Nathaniel Hawthorne’s use of recurring symbols in The Scarlet Letter, such as Pearl, the scarlet letter ‘A,’ and the color red, help the reader gain a clearer view of his feelings about major events and characters that present themselves as the plot progresses. Along with giving the reader insight into the true meaning of the story, such symbols also allow the reader to establish a deeper understanding of the story and one of its major themes, sin and the road to redemption.
Hester Prynne’s daughter, Pearl, helps establish multiple themes throughout the story. She metaphorically represents Hester’s sin, punishment, and solitary path to redemption. At the same time, Pearl is the physical evidence of Hester’s sin and therefore presents her true punishment, raising the child correctly in a puritanical society. Contrary to Hester’s knowledge, doing so would present her path to redemption.
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“But she named the infant ‘Pearl’ as being of great price – purchased with all she had – her mother’s only treasure! How strange, indeed! The man had marked this woman’s sin by a scarlet letter, which had such potent and disastrous efficacy that no human sympathy could reach her, save it were sinful like herself. God, as a direct consequence of the sin which man thus punished, had given her a lovely child, whose place was on the same dishonoured bosom, to connect her parent for ever with the race and descent of mortals, and to be finally a blessed soul in heaven!” (Hawthorne 59)
However, Hester fails to acknowledge Pearl as her punishment and evidence of her sin. By doing so, she overlooks her only road to salvation. Instead, Hester focuses on the material embodiments of her sin. This causes her to overlook the true representation of her sin, even when it is, in fact, represented in her own daughter. By clothing Pearl in the most brilliant of fabrics adorned with gold embroidery, Hester reveals to the reader her attempts to avert attention away from her sin and the ‘A’ that she has been sentenced to wear. Therefore, by hiding the scarlet ‘A’ from the public, she, in turn, flaunts the true representation of her sin in front of society. (“The Scarlet Letter” 311)
Along with Pearl, the scarlet ‘A’ is an obvious symbol of Hester’s sin. However, there are major differences between the two and their representations of her sin. (“The Scarlet Letter” 314) Unlike Pearl, the scarlet ‘A’ is a material signature of her sin rather than a physical embodiment. While Pearl is Hester’s true punishment issued by the “Holy Father,” the scarlet ‘A’ is Hester’s social punishment issued by the people of her society. Although originally a display of her punishment, it is also a symbol of Hester’s progress in her journey along the path to her redemption. As Pearl ages and Hester continues raising her only daughter in a mostly unforgiving community, it is evident that the ‘A’ which once stood for “adultery” now stands for “able.” (Brackett 269)
“Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one. She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy, or, we may rather say, the world’s heavy hand had so ordained her when neither the world nor she looked forward to this result. The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her – so much power to do and power to sympathize – that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.” (Hawthorne 107)
One of the more universal symbols and consequently the one with the most occurrences is the color red. In the novel, it is used not only as a symbol of pain, suffering, sin, and guilt but also as an image of beauty and elegance. The red rose outside of the prison cell that Pearl was picked from is a symbol of beauty, while at the same time symbolizes Hester’s sin and represents the absence of the Lord in Pearl’s life. By denying her belief in a “Heavenly Father” and instead claiming to be picked from the rose, it is revealed to the reader that Pearl was born from her mother’s sin.
“After putting her finger in her mouth, with many ungracious refusals to answer good Mr. Wilson’s question, the child finally announced that she had not been made at all but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison-door.” (Hawthorne 74-75) The color red is also used to show pain and suffering in the novel. When Chillingworth looks in amazement at Dimmesdale’s chest while he is asleep, he makes an astonishing discovery. “The physician advanced directly in front of his patient, laid his hand upon his bosom, and thrust aside the vestment that hitherto had always covered it even from the professional eye.
Then, indeed, Mr. Dimmesdale shuddered and slightly stirred. After a brief pause, the physician turned away. But with what a wild look of wonder, joy, and honor! With what a ghastly rapture, as it were, too mighty to bee expressed only by the eye and features, and therefore bursting forth through the whole ugliness of his figure, and making itself even riotously manifest by the extravagant gestures with which he threw up his arms towards the ceiling, and stamped his foot upon the floor! Had a man seen old Roger Chillingworth at that moment of his ecstasy, he would have did not need to ask how Satan comports himself when a precious human soul is lost to heaven and won into his kingdom.
But what distinguished the physician’s ecstasy from Satan’s was the trait of wonder in it!” (Hawthorne 92) This passage makes the reader wonder what Chillingworth could have possibly discovered about the reverend that would cause him to react in such a demonic way. Hawthorne later reveals the answer. “And thus, while standing on the scaffold, in this vain show of expiation, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain.” (Hawthorne 99)
Hawthorne uses this scene to reveal to the reader that Dimmesdale, too, has some marking that shows his hidden sin and torments his soul, “the scarlet token.” Chillingworth found this on Dimmesdale’s chest that night and rejoiced in happiness, for it also reveals that Dimmesdale is, in fact, the final piece to the puzzle. Feeling guilty, the reverend whips his chest nightly and keeps the wound on his chest fresh so that it is the color of blood, obviously causing him also to suffer, as Hester is.
In conclusion, the theme of sin and redemption in The Scarlet Letter progressed and was driven by the recurring symbols used by Nathaniel Hawthorne. More specifically, three main symbols are Pearl, the scarlet letter ‘A,’ and red. Not only do these help to evolve the theme and plot of the novel, but they also give the reader insight into Hawthorne’s views and feelings of specific events and characters.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter.
- Columbus: Glencoe / McGraw-Hill, 2000.
- Brackett, Virginia. Classic Love & Romance Literature.
- Denver: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1999. 58, 89, 269 – 270, 297 – 298.
- “The Scarlet Letter.” Novels for Students. Ed. Diane Telgen.
- Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 311 – 315.