According to the American Heritage Dictionary, symbolism is the practice of
representing things by means of symbols or of attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects, events, or relationships. Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of The Scarlet Letter, uses much symbolism throughout the course of his complex novel. Through the use of symbolism Hawthorne gives the book a much deeper meaning.There are many symbols which can be found in The Scarlet Letter. Some may be hidden and others are very obvious. Throughout the novel the three main symbols which develop are the scarlet letter itself, A, Hester Pyrnnes daughter Pearl, and the sinister Roger Chillingworth.
The letter A which Hester is required to stitch and embroider on her clothing is part of her punishment for the crime of adultery. The second part of her punishment is that she is required to stand on the scaffold in the town square for three hours and endure public humiliation and harassment from the crowd of towns people which gather below. The scarlet letter A on her chest stands for her adulterous act, but it also represents something much more symbolic. The A is visibly seen on Hesters clothing although it has several other meanings which reveal itself throughout the course of the novel.
The most obvious symbol the A stands for is adultery. The A is elaborately embroidered on Hesters clothes and must be visible at all times while Hester is in public. This scarlet letter is a symbol of Hesters sin which she will have to live with the rest of her life. The A is stitched over Hesters heart. By this placement of the letter she conceals all of her emotions as if using the A as a shield, similar to the suit of armor with the letter A on the breast plate found in Governor
Bellinghams mansion. The A has the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself. (52)Hesters A becomes her suit of armor with which she blocks all her emotions.
Another instance in Nathaniel Hawthornes novel when the A is prevalent occurs when Hester Prynne, Pearl, and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale are standing on the scaffold together in the middle of the night. An A appears illuminated in the sky above them on the scaffold. Hester and Dimmesdale both see the A in the sky and immediately interpret it to symbolize their passionate crime. However, the people of the town see the A in the sky and assume it symbolizes the death of Governor Winthrop and that the A is for the angel which they presume he has become.
At the beginning of the novel the letter A symbolizes Hesters punishment, but throughout the course of the novel the people of the town begin to interpret the A on Hesters bosom as Able or Angel. Such helpfulness is found in her,–that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong is Hester Prynne, with a womans strength. (148) This is because Hester gives all of her spare money, which is very little, to charity and because she is often seen visiting the sick and the needy. The people of Boston slowly begin to look at her with more pity and respect.
The letter is also seen on Reverend Arthur Dimmesdales chest. An A appears to have been painfully engraved there. The crowd at the Reverends election day speech see the A and interpret it to mean one of three things. First, Dimmesdale is secretly torturing himself as punishment for his sin. Second, Chillingworths drugs were causing the A to form. Third, Dimmesdales own sin is
eating away at his conscience and causing the mark to appear. None are certain of the actual origin of the A on the beloved Reverends chest.
As can be seen throughout Hawthornes novel the letter A is a prominent symbol which is difficult to overlook. The A is very symbolic.
A pearl is a precious gem which cost a great price. For Hester her child born out of wedlock came at an extremely high price. Hester named the infant Pearl, as being of great price,–purchased with all she had,–her mothers only treasure. (82) Pearl is a constant physical reminder of her sin which she has to live with and look at each and everyday. She is the result of Hesters adulterous act. Pearl is looked upon by the Puritan community as a child of sin. They believe that nothing good will come from this child because she was born from an act of sin.
Hester hides her emotions in public but Pearl lets her emotions flow freely. Pearl had an uncontrollable will. (165) Anger to sadness can be observed venting freely from Pearl. Her reactions symbolize the shielding of Hesters own emotions. When Pearl and her mother journey into town and the children make fun of them, Pearl yells and throws rocks at them. Thus expressing Hesters own emotions which she is secretly feeling inside.
Although Pearl troubles Hester greatly, she still feels that Pearl is the only thing which can bring joy into her miserable life. Pearl is almost like Hesters hidden treasure. Her daughter is the only reason in her life which she has to live for. Hester may not have been able to survive without the presence of her daughter. Pearl is
almost like a rose to Hester. At one moment she can be beautiful and vibrant,
although, at others she is wilting and thorny. At these times Hester feels the most
Pearl essentially is the embodiment of the scarlet letter. Pearl symbolizes the A which Hester is burdened to wear across her chest. If Pearl had never been born, Hester would not have been charged with the crime of adultery, and thus never had to wear the burden of proof across her chest. Without Pearl, Hester might of led a much easier life.
In Nathaniel Hawthornes novel there is much symbolism associated with the sinister Roger Chillingworth. He is Hesters husband who is assumed to have drowned at sea but is actually held captive by Indians for a year. When Chillingworth finally arrives in Boston, he is astonished to find Hester standing on the scaffold in front of the Puritan crowd. Chillingworth is infuriated at this sight. From this moment, his personal goal becomes to find Hesters partner in her adulterous crime and seek his own cruel, inhuman vengeance. He is seen as something ugly with evil in his face. (117) Chillingworth is a symbol of evil.
Chillingworth soon becomes possessed and turns his love for Hester into hate, rage, and most of all vengeance. His new mission in life is to find Pearls father. Once Chillingworth discovers the true identity of the father, Dimmesdale, he begins to torment him. Dimmesdale is a sickly man teetering on the brink of death. As his physician, Chillingworth uses his knowledge of medicine to barely keep Dimmesdale alive but also to cause him to suffer greatly. The secret poison of Chillingworths malignity, infecting all the air about him,–and his authorized interference, as a physician, with the ministers physical and spiritual infirmities,–that these bad opportunities had been turned to a cruel purpose. (177) He forces Dimmesdale to
endure harsh physical and mental pain by tormenting him with his medicines. Chillingworth evolves into a symbol of evil.
Throughout The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne uses much symbolism to convey his story. Hesters adultery, Pearls beauty, and Chillingworths revenge are represented in many ways thus making this novel a richer, thought provoking story. Without symbolism the novel would be shallow and weak. Through the uses of symbolism Hawthorne has created a masterpiece of literature.
1. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bantam Classics, 1982. All other quotations are taken from this selection.