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Symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. The Scarlet Letter is a story of love, sin, and isolation that is set in a strict seventeenth-century Puritan community in Boston. The Puritans were a group of settlers that emigrated from England in an effort to seek out religious freedom and to form their own way of worship along with their own government. Nathaniel Hawthorne uses the story of an act of adultery between a minister and the woman he loves and the implications of their sinful act on them, their community and their unacceptably conceived child to convey certain ideas to the reader. Symbols play a large role in the novel as they help reveal the Puritans' beliefs (especially regarding sin and punishment), and concepts such as guilt, purity/innocence, seclusion, and social defiance. The "A" is the most obvious and significant symbol in the grand scheme of the novel and acts as a token of Hester's sinful act for all to see. Pearl, her illegitimately born child, symbolizes her parents' sin (somewhat of a "living" scarlet letter) as well as a pure, innocent sense of truth and knowledge that is evident in Pearl's understanding of her world throughout the novel. The meteor is another significant symbol that is interpreted differently by various characters in the novel. The townspeople assume that the "A" of the meteor stands for "Angel" and that it is a sign that the Governor had entered into heaven (Puritans often defined unusual events with a divine episode) but to Dimmesdale it meant that he too should have a mark of sin just as Hester does. Hawthorne uses Pearl, The Scarlet Letter and the meteor in the story to uncover concepts that are significant to the novel in every aspect from character development to a better understanding of the overall themes in The Scarlet Letter.
Pearl plays a significant role in the novel as the daughter of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, the community's minister. Her mother's isolation and seclusion from the other adults in the community seems strange to Pearl as she is just a child and does not understand the reasons behind it. Though she does not understand that she is a result of sin and adultery, Pearl proves to understand matters that even the adults in the novel do not seem to notice. Since Pearl's perception of her surroundings is not yet tainted by the society she lives in, she represents a pure, innocent and ultimately true view of the events that occur in the novel. Pearl perceives the things happening around her in a completely different way than the older characters due to her innocent outlook of the world. Near the end of the novel, when Pearl questions her mother about "the Black Man" and how he is connected to Hester's scarlet letter, it shows the reader that she is not completely oblivious to what the adults of community discuss. She attempts to force her mother into talking about the "A" that is embroidered on her chest by using eelgrass to create an "A" on her own chest, but her effort is unsuccessful. Her attempt to do so proves to the reader that though Pearl has an innocent, untainted view of everything, she still has the desire to know the truth. This desire that Pearl possesses parallels the people in her community as the Puritans would blindly accept the truth that was presented to them in order to not disturb the status quo. Pearl and her mother both display parallels of the norms of their society. Hester exhibits this trait that she shares with her daughter by committing the sin of adultery, a complete insolence to her society's norms. The reader also sees Pearl's objective view when Hester calls her over to greet Dimmesdale in the forest. Pearl is hesitant to do what her mother asks of her, relaying to the reader that the relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale as well as the couple's plan to escape to Europe may not be the best idea. These manifestations of Pearl's perspective of the events that occur around her demonstrate Hawthorne's attempt to use Pearl's character not only as a "human scarlet letter" but also as a symbol of social defiance and a pure, innocent view of the affairs that occur throughout the novel.
The Scarlet Letter is not only what the title of the novel is based on but is the major symbol in one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's best pieces of work. The red "A" that is displayed on Hester Prynne's chest is the punishment that is given to her by her colony's court for committing adultery. The "A" stands for "adulterer/adulteress" and is red as that was the colour that was associated with the devil and "evil" (or any wrongdoing, including committing a sin). This was chosen as a punishment as it would be there for everyone to see and in order to stop any other women from perpetrating the same sin that causes Hester all the humiliation and shame that she goes through in the duration of the novel. Hester's punishment, to adorn this scarlet letter for the rest of her life as well as on her tombstone, depicts the Puritan belief that sin should be publicly punished in order to stop others from committing the same sin. This belief is evident in the history of Puritan ruling which the author's ancestors played a large role in. Nathaniel Hawthorne may have obtained the inspiration for Hester Prynne's public sentence from the real-life historic events of the Puritan community and their rulings. Hawthorne's great-great-great grandfather was a judge for the General Court of Massachusetts, so Hawthorne looked into old court records where he found reports of two trials that involved public humiliation as a sentence for sinners. The first was a case where a burglar was punished by having an ear cut off and a "B" branded onto his forehead and the other was the sentencing of an adulteress who was given thirty strokes and had to stand in public wearing a paper with the words "Thus I stand for my adulteress and whorish carriage" on her chest (Barna, 1998). The punishment for committing adultery may have not been as drastic for a male in Hester's position due to the fact that a female doing so disrupted the set roles of women in the Puritan society. The Puritans believed that "The figure of the wife ideally contains the biological female, the obedient daughter (and perhaps sister), the faithful mate, the responsible mother, and the believing Christian, and harmonizes all the patterns that bestow upon her these differing identities" (Egan Jr., 1995; Tanner, 1979). These beliefs constituted that women should fulfill all the mentioned roles and that neglecting any of them would break the rigid social structure that the Puritans had worked so hard to develop, something that was intolerable in that society. The author uses the scarlet letter to reveal the beliefs and judicial traditions of the Puritans, a topic which he was familiar with due to his family's past. The letter is also representative of sin and what committing a sin causes as it is symbolizes Hester's adultery and how that adultery results in her isolation from the community since she must adorn it at all times, which separates her from the other women of her community as an "Adulteress". Hawthorne uses the Scarlet Letter to portray the Puritans' judicial traditions and beliefs as well as to represent Hester's sin and isolation.
The meteor is one of the most peculiar events in the novel that displays the different perspectives in the novel. Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearl are on the scaffold together when a meteor illuminates the sky, leaving a red dull light in the shape of an "A" in the night sky. The townspeople stare in amazement and come to the conclusion that the "A" stands for "Angel", signifying Governor Winthrop's entry into heaven. Their beloved minister, however, believes that the meteor means that he too should wear a badge of shame just as Hester must do every day. This contrast in perspectives displays two concepts, which are guilt and the hypocrisy that was present in the Puritan society. Dimmesdale's guilt is apparent in this part of the novel as it is what causes him to deduce what he assumes the "A" signifies. Guilt is a concept that is seen throughout the novel especially through Dimmesdale's character since he does not confess to committing the sin that Hester is punished and ridiculed for on a daily basis. The meteor also sheds light on the hypocrisy that the Puritan community possessed because as the townspeople are presuming that their deceased governor is entering heaven, their minister is suffering from immense guilt due to the exact same occurrence without their knowledge (despite the apparent clues). The meteor symbolizes the assorted perceptions in the presumably perfect Puritan society as well as the guilt that Dimmesdale is consumed with throughout the course of the novel.
The symbols that Nathaniel Hawthorne uses in The Scarlet Letter relay specific messages to the reader throughout the novel to communicate concepts/ideas that are significant to the overall plot. Pearl and The Scarlet Letter both act as symbols of social disobedience as well as marks of Hester and Arthur's sinful act of adultery. Pearl also symbolizes purity, innocence and an objective view of the truth. The meteor is used to represent the varying views and hypocrisy of the Puritan society as well as signifying Arthur Dimmesdale's guilt. Hawthorne uses symbolism as a tool to aid his readers to read between the lines in order to grasp major ideas that he intended to portray through his work.