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Symbols in The Scarlet Letter
The eponymous scarlet “A” is the most central symbol of the novel. Hester is initially made to wear it as punishment for her adultery and as a way for the community to publicly shame her supposed sin. However, as the novel progresses, the “A” becomes a symbol of identity for Hester and takes on a new, and more positive, meaning after she becomes respected by the community.
Many other symbols in the text are drawn from nature imagery. For instance, the forest symbolizes a wild place, free from the laws of society; the brook is where Pearl first sees her reflection and it symbolizes a boundary between her two worlds.
Symbols Examples in The Scarlet Letter:
"capital letter A...." See in text (The Custom-House)
Notice how much attention is given to the discovery of this relic. The wealth of attention given to the discovery of the relic is important because it contains major symbolic significance in the story the narrator will write.
"red cloth..." See in text (The Custom-House)
Red is a religious symbol of evil in Puritan society. With this knowledge and all the religious jargon previously mentioned we can hypothesize that the red cloth the narrator just found is probably an important piece of the story.
"we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader..." See in text (Chapter I)
The rose-bush is a symbol of hope in the story and a metaphor for the natural-born goodness in humanity. By presenting a metaphorical rose to the reader, Hawthorne tells us that in the midst of a tale of suffering, we can learn a moral lesson about humanity, allowing something good to come from a story of suffering.
"virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison..." See in text (Chapter I)
This is a bleak, yet true, blanket statement that applies to human history. Hawthorne uses a cemetery and prison to symbolize what he believes to be the most certain things for humanity: death (why every town needs a cemetery) and bad human nature (why every town needs a prison).
"congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilised society, a prison..." See in text (Chapter I)
This is another use of dark color as symbolism for bad human nature in the first chapter. Hawthorne claims that prisons are the “black flower of a civilised society.” This is an interesting symbol because there are no truly black flowers in the natural world. Perhaps what Hawthorne is suggesting is that it isn’t human nature that has bad tendencies, but instead the effect of society on humans that breeds evil actions.
"rose-bush..." See in text (Chapter I)
The wild rose-bush contrasts with the ugly vegetation of the overgrown plot of grass. The rose-bush is symbolic of the possibility of goodness in human beings-even within the “rot” of a bad community. Notice how Hawthorne contrasts the dichotomy of good and evil in humans and how it emerges as a central theme of the story.
"sad-coloured..." See in text (Chapter I)
The novel starts out with this modified emotional image that claims garments to be “sad-coloured.” In this instance, the garments are a symbol of gloomy and hopeless circumstances, going forward notice how different clothing corresponds to particular character traits . Notice, also, how color is used throughout the novel to portray shifting mood and emotions.
"On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A...." See in text (Chapter II)
Hester Prynne was found guilty of adultery, as evidenced by the birth of her daughter, and has been sentenced to wear an embroidered letter "A" at her breast for the rest of her life. Hester doesn't initially know how to handle the shame that's been bestowed upon her; she tries to obscure the letter "A" with her infant, but resolves to wear her shame with pride. The "elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold" symbolize her refusal to hide her sin.
"scaffold..." See in text (Chapter II)
In this context a scaffold is a raised wooden platform, in the center of the crowd, that Hester must stand on top of for the purpose of public shaming. The scaffold is a recurring symbol throughout The Scarlet Letter that represents punishment for one’s sins and is meant to raise up sinners for the judgement of the townspeople.
"appeared the letter A..." See in text (Chapter II)
The Scarlet Letter A Hester must wear is the the most prominent symbol of this book. In the context of her punishment, it is meant to represent her moral shortcomings. However, because it is described as a thing of beauty, it also represents the bravery with which she takes her punishment.
"Papist..." See in text (Chapter II)
A Papist is a Roman Catholic. Hawthorne uses this to provide the reader with a contradictory representation of Hester. First, Hester is described as a sinner on a scaffold meant to be shamed by her friends and neighbors. However, here Hawthorne mentions her appearance as similar to that of the Virgin Mary. This contradiction symbolizes a disagreement with the rigid laws of Puritan Society.
"SCARLET LETTER..." See in text (Chapter II)
The “Scarlet Letter” is a red “A” that stands for “adultery,” and it must be worn as a punishment for having a child out of wedlock. Hester designs it herself by order of the church and chooses to embroider it and make it a piece of beauty. The irony that something to be worn as punishment turned out to be so beautiful and elaborate represents a satirical view of Puritan Society.
"It was whispered, by those who peered after her, that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way of the interior..." See in text (Chapter III)
We have noticed Hester’s strength many times in this chapter, and here the chapter ends with a metaphor for her goodness. Lightness and darkness are classic symbols for good and evil in literature, and by ending this chapter with Hester’s Scarlet Letter shining light in the dark, Hawthorne is suggesting that not only is Hester strong, but she is also, perhaps, holy.
"civilised and savage costume..." See in text (Chapter III)
Although this describes what the “white man” is actually wearing, this description is a symbol that foreshadows his character traits. Notice going forward how this character has two personas: one that is actually him and the act he puts on to appease the townspeople.
"what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Although Chillingworth is talking about the discrepancies between their physical appearances, this is also a metaphor for conflict between good and evil (Hester a symbol for good and Chillingworth a symbol for evil). Notice how the conflict between these two attributes recur throughout the novel.
"Breathe not, to any human soul, that thou didst ever call me husband!..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Hawthorne draws a direct literal and figurative line between the two characters here. Hester is the talk of the town, and she will be a public figure of shame, whereas Chillingworth will be the devil in plain sight. She is a symbol of repentance and forgiveness, and he is a symbol of the evils of revenge.
"scorch into Hester's breast, as if it had been red-hot..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Recall the opening essay of The Scarlet Letter, “The Custom-House,” when the narrator first finds the A and he has a similar experience where it seems to be hot as fire. The A stands for many things during the story including sin, forgiveness, shame, charity, pain, and sacredness. It is the most commonly used symbol in the novel.
"she came forth into the sunshine..." See in text (Chapter V)
This line contrasts with the end of the scaffold scene when she walked into the darkness of the prison tunnel, and the scarlet letter gleamed with light. The light symbolizes good, so by pointing out that she walked out of the prison into the “sunshine,” Hawthorne suggests that the end of her prison sentence is the beginning of a new start and a holy life for Hester. It also suggests that Hester will be in the town’s spotlight, even though she has served her prison time.
"a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne's..." See in text (Chapter V)
In this way, Hester has become a symbol of martyrdom for the townspeople. She wears the scarlet letter for all of the unknown townspeople's sins. If everyone had to wear a mark for their sin, many more people would walk around with symbols on their chests.
"I have no Heavenly Father!..." See in text (Chapter VI)
For Hester, this is an awfully frightening thing to hear. Recall the scaffold scene, when Hester says, “And my child must seek a heavenly Father; she shall never know an earthly one!” This could be Pearl’s way of saying that her earthly father matters more than God, or it could be another instance of Pearl as a symbol of counterculture to religious society.
"but another face in the small black mirror of Pearl's eye..." See in text (Chapter VI)
This line symbolizes two major contrasting, symbolic consequences. First, the author makes a point of using the word “black” to suggest the possibility of Pearl’s mischievous ways. Second, Hawthorne uses “mirror of Pearl’s eye” to infer that Pearl is a symbol that makes the strict Puritan society to look at themselves to see if they are really as holy as they believe themselves to be.
"the ugliest weeds of the garden were their children..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Hawthorne repeatedly uses plants to symbolize the good and bad aspects of human nature. Recall how in the beginning of the story, one rose bush stood in a plot of overgrown weeds and dying grasses by the prison door. This line is another example of this symbolism, and it serves as a metaphor for how even sinners, the weeds, are also children of God.
"hou must gather thine own sunshine. I have none to give thee!..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Pearl is attracted to the sunshine because she is a symbol of naturally born goodness. In this instance, Hester tells her she has no “sunshine,” a symbol of goodness, to give because of her own lack of self worth. This is a major difference between the two characters and represents a major theme in the story of the evils of a strictly religious society: Pearl has innate freedom and happiness in her; Hester bears the metaphorical scarlet letter not given to her by her actions, but by the judgemental evils of a religious society.
"crimson velvet tunic..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Crimson is a color very similar to scarlet, and both Hester’s scarlet letter and Pearl’s velvet tunic have gold trim. It has been implied before, but here it is made abundantly clear that Pearl is a living representation of Hester’s scarlet letter. The fact that Hester chooses to dress up Pearl to match her scarlet letter signifies Hester’s courage in taking full responsibility for her sin, and not choosing to hide it or cover it up, even years after she committed it.
"luxuriant beauty..." See in text (Chapter VII)
The constant remarks on Pearl’s physical beauty seem to parallel the way Hawthorne describes the beauty of flowers , a symbols of goodness and purity. The comparisons between Pearl and a flower suggest that, although she came from an act of sin, she is pure and good.
"his hand over his heart..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Hawthorne includes this action to draw a parallel between Hester and Dimmesdale: Hester wears the scarlet letter on her heart while Dimmesdale puts his hand on his heart (a traditional gesture of honor). The parallel drawn between these two characters is important to note because they represent such contrasting positions in the Boston society.
"trial and warfare..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Recall from the first chapter how Hawthorne made the point that every new colony set aside space for a prison and a cemetery. This creates the idea that two of the only constants for society are criminals and death. Here that point is made again, and seems to take shape as a theme to look out for later in the story.
"Ye shall not take her! I will die first!..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Again Hester’s strength of character shows in the face of adversity. Here she is in a debate with the most powerful people in the town, yet she does not yield to their desires. For Hester, Pearl is a symbol of her own good and evil and a reminder of God’s love.
"The shadow of the curtain fell on Hester Prynne, and partially concealed her..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Again Hawthorne uses shadows to symbolize the difference between good and bad, light and darkness. Hester is only “partially” concealed by the shadow because she has repented for her sins. The darkness on her most likely represents the secret she still holds: the identity of Pearl’s father.
"his dawning light would be extinguished..." See in text (Chapter IX)
This ironic phrase exhibits unnatural qualities. Dawn brings light, but here, because of the young minister’s failing health, the light is dying at dawn. Because we have been reading with the prevalent symbol of light as a symbol of good, perhaps this metaphor references more than merely the mortality of Reverend Dimmesdale.
"to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of pain...." See in text (Chapter IX)
Notice how this this action has been repeated multiple times up to this point in the novel by Roger Chillingworth, Reverend Dimmesdale, and Hester. When actions are repeated multiple times, we as readers know to look further into the symbolic meaning of an action. In this story, one’s heart is representative of their character and spirituality. So, when Dimmesdale puts his hand on his heart with an indication of “pain,” we interpret this as a sign that possibly something other than his health is causing him problems.
"Pearl looked as beautiful as the day..." See in text (Chapter X)
This simile symbolizes Pearl’s character. By comparing Pearl’s beauty to the beauty of the day, Hawthorne draws a parallel between Pearl and a major symbol of good throughout the story: light. Although the characters in the story struggle over who and what Pearl really is, as readers we notice how Hawthorne continuously compares her to all the symbols of good and natural purity.
"askance..." See in text (Chapter X)
“Askance” is an adverb that indicates a suspicious or unfavoring demeanor. In this context, Dimmesdale has a cautious attitude towards the weeds for both literal and symbolic reasons. He looks at them with suspicion because he literally is curious as to what they are, but his look of disapproval also indicates his fear of sin.
"the processes by which weeds were converted into drugs of potency..." See in text (Chapter X)
Hawthorne uses weeds as a symbol of sinners and sins multiple times in the story. This is an interesting activity for the minister to take part in. By watching Chillingworth literally use weeds as medicine, Dimmesdale is figuratively seeing how evil can turn to good.
"And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist..." See in text (Chapter XI)
Dimmesdale “shows himself in a false light” by letting himself be revered as a symbol of spiritual authority and good, but he hides the truth of his sins. Dimmesdale's actions reveal how he symbolizes shadow because of the unholy and sinful life he is leading.
"sometimes in utter darkness..." See in text (Chapter XI)
The use of “darkness” has two meanings in this situation. The literal meaning is that Dimmesdale actually whips himself with the lights out. The figurative interpretation reads that the “darkness” where Dimmesdale punishes himself is symbolic of how his refusing to tell the townspeople of his sin is a darkness, or sin, in itself.
"the connecting link between those two...." See in text (Chapter XII)
In this scene each character’s symbolic significance are unified on top of the scaffold (itself a symbol for punishment of one’s sins). Dimmesdale, “with his hand over his heart,” symbolizes hiding from one’s sins and guilt. Hester, “with the embroidered letter glimmering on her bosom,” symbolizes authenticity and forgiveness. Pearl, born of Dimmesdale and Hester (symbols of both good and bad), symbolizes the innate nature of humankind: the dichotomy of human evil and morality.
"there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain..." See in text (Chapter XII)
This suggests that Dimmesdale has given himself a scarlet letter directly on his own flesh. While this may seem like a brutal punishment, it does not compare to Hester’s scarlet letter because it is hidden from the judgemental eyes of the townspeople. Dimmesdale’s scarlet letter is a symbol of his cowardice and unwillingness to confess and bear the brunt of public ridicule and shame.
"they would have discerned no face above the platform, nor hardly the outline of a human shape, in the dark grey of the midnight..." See in text (Chapter XII)
Hawthorne chooses to dehumanize Dimmesdale to suggest the depths of his sin. In this way, Dimmesdale is perhaps one of the worst characters in the story because he had decided to sit by while Hester deals with years of shame. The darkness of night hides his face, perhaps drawing a parallel between him and the “Black Man.”
"The letter was the symbol of her calling..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
In this way, Hester represents an ideal way for people to deal with their mistakes. Hester is a symbolic sacrifice for all the townspeople who sin and don’t face public consequence. She has grown because of the scarlet letter, becoming a symbol of good in her community.
"Hester's nature showed itself warm and rich; a well-spring of human tenderness..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
Hester symbolizes the natural and inherent goodness of humanity. In the beginning, she accepts the consequences of her sins with integrity. Now, Hawthorne exemplifies her as “a well-spring of human tenderness,” showing how humans can make mistakes, but they can also be good-natured and holy.
"Who made me so?..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
Recall in chapter VIII when Mr. Wilson asks Pearl, “Who made thee?” This rhetorical question represents Chillingworth's belief that Hester and Dimmesdale are the sinners “who made [him] so.” This creates an interesting link between Chillingworth and Pearl: While Pearl is literally created by Dimmesdale and Hester as a symbol of light, Chillingworth is bred anew as a symbol of darkness.
"Let the black flower blossom as it may..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
Flowers have been recurring symbols of beauty and goodness in the story. Here, that traditional symbol of light has been turned to darkness. Chillingworth uses this particular phrase because it gives the feeling that this darkness that has come over him is a natural process. Perhaps Hawthorne does this to suggest that both evil and good are natural characteristics of humans.
"So the child flew away like a bird..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
This simile draws a parallel between Pearl and the natural world. By comparing Pearl to a bird, Hawthorne strengthens Pearl as a symbol for the free and wild aspects of human nature.
"freshly green, instead of scarlet..." See in text (Chapter XV)
This symbolizes the evolution of the meaning of Hester’s scarlet letter. In the beginning of the story, it was the “black mark” that was attributed to the work of Satan. However, now the “freshly green” scarlet letter symbolizes new growth, and the rebirth of Hester’s natural goodness.
"wear it for the sake of its gold thread!..." See in text (Chapter XV)
Hester doesn’t want to share the true meaning of the scarlet letter to protect Pearl from her past wrongdoings, so she draws attention to the gold thread. By drawing Pearl’s attention to the gold thread, Hester uses it as a symbol for the good that has come from the scarlet letter.
"nightshade, dogwood, henbane..." See in text (Chapter XV)
All three of these plants are toxic enough to kill humans. Hawthorne uses these three plants in particular because even though they are poisonous, they all have beautiful and vibrant colors that make them appear harmless. In a way, they represent Chillingworth because, although he is not beautiful himself, he appears to mean well, but truly means for the worst.
"ominous shadow moving along with his deformity..." See in text (Chapter XV)
Shadows have continued to serve as symbols for evil throughout the story. In this context, the “ominous shadow moving along with his deformity” means that Chillingworth is never without the evil mindset that has been born through his hate and desire for revenge.
"brook..." See in text (Chapter XVI)
The brook is a symbol that runs parallel to Pearl’s character. The tree debris that falls into and impedes the free-flowing brook symbolizes the social obstacles Pearl must face. Pearl’s changes in disposition are mirrored by the way the current of the brook changes in its different parts.The brook mirrors Pearl throughout the story.
"the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom..." See in text (Chapter XVI)
The sunshine on the horizon symbolizes happiness and peace for Hester, but she hasn’t been able to reach it yet. Pearl reminds Hester of this while Hester can’t seem to find the sun in the shade of the forest.
"Pearl resembled the brook, inasmuch as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as mysterious..." See in text (Chapter XVI)
Recall in chapter XIII when Hester is called a “well-spring of human tenderness.” This means that Pearl is herself a free-flowing brook of human tenderness. This metaphor, of child coming from mother, is enhanced by the imagery of the brook described in the text.
"Will not it come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?..." See in text (Chapter XVI)
Pearl sees the scarlet letter, the mark of sin, as a natural part of life. It is important to notice how Hawthorne includes the word “woman” in this statement to show Pearl’s view of sin as being particular to women. Since Pearl has never seen a man wear a scarlet letter, and she knows that Dimmesdale has a similar black mark (not indicated by the scarlet letter), perhaps this is Hawthorne again bringing to light the issue of inequality between man and woman.
"forest..." See in text (Chapter XVI)
The forest symbolizes safety from the judgment of the townspeople and the and persecution from Boston law. It is different than the constructed society of the town, and represents the freedom of the natural world. Hester feels that this is a safe place to meet because her natural instincts to save Dimmesdale parallel the naturalistic symbolism of the forest.
"it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the grave..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
Hawthorne uses this simile to represent the difference between the forest and town. The forest has two symbolic meanings. First, it is characterized by darkness, an area where Satan meets with witches. However, the forest also symbolizes freedom from societal constraints and the ridicule that Hester and Pearl face in society. This is the first time in the story that Hester and Dimmesdale meet out of town, and it is also possibly the first time they’ve been able to speak freely to one another since Pearl was conceived.
"No golden light had ever been so precious as the gloom of this dark forest..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
Light and darkness have been in constant conflict representing the battle between good and evil. In this context, the forest symbolizes the freedom of the human spirit, so the darkness is overcome, metaphorically, by the light of their love.
"they glided back into the shadow of the woods..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
Shadows have been a recurring motif for shame and sin. By going back into “the shadow of the woods” Hester and Dimmesdale decide to face their guilt and shame together for the first time.
"forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest..." See in text (Chapter XVIII)
This symbolizes a sense of moral clarity and peace that has been so hard for Hester, who has been living under the rigid restraints of a religious society. For the first time in the story, Hester’s hope for freedom no longer seems in vain.
"have given the little brook another woe to carry onward..." See in text (Chapter XVIII)
The parallel between the brook and Pearl has been made before, and here, the scarlet letter not falling into the river symbolizes how Hester has shielded Pearl from the most enduring pain of the shame she has endured.
"that this brook is the boundary between two worlds..." See in text (Chapter XIX)
Dimmesdale finally declares the dilemma that he has faced for the past seven years. On one side stands Pearl, a symbol of innocence and human nature. On the other side, Dimmesdale and Hester represent the pain of societal construction and human restraints. Dimmesdale fears the different worlds cannot combine.
"In the brook beneath stood another child,—another and the same..." See in text (Chapter XIX)
Rather than reflecting an image of what Pearl does, the brook reflects an image of what Pearl represents: wildness, freedom, and innocence. She does not bear the burden of Hester’s scarlet letter, and instead she follows the freedom she has inherited from birth.
"the hardships of a forest life..." See in text (Chapter XX)
Since the forest is a symbol for a moral wilderness, we interpret this to mean that because of his failing health Dimmesdale is not fit to continue to torment himself with guilt and shame.
"that this physician here—Chillingworth..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
Hester and Dimmesdale had decided to sail away together with Pearl. However, with happiness so close to being reached, Hester is dejected by Chillingworth learning of their plans and deciding to join them on their journey. Chillingworth’s enduring presence represents the persistence of evil.
"he seemed anxious rather to display than hide..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
The cut on this soldiers forehead is his scarlet letter from war. Hawthorne is perhaps satirizing the fact that this society honors those who fight in wars, killing others for the sake of their country, but the same society disavows extramarital love affairs, which are born of passion—-like with Hester and Dimmesdale.
"a sort of magic circle—had formed itself about her..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
This description creates an image of Hester with a halo around her head, symbolizing her holiness amidst the townspeople. In the beginning of the story she is ridiculed upon the scaffold, presented as a sinner, but now she is presented almost as an angel.
"wild men of the ocean, as the Indians were of the land..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
These men symbolize the natural world: wild waters and lands. They “gaze wonderingly and admiringly at Pearl” because they understand that she is wild like them, free of the cares and problems of the puritanical world.
"a SCARLET LETTER—the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne—imprinted in the flesh..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
Hester wore her scarlet letter on her chest, so the townspeople, Pearl, and the light from the sun could see it. Since her scarlet letter was worn in the light, she was able to grow (just like the rose-bush from Chapter I. Dimmesdale bore the mark directly on his flesh, and because it was in the dark, instead of growing it shriveled up and died.