In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, what is the significance of the scarlet letter A which is embroidered on Hester's gown?

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renelane's profile pic

renelane | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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The letter "A" stands for adultery, yet Hester wears it with a quiet dignity and a sense of defiance. There was no specification as to the size the letter had to be , just that she must wear it for the rest of her life. Yet, Hester creates one that covers her chest, almost as if it is her armor that shields her from the public humiliation she must endure.

cmcqueeney's profile pic

cmcqueeney | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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There is a lot of significance attached to the scarlet letter.  Initially, Hester is forced to wear it as punishment for committing adultery, but throughout the novel, the letter almost takes on a life of its own, and its significance changes. The trial of wearing the letter over a period of time strips Hester of her womanly features.  In chapter 18, Hester removes the letter for a brief period of time, and when she does so, the narrator tells us that her womanly beauty returns.  When she puts the letter back on, she loses that beauty.

Because of Hester's actions throughout the novel, the letter also changes in meaning.  Initially, it stands for adultery, but during the course of the novel, Hester helps so many people in a quiet and humble manner that the townspeople begin to say that the letter means 'Able'.

The letter serves as Hester's punishment, but even when she is allowed to remove it she refuses, because it has become a part of her.  It has humbled her, punished her, and changed her. 

gbeatty's profile pic

gbeatty | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The community means the "A" in The Scarlet Letter to mean "adulterer." Making Hester wear it is a way of marking her as a sinner and lawbreaker, of marking her as an outsider, and of showing the community's shared morality. Eventually, though, it comes to mean "able."

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nisarg's profile pic

nisarg | Student, Grade 11 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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Puritan society of Boston in The Scarlet Letter has very strict rules for their citizens. Everyone is expected to live a highly moral life, and violation of that leads to harsh punishment. The Scarlet Letter portrays the story of two different citizens, who have been punished for adultery. Any person who committed the crime or sin of adultery has to wear the letter “A” and expose themselves to the public. The first person to be given the scarlet letter in the book is Hester Prynne. Society meant for it to be a symbol of shame to Hester so she would understand the wrongs she did. Hester sees it as a curse for a long time and she just wants to get rid of it. Later on, Hester adapts to it and learns to live with it. As the story progresses, the letter becomes a part of her identity. When people are discussing the removal of the letter,she rejects the idea. She knows that it would represent society’s control over her if she did agree to remove it. She also disagreed because she acceptsher sins and wants to remember her past. The second person with the scarlet letter is Dimmesdale. He put the letter on himself even though he is not punished by society. He is suffering with the burden of his sin, being the unmarried father of Hester Prynne’s child. Both incidents shows the control social norms have on an individual’s life.

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