In The Scarlet Letter, how does Hawthorne's description of the letter "A" relate to Hester's character?

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In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawthorne's description of the letter "A" shows Hester’s quiet and subtle defiance of the hypocritical Puritans. Hawthorne writes,

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold-thread, appeared the letter...

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In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawthorne's description of the letter "A" shows Hester’s quiet and subtle defiance of the hypocritical Puritans. Hawthorne writes,

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold-thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

Phrases such as “fine red cloth,” “elaborate embroidery,” “fantastic flourishes,” “artistically done,” “gorgeous luxuriance,” “decoration,” and “splendor,” among other descriptive words, tell the reader that Hester has used her strong sewing skills to make the Scarlet A a decoration, an accessory to which all eyes are drawn. Rather than hiding it as a mark of shame, Hester has made it so spectacular as to attract a person’s eye to it.

In fact, Hawthorne notes that “the point which drew all eyes…was that Scarlet Letter, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom.” Hester could have chosen to make the letter stand out less, possibly by using a less vibrant shade of scarlet and fewer flourishes with her sewing. However, she deliberately made it as vivid and beautiful as possible. It is her way of wordlessly telling the Puritans that she is not going to feel the shame they want her to feel. She will stand with her head held high while wearing the mark on her bosom. In addition, by using gold thread—gold being a coveted precious metal and generally associated with coveted things—she is also making the letter appear almost as a piece of jewelry she wears to adorn herself, not as the intended mark of shame.

One of the local women even deduces this when she says of Hester, “what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?”

Another, younger woman, however, says more compassionately that “Not a stitch in that embroidered letter but she has felt it in her heart.” This is probably true, as well. Although Hester is defying the Puritans with her elaborate scarlet A, described frequently throughout the book as “ignominious,” she does feel her situation deeply, particularly as she is thereafter spurned by the local townspeople.

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Hester is characterized by a "burning blush" as she stands upon the scaffold, bravely facing the judgment of her peers by refusing to allow them to see her shame. She kept a "haughty smile" on her face and looked with a "glance that would not be abashed" at the townsfolk.

Matching her embarrassed red face, the scarlet letter is made of "fine red cloth" and is decorated with "an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread." The narrator describes it as artistic and certainly "beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony." Hester, too, is beautiful: "tall, with a figure of perfect elegance." She has "dark and abundant hair" that is "glossy" and "gleam[s]" in the sunshine, a "rich" complexion, and "deep black eyes."

Like the letter, which stands out boldly against Hester's clothes, Hester herself stands out against the fabric, so to speak, of society—especially female society. The narrator says that the "man-like" Queen Elizabeth was a "not [...] unsuitable representative" of these Puritan women and that they were composed of a "coarser fibre" than their descendants. They are composed of "beef and ale" with their "broad shoulders and well-developed busts" and "round and ruddy cheeks."

The women of the village are coarse and severe while Hester is beautiful, cruel while she is kind, and judgmental while she is questioning. Likewise, Hester's letter is beautiful and demonstrates her courage and unwillingness to be abashed; it is different, and so is she.

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I also think that the elaborate and decorative letter symbolizes Hester's ambivalence toward what the letter stands for.  Hester does not feel the same personal guilt that Dimmesdale does.  Her famous line, "What we did had a consecration of its own" indicates that she had a much different attitude toward her "failure" than Dimmesdale did; he was unable to live with what he did because it violated his sense of who he was.  But Hester realized that her punishment was "deserved" according to the standards of her society, so she accepted their judgment.  She wore the "A" they wanted her to wear, but she decorated it to reflect her attitude toward what she and Arthur had done.

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The changes in the meaning of the Scarlet Letter depict the changes in Hester's character and society's perception of her. At first, the letter stands for adultery. Although she braids the letter and adorns it with gold threads, she is still seen as an adulteress by the community and forced to live on the outskirts of the town. However, she helps make clothes for the poor, serves a a midwife and listens to trouble people's problems. Even her clothing becomes more conservative. Thus the "A" begins to stand for "Able". At the end of her life, when she returns to Boston and continues her good deed, many people have forgotten what the "A" originally stood for. When Hester dies, the meaning of the letter has changed to "angel", because of the way she is now perceived in Boston.

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In the beginning, Hawthorne goes into great detail to describe the elaborate, intense, beautiful letter A that Hester makes.  This type of ornate decor was highly unusual, even looked down upon, in the Puritan community where she lived.  This relates to Hester herself; she was beautiful, intense, and stood out in her community-and even did things that were looked down upon.

Later however, Hawthorne describes how the letter A comes to symbolize something different to the community; through Hester's unceasing good works, she becomes a symbol of good, of reverence to many.  Likewise, the A's bright colors and ornate stitchery are seen as a symbol of bright goodness and angelic tokens of kindness.

From beginning to end, the A symbolizes Hester's progression-from rejected but beautiful outcast, to a respected figure of mercy.

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