynne also society inflicts her with isolation and discrimination. As she committed adultery she was forced to wear a scarlet “A” which is a punishment for her. She suffered complete isolation as society considered her as nothing but an adulteress. As she had to wear the scarlet “A” she remained fully ostracized from the community. Hester’s inner longings never confirmed to the rigid laws of the puritan society. She was thus secluded from the society that made her contemplate the sin and other events in her life. Solitude made her make an attempt to free herself from the pricking of the sin. Hester is publicly humiliated and thrown to isolation by the people ofBoston. She carries the badge of humiliation and isolation. Hester could escape from the solitude by leaving the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She could remove the scarlet letter and lead a normal life if she had left the place. Hester, however, behaves indifferently as Chillingworth informs her that the town leaders are planning to relieve her from the scarlet letter. The solitude did not deprive Hester of her clear thoughts and determination. She desired to determine her own identity rather than allowing others to determine her identity. Hester never desired a mercy from others. She rather effectively used the life of isolation to realize her mistake and rebuild her life again. Isolation produced a positive effect on Hester. Hester considers the scarlet letter as a symbol of her sin and painful experiences. She doesn’t want to escape from her past and rather desired to learn from her past failures. Solitude is no longer a curse for Hester. Thus, Hester very determinedly integrates her sin into her life rather than escaping from its consequences. The symbol scarlet “A”, describes the life of the central character in the work. The novelist has explained the life of the central character through the symbolic scarlet “A” which she wears. The letter “A” has a better abstract meaning, “A” means American. During those periodsAmericawas a religion was a more religion-based country than it is today. The Puritan way of life influencesBostonand several other regions ofAmerica. Americans were heavily punished for going against the Christian religion. Yet another interpretation for letter “A” is ‘able’. Hester lived a life that is condemned by her society. She had no support from the society. By living such a life she proved that she is strong or able to live even if the society condemns her. The mind of the townspeople is found to have a change later. They say “It is our Hester,—the town’s own Hester,—who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted (Hawthorne, 1850).” Hester proudly held the scarlet “A”. The symbol of punishment held by Hester gives great meaning to the story. Scarlet “A” is the most obvious use of symbolism in the story. The novelist further uses sunshine as a major symbol in the story. Sunshine symbolizes purity and goodness in the story. We find Hester takingPearlto the forest. Even though sunshine falls onPearl, it disappears as soon as Hester enters the scene. Hester, who has committed sin, cannot enter the sunlight. However,Pearl, who is innocent can touch sunshine. This incident makes Hester feel separated fromPearl. The sin of Hester was fully her own fault. However, this made the life ofPearlso miserable. Sunshine falling on the face ofPearlshows her helpless innocence though she is considered as a devil child. Yet another example of symbolism happens there as Hester takes off her scarlet letter which she is destined to wear. When the letter was taken off from her chest, sunlight started flowing through the forest. This shows that Hester no longer has sin and has got a pure heart. The sin of adultery which she performed blocked people from seeing her good heart. She is a kindhearted and capable woman. As Dimmesdale stood withPearland Hester on Scaffold, it is night. He considers that as incomplete as he knows that in order to relieve himself from sin he must stand at sunlight and makes others see. Sunlight is a way out of his hidden sin. Even though he was abased and shamed by the townspeople he will not hold a secret burden. Then only he can die in peace.

Hester’s daughter Pearl – A transforming symbol

The strangest use of symbolism in the story is Hester’s daughterPearl.Pearlis a transforming symbol throughout the story. She shows a moral that often changes and takes various forms. The scarlet letter that the Puritans made her wear is not the only symbol of Hester’s punishment. God also punished her by giving her a symbol, which isPearl.Pearlis a reminder of Hester’s shameful sin.Pearl’s relation with the scarlet letter is a symbol of Hester’s punishment. We findPearlconstantly asking Hester about the symbol.Pearlmakes and wear her own ‘A’ symbol. This makes us understand that Pearl and ‘A’ the scarlet letter are not different. BothPearland the scarlet letter are the symbols of Hester’s shameful sin.Pearlremained as a loving daughter for Hester. She was a source of happiness for Hester. Hester did not break down completely because of her daughter’s love. This symbolizes that even though Hester sinned she had another source of happiness.Pearlis therefore a strange symbol in the story.

The Scarlet Letter symbols prison, weeds, and wild rose bush

Even though much of the symbolism employed by the novelist in The Scarlet Letter is difficult to find, symbols are quite obvious. In the first chapter prison is explained as the black flower of the civilized society. The prison shows the crime and punishment which was inherent in the early Puritan culture. The novelist contrasts the idea of prison with the tombstone by telling that crime and punishment will put an end to the civilized life. We find this in the end of the novel. In the very same chapter we find the description of overgrown vegetation of weeds around the area of the prison. The weeds show the corruption found in their civilization. The novelist also highlights a positive symbol, which is the wild rose bush. This rose bush shows the blossoming of goodness in the darkness of life.

The Scarlet Letter symbol the Red Mark

The Red Mark on Dimmesdale’s Chest is yet another symbol found in the novel. The red mark which is in the form of a letter A is the physical symbol of the minister’s guilt. Even though we do not see any proper description of this symbol or its original meaning, Dimmesdale tells that it is from God. Even though he refuses to confess his sin and get punished, his sin puts permanent marks on his body. The scarlet letter which Hester wears is made of thread and do not make such ultimate marks like Dimmesdale’s red mark.

The Scarlet Letter symbol the meteor

The meteor is yet another symbol in the novel. In the early American people often used to see stars and meteors that resemble the letter A. Puritan people and their community leaders used to consider these celestial symbols as messages from God. They believed that these explosions at sky are warnings about future and various issues that affect their community. The meteor in the Scarlet Letter shows communal reaction as well as individual reaction. The Massachusetts Bay Colony people consider the A-shaped meteor as a message from God. According to them, the message was regarding the deceased governor, who should be proclaimed as an angel (letter A for angel). Dimmesdale, however, considers this meteor as a symbol of his sin as if God is revealing secrets to the whole world. He constantly examines what meteor means in his personal life. The Black Man is also a symbol used in the story. It is a euphemism for Satan in the story. Hester believes the scarlet letter to be the mark of the Black man. We find the narrator comparing Satan and Chillingworth

The Scarlet Letter the most famous symbolic novel

Nathaniel Hawthorne supplied great meaning to his novel by the effective use of symbolism. The author’s use of symbolism shows his ability to produce great works. The Scarlet Letter is the most famous symbolic novel in American literature.

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    • Riverfish24 profile image

      Riverfish24 5 years ago from United States

      Wow, nice research! I have been meaning to read this book for sometime now.