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 object"(54). 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
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.