Symbolism of the Letter A Throughout Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter includes many profound and important
symbols. This device of symbolism is portrayed well in the novel, especially through the
scarlet letter "A". The "A" is the best example because of the changes in the meaning
throughout the novel. In the beginning of the novel, the scarlet letter "A" is viewed as a
symbol of sin. The middle of the novel is a transition period, where the scarlet letter "A"
is viewed differently.
In the commencement of the novel, the letter is taken as a label of punishment and
sin. Hester Prynne bears the label of the letter upon her chest. She stands as a label of an
outcast in front of society. She is wearing this symbol to burden her with punishment
throughout her life. She stands on a plank where her punishment is given, "'Thus she will
be a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her
tombstone'"(59). Society places its blames upon this woman. It is because of this one
letter that Hester's life is changed. The letter's meaning in Puritan society banishes her
from her normal life. The Puritans view this letter as a symbol of the devil. The letter also
put Hester through torture:
"Of an impulse and passionate nature. She had fortified herself to
encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely wreaking
itself in every variety of insult but there was a quality so much more terrible
in the solemn mood of popular mind, that she longed rather to behold all
those rigid countenances contorted with scornful merriment and herself the
This implies that Hester's sin of bearing a child without the presence of a husband will
always be remembered.
In the middle of the novel is a transition period where the letter "A" is viewed
differently than before. In this section of the novel, Hester's appearance is altered to
where she is no longer seen as a person of sin. The letter changes from a symbol of sin to
a more vague symbol. Society now sees Hester as a person who is strong yet bears a
symbol which differs herself. At this point, Hester has learned to deal with the letter. She
has grown stronger from it; she is able to withstand the pressures of society. As she grow
stronger, her personality becomes more opposed to being seen as a sinner. The letter's
meaning has changed, "Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to
love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of
hostility"(147). This foreshadows the future events of the novel.
Another view of the letter is that it portrays guilt. It portrays the guilt of
Dimmesdale, the father of Hester's child. Hester has learned to deal with her punishment
and grow stronger from it, but Dimmesdale, who went unpunished and is a respectable
man in the Puritan society, must now live with the guilt of having a child "illegally". This
guilt helps him to become weaker as novel continues:
"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 long had been, the
gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain"(136).
After seven years of torture caused by the scarlet letter, Hester tosses the letter
aside for an hour. The return of this letter, however, is beneficial to Hester. The letter's
refusal to be swept away, Pearl's refusal to join an unlettered Hester, and Dimmesdale
insistence that Hester do what ever it takes to quiet Pearl, force Hester to reaccept the
symbol of the sin she had wrongly divorced, and therefore allow Dimmesdale and Hester
to share a mutual public shame.
When Hester tosses her sin aside in the forest scene, she is not successful in
leaving her sin forever. "The mystic token alighted on the hither verge of the stream.
With a hand's breath further flight it would have fallen into the water, and have given the
little brook another woe to carry onward . . ." (pg. 185) The brook does not carry off
Hester's letter, and therefore, the disgrace of her sin is still close by. When Hawthorne says
that Hester's new thoughts "have taught her much amiss" (pg. 183) he also gives Hester
one last chance to reaccept the sin that she has committed and the Puritan Code which she
has so strongly rejected.