Symbols in "The Scarlet Letter"
In The Scarlet Letter, symbols appear everywhere. Hawthorne uses several different concrete objects to represent something of deeper meaning. Among these symbols is the scarlet letter "A" itself. It is made of red cloth and beautifully embroidered. It is a literal symbol of the sin of adultery. The letter "A" appears in several places and several forms. It is the letter that appears on Hester's heart that she is condemned to wear for the remainder of her life. At Governor Bellingham's mansion it is magnified in the breastplate. It seems as though she is hidden behind it. On the night that Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl, a huge letter A appears in the sky. Later, while in the forest, Pearl arranges a letter a on her heart that is made of eel grass. One of the most dramatic of the A's that appear in the book is the A that appears on Dimmesdale's chest. Not only does the "A" symbolize adultery, but it also has several other meanings to the different characters as well. To the community, it is simply a mark of punishment. To Hester, it is a mark of embarrassment and humiliation. To Dimmesdale, the scarlet letter is a reminder of his own guilt. To Pearl, the mark is a mysterious curiosity. To Chillingworth, the "A" is his chance to get revenge on Dimmesdale. Later, the letter symbolizes "Able" when Hester wins some respect from the townspeople.
The scarlet letter is meant to be a symbol of shame, but instead it becomes a powerful symbol of identity to Hester. The letter's meaning shifts as time passes. Originally intended to mark Hester as an adulterer, the “A” eventually comes to stand for “Able.” Finally, it becomes indeterminate: the Native Americans who come to watch the Election Day pageant think it marks her as a person of importance and status. Like Pearl, the letter functions as a physical reminder of Hester's affair with Dimmesdale. But, compared with a human child, the letter seems insignificant, and thus helps to point out the ultimate meaninglessness of the community's system of judgment and punishment. The child has been sent from God, or at least from nature, but the letter is merely a human contrivance. Additionally, the instability of the letter's apparent meaning calls into question society's ability to use symbols for ideological reinforcement. More often than not, a symbol becomes a focal point for critical analysis and debate.
As Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl in Chapter XII, a meteor traces out an “A” in the night sky. To Dimmesdale, the meteor implies that he should wear a mark of shame just as Hester does. The meteor is interpreted differently by the rest of the community, which thinks that it stands for “Angel” and marks Governor Winthrop's entry into heaven. But “Angel” is an awkward reading of the symbol. The Puritans commonly looked to symbols to confirm divine sentiments. In this narrative, however, symbols are taken to...