What does Hester's letter A with its fancy and golden embroidery signify?. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Imprisoned behind the grey iron door, Hester Prynne designs and embroiders the elaborate A which she must wear upon her breast to humiliate and label her as a sinner.  But, in defiance of those who would see her so humiliated and scorned, Hester sews the gilded scarlet letter upon the bodice of her splendid dress that is "greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptary regulations of the colony."  Hawthorne writes,

Her attire, which, indeed, she had wrought for the occasion, in prison, and had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity....both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time--was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom.  It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.

The old gossips perceive Hester's gestures

as a measure to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates and make a pride out of what they...meant for a punishment.

Called by critics the first feminist of American literature, Hester Pyrnne of The Scarlet Letter refuses to have her essence, her passionate nature dulled and subjugated by the confinements of Puritanism. Her action may not be one of defiant rebellion, but it is one of rebellion of spirit against the greyness of life within a Puritan colony. As a symbol of her passionate nature, the child Pearl is dressed in clothes worthy of the plumage of a bird, according to the Reverend Mr. Wilson in Chapter VIII.

That the scarlet A , stitched with "fantastic flourishes" of gold thread reflects the life of Hester is evidenced in the latter chapters of Hawthorne's novel.  For, after she has left America with Pearl, she returns alone to her little cottage on the edge of the colony, and is observed one day with the scarlet letter on her breast:

And Hester Prynne had returned, and taken up her long-forsaken shame!...But, in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester's life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.

As a symbol, the A that Hester wears changes its meaning throughout the Hawthorne's novel.  Hester initially rebels against its significance, but from wearing it for so many years, she does lose her color and fades in her beauty.  Nevertheless, the letter never "does its office"; Hester does not conform to the Puritan colony; instead, she establishes herself as a humble nurse, a healer of hearts and souls, and the letter assumes the initialization of an angel of mercy  "with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded."  Women come to her and

Hester counselled them, as best she might.  She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness....The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy....

clairewait eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Immediately it would seem that the embroidery is ultimately a rejection of the community's views of her.  This is supposed to be a symbol of shame and her decorating of it sends the message that she does not care.  The letter is draw attention to her as a sinner.  The town assumes she will be too ashamed to show her face in public any more (they think she should be this ashamed) and the punishment of the letter should cause her to retreat to the shadows.  The flamboyant embroidery draws even more attention to it - she decorates it in a way that would be innappropriate for the clothing of any commoner in the colony, let alone the biggest sinner.  By doing this she creates a reason for inviting even more attention to herself - so that the fact that this is punishment is downplayed.

On the other hand, we see through Hester's actions throughout the rest of the story, that she truly does feel it is her duty to repent and live in this permanent penance.  In this way, the embroidery seems more like an acceptance of her punishment that she uses her skill at the needle to fully embrace.

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The Scarlet Letter

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