Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter describes the complicated results of an adulterous relationship between a young woman named Hester Prynne, living in Puritan New England in the mid-seventeenth century, and Arthur Dimmesdale, her own minister and the secret father of her child, Pearl. Hester is punished for adultery by being forced to wear a large scarlet “A” on her clothing; Dimmesdale, however, for many years and for much of the novel, evades detection as her partner in crime. Only after he publicly confesses his sin is his erstwhile relationship with Hester exposed. Dimmesdale dies soon after his confession; Hester dies much later, having lived an admirable life. Eventually, the bodies of the couple are buried together in a single grave. In the very last paragraph of the novel, Hawthorne describes the grave as follows:
And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial-ground beside which King's Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tomb-stone served for both. All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald's wording of which may serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:—
"ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES"
This final image seems appropriate for a number of reasons, including the following:
- Just as they remained separated for many years after committing adultery, so Hester and Arthur remain separated after he dies. In fact, even though they share the same tombstone after she dies, they still remain separated, to some degree, by “a space between” their graves. It is as if even in death there is an injunction separating them.
- Just as Arthur had seemed prematurely aged and sickly before his death, so even his grave seems “old and sunken” compared to the fresh grave of Hester.
- Their common tombstone symbolizes the connection they shared in life.
- The fact that their tombstone is now decayed, as the narrator is presently describing it, symbolizes the fact that their relationship existed long ago, long before the narration of it presented in this book.
- Just as the tombstone preserves some semblance of their memory, so Hawthorne’s novel does the same, but in a much more vivid and less ephemeral fashion.
- The heraldic device of a red letter A against a black background symbolizes, in a sense, Hester’s existence for so many years in a gloomy and judgmental Puritan community.
- The scarlet letter A on the tombstone also alludes to the letter visible on Arthur’s chest after he makes his public confession.
- The fact that Hester is buried next to Arthur, with a shared tombstone, may imply that the village itself feels some forgiveness of the sin the two committed and perhaps even some regret for the social suffering the two endured.