Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter
"The common definition says that a symbol is a sign or token of something… We take symbols like these pretty much for granted. They are a part of everyday experience. In literature, matters are a little more complicated. Literary symbols usually don’t have instantly recognizable meanings. Rather they take their meanings from the work of which they are part" ("The Scarlet Letter" 8). An example of symbols that most take for granted would be the rosebush, which Hawthorne selects a flower from as an offering to the reader, to the elfish child Pearl, to the scarlet letter A; these are all symbols that Hawthorne uses. The average reader may take it for granted, but each symbol within this novel has a purpose. Nathaniel Hawthorne uses all of these symbols to build his story, to make it come to life. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is created around the different symbols within the novel.
The most obvious symbol of the novel is the one from which the book takes its title, the scarlet letter A. The scarlet letter must be separated from the literary form, in order to find full understanding of the letter. The literary symbol for he scarlet letter is a "concrete and an untranslatable presentation of an idea" (Weiss 19). The scarlet letter cannot find its way into the real life, except through the "meditation of the symbol" (Weiss 20). The scarlet letter is therefore a punishment by the Puritan society’s desire to bring for the truth, but it was brought to life by Hester. Hawthorne also lets the scarlet letter take on many other forms. The scarlet letter not only stands for adulteress, but for angel and able. It is also a reminder to both Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale of the sins that they have brought upon themselves. The Puritan community is another form that the scarlet letter A symbolizes.
The scarlet letter A is a reminder for Hester, Dimmesdale, and the Puritan community of their sins. For Hester, the scarlet letter represents her sin of adultery. She becomes the scarlet letter, taking the symbol upon herself. "She gives up her individuality, she becomes the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion" (Hawthorne 74). Dimmesdale also becomes letter, just as Hester took it upon herself, he does too. He lets the letter take him over by tattooing it upon his chest. He also lets the scarlet letter engulf him, making him weak and vulnerable. His weakness is shown when Hester and he meet in the forest, for he immediately agrees to run away and leave his problems behind. For the Puritans the scarlet letter "provokes hostile feelings in the citizens of Boston" ("Scarlet Letter" 8). Weiss explains the symbolism of the scarlet letter in the following paragraph:
"The world’s great symbols, as they emerge in religious icons – symbols of rebirth, rejuvenation, resurrection...