In The Scarlet Letter, what different ways can the scarlet letter be interpreted?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Interestingly, Nathaniel Hawthorne assigns layers of complexity to his symbol of Hester Prynne's sin of adultery, layers that have various implications, all of which point to the fact that a symbol has only whatever meaning people assign it. Ironically, the lasting meaning given to this symbol is that which Hester herself assigns it--she at first wears it in shame and isolation, then in a form of admiration, and later wishes to remove it, but cannot, except when she leaves the country. Finally, because Hester has assigned a part of her identity to this symbol, she must return to her Puritan community and take it up until her death.

Here are ways that the scarlet letter is interpreted:

  •  Symbol of adultery

Hester is imprisoned and then made to stand in ignominy on the scaffold. The women of the community have all sentenced her in their hearts, and even think that she should have been punished more severely. The Reverend Wilson urges Hester to reveal with whom she has committed adultery, but she refuses, choosing instead to wear her elegantly embroidered A in isolation where her child Pearl, the physical incarnation of this scarlet A, throws wild flowers upon it (Ch. VI). Magnified in the armor breastplate at the mansion of Governor Bellingham in Chapter VII, it is viewed

in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance.

It is thus that it overtakes and tortures Hester and becomes greater than she herself as it is only as an adulteress that she is recognized. In Chapter X, Pearl again decorates Hester's letter by making a border of "prickly burrs from a tall burdock which grew beside the tomb."  

For Dimmesdale, the transfers itself onto his chest in his private shame. This symbol is revealed to the public in Chapter XXIII.

  • Symbol of Angel

In Chapter XII, the Reverend Dimmesdale, in his personal and secret torments, stands in the dark on the scaffold and in his emotional state perceives an immense red A in the sky and feels his secret sin. But others perceive this A as signifying "angel" on this night on which Governor Winthrop's dies.

  • Symbol of Able

After Hester tends the sick and dying and poor, even though the hand that took the food threw back to her a jibe, the embroidered letter "glimmered with comfort in its unearthly ray" to the sick and suffering.

Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that need one. She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy....The letter was the symbol of her calling...many refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Abel; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength.

  • Symbol of Identity

Upon her return to America, Hester bends in the doorway of her old cottage, picks up the worn A and replaces it upon her breast, making this letter the quintessential symbol of her existence as she "glanced her eyes downward at the scarlet letter."

  • Symbol of the love and lives of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale 

Finally, in Chapter XXIV there is the allusion to the scarlet against the black background of the tombstone of Hester and Dimmesdale.

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