Since its publication in 1850, The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print, nor indeed out of favor with literary critics. It is inevitably included in listings of the five or ten greatest American novels, and it is considered the best of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings. It may also be the most typical of his work, the strongest statement of his recurrent themes, and an excellent example of his craftsmanship.
The main theme in The Scarlet Letter, as in most of Hawthorne’s work, is that of sin and its effects both on the individual and on society. It is frequently noted that Hawthorne’s preoccupation with sin springs from the Puritan-rooted culture in which he lived and from his knowledge of two of his own ancestors who presided over bloody persecutions during the Salem witchcraft trials. It is difficult for readers from later times to comprehend the grave importance that seventeenth century New Englanders placed on transgression of the moral code. As Yvor Winters has pointed out, the Puritans, believing in predestination, viewed the commission of any sin as evidence of the sinner’s corruption and preordained damnation. The harsh determinism and moralism of those early years softened somewhat by Hawthorne’s day, and during the twelve years he spent in contemplation and semi-isolation, he worked out his own notions about human will and human nature. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne proves to be closer to Paul Tillich than to Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards. Like Tillich, Hawthorne saw sin not as an act but as a state—what existentialists refer to as alienation and what Tillich describes as a threefold separation from God, other humans, and self. Such alienation needs no fire and brimstone as consequence; it is in itself a hell.
There is a certain irony in the way in which this concept is worked out in The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne’s pregnancy forces her sin into public view, and she is compelled to wear the scarlet A as a symbol of her adultery. Yet, although she is apparently isolated from normal association with “decent” folk, Hester, having come to terms with her sin, is inwardly reconciled to God and self; she ministers to the needy among her townspeople, reconciling herself with others until some observe that her A now stands for “Able.” Arthur Dimmesdale, her secret lover, and Roger Chillingworth, her secret husband, move much more freely in society than she can and even enjoy prestige: Dimmesdale as a beloved pastor, Chillingworth as a respected physician. However, Dimmesdale’s secret guilt gnaws so deeply inside him that he is unable to make his peace with God or to feel at ease with his fellow citizens. For his part, Chillingworth permits vengeance to permeate his spirit so much that his alienation is absolute; he refers to himself as a “fiend,” unable to impart forgiveness or to change his profoundly evil path. His is the unpardonable sin—unpardonable not because God will not pardon, but because his own nature has become so depraved that he cannot repent or accept forgiveness.
Hawthorne clearly distinguishes between sins of passion and those of principle. Even Dimmesdale, traditional Puritan though he is, finally becomes aware of the difference. We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so.
Always more concerned with the consequences than with the cause of sin, Hawthorne to a remarkable extent anticipated Sigmund Freud’s theories of the effects of guilt. Hester, whose guilt is openly known, grows through her suffering into an extraordinarily compassionate and understanding woman, a complete person who is able to come to terms with all of life, including sin. Dimmesdale, who yearns for the relief of confession but hides his guilt to safeguard his role as pastor, is devoured internally. Again like Freud, Hawthorne recognized that spiritual turmoil may produce physical distress. Dimmesdale’s health fails and eventually he dies from no apparent cause other than guilt.
The characters in The Scarlet Letter are reminiscent of a number of Hawthorne’s shorter works. Dimmesdale bears similarities to Young Goodman Brown who, having once glimpsed the darker nature of humankind, must forevermore view humanity as corrupt and hypocritical. There are also resemblances between Dimmesdale and Parson Hooper in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” who continues to perform the duties of his calling with eloquence and compassion but is permanently separated from the company of men by the veil that he wears as a symbol of secret sin. Chillingworth shows resemblances to Ethan Brand, the limeburner who finds the unpardonable sin in his own heart: “The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its mighty claims!”
Hawthorne’s craftsmanship is splendidly demonstrated in The Scarlet Letter. The structure is carefully unified, with three crucial scenes—at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the action—taking place on the scaffold. The scarlet A itself is repeatedly entwined into the narrative as a symbol of sin and shame, as a reminder of Hester’s ability with the needle and her capability with people, and in Dimmesdale’s case, as evidence of the searing effects of secret guilt. Hawthorne often anticipates later developments with hints or forewarnings: There is, for example, the suggestion that Pearl lacks complete humanity, perhaps because she has never known great sorrow, but at the end of the story when Dimmesdale dies, Hawthorne writes, “as [Pearl’s] tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.”
Hawthorne’s skill as a symbolist is fully in evidence. As one critic has noted, there is hardly a concrete object in the book that does not do double duty as a symbol, among them the scarlet letter, the sunlight that eludes Hester, the scaffold of public notice, the armor in which Hester’s shame and Pearl’s selfishness are distorted and magnified. The four main characters themselves serve as central symbols in this, the greatest allegory of a master allegorist.
The Scarlet Letter and The Symbol of It
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne has many symbols, but none of them really stand out as much as the one the book is named after, the Scarlet Letter. While The Scarlet Letter has many meanings, the most common known one is that it stands for adultery, the sin that occurred between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, how the meaning changes over the course of the book; it also appears as different things such as the meteor, the A pierced into Dimmesdale’s chest, when pearl created a green scarlet letter out of eel grass.
The symbol of the Scarlet letter, scarlet A, is something that people all over the world know, even without reading the book. They know that the A stands for adultery, what they don’t realize if they hadn’t read the book is that the scarlet A has a lot more meanings than that. To Hester the scarlet letter is a burden and a reminder of the fact that she is a sinner as is Pearl. But she does not show disdain towards her child, she loves the child deeply. The scarlet letter reminds Dimmesdale of the guilt he has had over the past seven years. The guilt that he hadn’t stood on the scaffold, by Hester and their child’s side, and share Hester’s burden. It shows in chapter two, The Market-Place; that “People say that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.”(Hawthorne, page 43) To Chillingworth it reminds him of the fact that his wife cheated on him, and it also reminds him of his revenge. In the mind of Pearl –the child who grew up around the letter- it was something she is so used to seeing on her mother, that in chapter 19 The Child at the Brook Side, when she see Hester without it she refuses to go to her. But in a way Pearl herself is a personified version of the scarlet letter, beautiful, strange, and alluring. Especially since Hester “arrayed her in a crimson velvet tunic, of a peculiar cut, abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of gold tread……it was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life! (Hawthorne, chap.6, pg.86)
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In the beginning of the book it was meant as a symbol of shame, a sign that she had committed an unforgivable sin. A sign so people would know who she was and what she had done. It made people shun her, as shown in Chapter two, The Market-Place, where the women are gossiping about Hester and her scarlet letter. But toward the middle of the book, the meaning changes in the minds of the townspeople and it becomes an indicator of Hester. The townspeople would point her out to outsiders and say “Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge? It is our Hester, who is so kind to the poor and so comfortable to the afflicted.” The scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom. (Hawthorne, chap.13 pg.142) By the end of the book the letter took on a much deeper meaning. It is revealed how Hester feels about the scarlet letter after those seven years. In chapter 18, A Flood of Sunshine “The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,-stern and wild ones,-and they had made her strong, but taught her amiss.” (Hawthorne, pg.175) In simpler terms, through all the hardships, she had to face it made her emerge so much stronger. Arthur Dimmesdale’s reveal showed that even the “purest of hearts” aren’t untouched by sin, and that is the final meaning of the scarlet letter.
The scarlet letter appears in many forms throughout the book. One of them being a meteor that creates a giant red A in the sky on the night of governor Wintrop’s death, another being pearl herself and the green letter A she makes out of eel grass, and all of their meanings. The old sexton at the end of chapter 12, The Minister’s Vigil, says “that the great red letter in the sky must stand for Angel, because our Good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night, it was held doubtless held fit that there should be some notice thereof!” (Hawthorne, pg. 138) Being that Dimmesdale had just been talking to Hester and Pearl, and then was told of this occurrence. This says that it was not for the governor meaning angel, but as a sign to Arthur Dimmesdale. As stated earlier in the paper about Pearl being the personified version of the scarlet letter, she was always looked at as not human, a fairy, elf, demon offspring. “….Art thou a Christian child,-ha? Dost know thy catechism? Or art thou one of those naughty elfs or fairies, whom we thought to have left behind us, with other relics of Papistry, in merry old England?”(Hawthorne, pg. 93, chap.8) She was the personified who had only became human after her father’s death. “The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.” (Hawthorne, chap. 23, pg. 226) The scene where Pearl creates an eel grass letter A, can be seen as making this symbol of sin into something pure and childlike.