With his seminal novel, Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne sets in motion the American predilection for symbol. And, while symbols are the predominant literary device, there are others that are employed such as imagery and irony:
- The Scarlet Letter which first represents the sin of adultery that Hester has committed. Later in the novel, this symbol's meaning changes to that of Angel as Scarlet so selflessly devotes herself to helping the ill of the community. Then, as Hester nurses the ailing and aged, and sews for others, her symbolic A represents the word Able.
- The character Pearl herself is a symbol, representing the sins and passions of her parents, Scarlet and the Reverend Dimmesdale. In the forest Pearl arranges eel-grass to form a green A on her own breast.
- The characters of the Reverend Mr. Wilson Governor Bellingham, and Mistress Hibbins are symbolic of the Puritan worlds of church, state, and witchcraft respectively.
- The groups of unnamed somber and self-righteous Puritans in the market place who talk of Hester are also representative of Puritanism in general.
- The iron door, "the black flower of society," and scaffold are symbols of the restrictiveness and humiliation doled out by the Puritan community.
- The scaffold also represents the open acknowledgment of personal sin.
- The rose outside the prison is the tenacious passion and independence of Hester Prynne that no scaffold or punishment can kill.
- The letter A upon the breast of the Reverend Dimmesdale represents his guilt over his secret-sin.
- The letter A against the black background on Hester and Dimmesdales' tombstone serves to unite them in their transgression and love.
- Night is used as a symbol for concealment and day for exposure.
- The sun is used as a symbol of untroubled, guiltless happiness; it also represents the approval of nature and of God.
- The forest represents the world of darkness and evil. It also represents the natural world away from the Puritan community where Pearl can run freely and where Hester can take down her hair and be affectionate with Dimmesdale.
- Light/dark imagery comes into play especially when Hester and Pearl are in the forest and the shadows fall on Hester.
- Gray is a predominant color used to represent the Puritan austerity. The opening paragraph of the novel depicts the Puritans' in their "sad-coloured garments and grey, steeple-crowned hats..." before the iron dor studded with "iron spikes."
- Green is used to refer to nature. In the forest, a natural setting away from the Puritan community, Pearl makes an A upon her breast with green eel-grass.
- Black is used to connote evil and the sinister character of Roger Chillingworth as well as the "Black Man" who performs the Satan's Mass in the primeivel forest.
- When Hester brings Pearl to the governor's mansion, the governor, himself a Puritan, has a fantastic home with suits of armor with a sword and resplendent ornamental English garden and stained glass windows. There the Reverend Wilson, a prominent Puritan clergyman, both delight in the sight of the crimson-attired Pearl, who recalls for them their "days of vanity, in old King james's time, when [the governor] attended a mask." And, the Rev. Wilson recalls,"Methinks I have seen just such figures, when the sun has been shining through a richly painted window, and tracing out the golden and crimson images across the floor. But that was in the old land. [An Anglican church!] The leaders of the Puritan colony are themselves hypocrites, yet they condemn Hester.
- When Rev. Dimmesdale confesses to the congregation that he is "the worst of sinners," the congregation interprets his words as an attempt at humility, and, instead, "did but reverence him the more." While Dimmesdale wants the crowd to shun him, but they do and think just the opposite.