Frequently cited as the greatest novel in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter also presents many interpretive difficulties, some of which derive from the meanings attached to the symbols. Indeed, in his work, Hawthorne expands the import of certain symbols in order to create his signature ambiguity; but, maybe also to demonstrate the importance of not limiting the perception of a symbol as a single concept.
- The Scarlet Letter
Although the A signifies her adultery, in her artistic and elaborate fashioning of this symbol, Hester defies Puritan conventions of simplicity; so, it also pronounces her passion and individuality. Hester's gesture of pressing her baby closely against her letter as she stands on the humiliating scaffold indicates that little Pearl, too, is a scarlet letter--the incarnation of Hester's sin.
By Chapter VIII, however, some of the townspeople "refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification," perceiving it as signifying Hester's great ability to tend to and sympathize with the ailing. Thus, the meaning of the symbol changes to "Abel"/Able, or even "Angel."
Interestingly, in Chapter XIII the scarlet letter "has not done its office" of disgracing and isolating Hester although her womanliness has certainly been diminished by it as she now does not have the luxuriant hair or the "face for Love" that she once possessed. In place of these feminine attributes, Hester now wears her letter as "the symbol of her calling." It has
the effect of the cross on a nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness, which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril. Had she fallen among thieves, it would have kept her safe,
Further, when Hester toses it away in the forest into the brook, Pearl refuses to cross until her mother replaces this symbol. For, it has become such a part of her identity to the child. And, in Chapter XXIV, after many years in England, Hester returns to the Puritan village and takes up the letter that she has long ago dropped in the cottage. Now it a part of her identity, symbolizing her penitence and grace:
a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked up with awe, yet with reverence too.
For the Reverend Dimmesdale, the scarlet letter that is on his heart causes him much spiritual anguish, "burn[ing] in secret." His letter symbolizes secret sin.
"Happy are you Hester that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret!"
- Dimmesdale's hand over his heart
Repeatedly in the narrative, the minister places his hand on his heart as though tortured by his secret. Pearl wonders if the Black Man placed his mark on the minister.
- The Black Man
Believing that evil a separate entity, Puritans felt one embraced it in the primeval forest, alluded to frequently. However, Chillingworth's increasing resemblance to this Black Man raises the question of evil's presence in the hearts of men.
- The Forest
Hawthorne's repeated use of the adjective "primeval" with "forest" suggests the unknown and the uncivilized to the Puritans. Yet, it is also a location in which Hester's and Dimmesdale's passions are released, where Pearl was conceived and where they can freely be themselves together.Without the constraints of society, the minister is released from his hypocritical pretense of holiness and truth while Hester's feminine beauty returns. The forest also represents her moral wilderness "as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest."
The famous writer Henry James made some excellent comments about overuse of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. Here is a passage from his little book on Hawthorne:
"In The Scarlet Letter there is a great deal of symbolism; there is, I think, too much. It is overdone at times, and becomes mechanical; it ceases to be impressive, and grazes triviality. The idea of the mystic A which the young minister finds imprinted upon his breast and eating into his flesh, in sympathy with the embroidered badge that Hester is condemned to wear, appears to me to be a case in point. This suggestion should, I think, have been just made and dropped; to insist upon it and return to it, is to exaggerate the weak side of the subject. Hawthorne returns to it constantly, plays with it, and seems charmed by it; until at last the reader feels tempted to declare that his enjoyment of it is puerile."
"In the same way, too much is made of the intimation that Hester's badge had a scorching property, and that if one touched it one would immediately withdraw one's hand. Hawthorne is perpetually looking for images which shall place themselves in picturesque correspondence with the spiritual facts with which he is concerned, and of course the search is of the very essence of poetry. But in such a process discretion is everything, and when the image becomes importunate it is in danger of seeming to stand for nothing more serious than itself. "
James, however, goes on to remark that "I had not meant, however, to expatiate upon his defects, which are of the slenderest and most venial kind. The Scarlet Letter has the beauty and harmony of all original and complete conceptions, and its weaker spots, whatever they are, are not of its essence; they are mere light flaws and inequalities of surface. One can often return to it; it supports familiarity and has the inexhaustible charm and mystery of great works of art. It is admirably written."
Hope that helps!