With regard to the original intent of Hester's scarlet "A" in The Scarlet Letter, name at least two alternate meanings and explain what Hawthorne implies in presenting differing meanings?To the...

With regard to the original intent of Hester's scarlet "A" in The Scarlet Letter, name at least two alternate meanings and explain what Hawthorne implies in presenting differing meanings?

To the Puritans, the A was an unambiguous emblem signifying adultery, but Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter invests the letter with a series of possible alternative meanings.

Asked on by hnewberry

1 Answer | Add Yours

booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The "A" in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter signifies to the townspeople—literally—"adultery." However, it is the long-suffering patient, kind and gentle way that Hester bears this stigma for seven long years (alone, even while Dimmesdale's reputation remains untarnished in that same community) that gives the scarlet letter a meaning of her own. Hester definitely is weighed down by the censorship that follows her through town. She never, however, gives in to any maliciousness or bitterness. We can assume that she does this in great part for the sake of her daughter, Pearl. She does all she can to make sure her daughter is not punished by Hester's sin. And in the end, there is every indication that she will be able to live a life of happiness, untouched by the scarlet letter—primarily (we can assume) because of her mother's extraordinarily enduring and admirable response to the weight of sin associated with it.

Hawthorne describes Hester's exemplary behavior in several places. At one point he speaks of how the townspeople have come to look at her:

Her face, so long familiar to the townspeople, showed the marble quietude which they were accustomed to behold there. It was like a mask; or, rather, like the frozen calmness of a dead woman's features...

Any inner turmoil Hester feels is guarded from her face; in this her peers can find no fault in her.

As Hester imagines leaving the town with Dimmesdale toward the end of the story, she ponders how she had been...

...sustaining the gaze of the multitude through seven miserable years as a necessity, a penance, and something which it was a stern religion to endure...

Hester and Pearl might have moved away. There is no indication that she imagines a world when she and Dimmesdale will be reunited prior to their talk in the forest. Still she stays and bears up under it with patience and goodness.

In [the] matter of Hester Prynne, there was neither irritation or irksomeness. She never battled with the public, but submitted, uncomplainingly, for what she suffered.

Since being punished for her adultery, Hester had lived a life of humility and virtue. She did not take exception when a pauper refused clothing she had sewn by hand. When disease visited the town, Hester took her place at the side of the sick to aid them.

In such emergencies, Hester's nature showed itself warm and rich...

Even at the end, when Dimmesdale confesses (as he lies dying on the scaffold), Hester comes to his side, regardless of the renewal of the shame of the "A" sewn to her bodice. She and Pearl leave the town after Dimmesdale's death, however years later Hester returns to the town. (It can be assumed that Pearl has grown up.) Hester comes back to the quiet and lonely life she knew, still wearing her scarlet letter. People are drawn to her to share their worries and heartaches, to ask her advice. 

She comforted and counselled them as best she might.

Hester takes the letter as a burden of penitence—as it is meant to be. However, she also makes it symbolic of self-sacrifice, tolerance, kindness and virtue. In her, there is also forgiveness. And while her existence is a lonely one, she bears the ignomimy of her sin with grace and goodwill. These are all the things that can be attributed to the scarlet "A," which go far beyond the original intent of placing the symbol upon Hester Prynne.


We’ve answered 317,954 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question