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Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter

Example 1

Hester Prynne, the main character in the book The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a woman living in a Puritan society who has an illegitimate child. The story begins with her punishment for adultery. Hester is jailed and then forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her clothing forever as a mark of her shame. The story continues to tell about her life in Puritan society trying to raise her daughter Pearl. Hawthorne was a member of the Transcendentalist movement that believed that divinity manifests itself in everyday life, especially in nature. The author uses these transcendental principles to add religious and symbolic meanings to many objects and places in the book.

The most important symbol in the book is introduced in the first chapter. The scarlet letter ‘A’ that Hester was forced to wear came to mean many things throughout the book. The letter was meant to stand for adultery, and at the beginning of the story, it exists as a physical reminder of the sin that she committed. Ultimately I think the scarlet ‘A’ ends up showing strength and character on the part of Hester. When a group of Native Americans visit the colony they think the letter is a sign of importance. The town elders at one point discuss letting her take off the letter but she feels differently thinking it is just punishment for her transgression. It is only after she and Dimmesdale decide to leave together that she feels released from her sin and can take it off.

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The character of Pearl is a complex one. She exists in the story as a living reminder of the sin that Hester committed and at the same time, Pearl is also Hester’s salvation. When Hester becomes completely ostracized from society Pearl is all that she has. Pearl is not only a reason for Hester to live but also the reason she stays away from bad influences. When Hester is invited to witches gathering by Mistress Hibbins she refuses but says if she didn’t have Pearl she would have probably agreed to.

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One of the more obvious instances of symbolism in the book is when the ‘A’ is imprinted in the sky by a falling meteor. Dimmesdale believes the meteor means that he should also wear the scarlet ‘A’. The townspeople interpret it differently thinking the meteor stands for “Angel” to mark Governor Winthrop’s entry into heaven.

Throughout the book, the author makes distinctions between things that happen in the night and during the day and puts certain people in the light and others in the darkness. When they go outside into the forest, Pearl is always illuminated by the sun whereas Hester is always masked in darkness. This isn’t because Hester is an evil person but I believe the author is trying to say she is incomplete without Dimmesdale and only together can they be in the light. This is contrary to Chillingworth who is evil and will always be in the darkness.

The symbolism Hawthorne uses adds another level of complexity to the novel. By revealing the symbolism I can see how the transcendental ideas of manifestations of good and evil and purity and sin played a part in Hawthorne’s very deliberate choice of objects and colours with certain meanings.


Example 2

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, uses many things for symbolism and in my opinion, the most symbolic was the scaffold scenes. There are a total of three scaffold scenes and each has its own purpose and meaning. Without the scaffold scenes, this book would basically leave you clueless to what was really going on because the scaffold scenes really tell you what is going on and why.

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The first scaffold scene is basically an introduction to the whole book. You learn who all the main charters are and most of all Hester and her terrible crime she committed. This is the first time everyone sees Hester with the letter “A” on her bosom. Hester is a very brave woman for standing up on that scaffold in front of everyone in the town to gawk at and for admitting that she had committed adultery. Also, it takes a very courageous person to stick up for what they believe in as she did by not telling who she had committed the crime with.

The whole story builds you up to this point of finding out who Hester committed adultery with. By this point in the story, you have some clue who the father of Pearl is but until you get to the second scaffold scene you don’t know for sure. At the second scaffold scene, Dimesdale is on the scaffold and Hester and Pearl come up and join him. Dimesdale is wearing down by the burden of his sin he committed. He goes to the scaffold to confess to God and ask for some kind of forgiveness. Then a cloud forms the letter “A” in the sky and everyone thinks this stands for angel because that’s how they view Dimesdale. Then when Dimesdale goes to leave he leaves his glove on the scaffold to symbolize he was there and that he should have been up there with Hester and his daughter in the first place.

Then when you think everything is going to turn out okay and nothing bad is going to happen to Hester and Pearl, Dimmesdale goes up on the scaffold. This worries Hester like it would anyone in her position. So Hester and Pearl join him again on the scaffold. Hester is wearing the Scarlet Letterlike always and then Dimmesdale shows his letter “A” that he inscribed over his heart. He has become very weak and his health just seems to diminish as he is standing on the scaffold. Then Pearl who has always seemed to resent her father goes over and gives him a kiss. At the end of the last scaffold scene, Dimmesdale just can’t seem to live with his sin and dies.

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The scaffold scenes are basically the introduction, climax and conclusion of the story. Without these scenes, the story would have no backbone. Throughout these scenes, they symbolize many things from Pearl accepting Dimmesdale as her father and Dimmesdale confessing his sin.

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Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter. (2021, Mar 01). Retrieved March 24, 2023, from