What are three meanings of "A" in The Scarlet Letter?

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The letter "A" in The Scarlet Letter is a symbol that is often debated in the literary world.  Most readers feel that the "A" stands for adultery, and that was Hawthorne's intention when we wrote the novel.  Puritan society had many different "patches of disgrace" they would make "sinners" of the community wear.  For example, a "D" was for a drunkard.  So, the analysis that the "A" stands for adultery is a sound but obvious theory. 

However, many readers like to find more meaning in a symbol as important as the "A" in The Scarlet Letter.  Because it is such an integral part of the story, the ability to analyze and evaluate what else it could mean is a skill that requires close reading of the text.  Through different context clues, we can often infer other meanings and even may be able to figure out what Hawthorne originally wanted us to think.  Whether he intended the "A" to mean something other than adultery is the question, and I think any writer would be pleased to have readers find a deeper, more personal meaning in their work.

Some often accepted ideas for the "A":

  • "A" is for Angel.  Hester becomes a model citizen helping people throughout the community.  She works hard to earn their trust and becomes an important person because of her sewing and embroidery.
  • "A" is for able.  Hester shows her ability to survive a very difficult situation on her own.  She is a symbol of a woman who is able to take care of herself and not be dependent on others.
  • "A" is for America.  This is the idea I love!  Is Hester a symbol for a new and changing America?  Is she leaving old values of society behind and forging her own place in the world much like the first pilgrims did when they settled this country?  Is she a symbol of American values like individuality or freedom of choice?  Is she the first feminist who fights against the male dominated society?  Just some things to think about. 
  • "A" is for Action.  Hester takes action in her life to become self-sufficient and raise Pearl on her own.  Dimmesdale, on the other hand, fails to act and confess to his sins until the very end.  Unlike Hester, he is frozen in his own shame and cannot act the way he should towards Hester and Pearl.
  • "A" is for Absolution.  Throughout the novel, we see the Puritan community begin to forgive Hester of her sins.  We can assume that she is also absolved by God for her sacrifices and her goodness.

I hope this helps!  There could be more interesting ideas of what this famous "A" means, and it's really okay to read more into it than what Hawthorne might have intended.  That's what is fun about literature.  Every reader has a different experience!

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