How can The Scarlet Letter be considered allegorical?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One way in which The Scarlet Letter can be seen as allegory is in its depiction of Hester.  The notion of an allegory in Hawthorne's work can be seen as an expansion of the concept of symbol: "An allegory therefore represents an idea that could be expressed in abstract words, whereas a symbol represents something inexpressible, and cannot be replaced by the abstract idea it points to. The interpretation of allegory is finite, whereas that of symbol is infinite. There is a definite quality in the way Hester is depicted.  Hester's depiction is allegorical in the context it attacks and criticizes.  Hawthorne develops Hester as a representation of the idea that Puritanical notions of judgment and condemnation are wrong:

Giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast, […] as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.

Hester's characterization is allegorical in its depiction of Salem society.  The way in which Hester is shown is allegorical with regards to how she must assume the role of the scapegoat, or target of others' gossip and judgment. Hester is a direct allegory in how Salem society operates on hypocrisy. Hawthorne uses Hester as an allegory to probe into "the reality of sin."  The very notion of the letter "A" is allegorical to what constitutes guilt or innocence. In Hester's depiction, Hawthorne creates an allegory about the nature of Salem society and what defines a just and moral social and political order.  In this regard, Hawthorne's work can be seen as an allegorical.