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The Significance Of The Letter In The Scarlet Letter

1826 words - 7 pages

The Scarlet Letter: The Significance of the Letter            

Adultery has been around almost as long as people. It has maintained a harsh punishment, from banishment to death, but in the Puritan world of colonial America (from about 1620-1640), its punishment may have been worse than either. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne is a lonely Puritan woman who commits infidelity with a preacher and has a son from the untruthful union. To punish her for this act, the council of leaders forces her to wear a large “A” on her bosom, to let all know what she has done. She is not put to death immediately because her husband is missing and may or may not be alive. The letter “A” has different meanings for different people throughout the book. To Hester, the townspeople and Pearl the letter “A” takes on varied meanings during the course of the book.

Hester Prynne is required by Puritan dictate to wear the “A” as long as she lives in the village. Hester feels the letter to be a sign of ignominy. As she stands on the scaffold at the beginning of the story, she feels intense embarrassment and shame at having to wear the letter in public. She even drifts into a faux-reality before returning to the shame of the letter. “She turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes! - these were her realities.”(57) This is the first and least intense feeling she has for the letter. The “A” was intended to produce a deep sense of shame and disgrace, to dissuade other possible sinners. She realizes what the “A” is intended for, and stays true to that philosophy for a while. Her shame excludes her from society and normal life. She believes the “A” does its job in producing that sense of ignominy and shame. She feels it to be a sign of evil and one of which to be ashamed. To Hester the “A” also symbolizes her falter from the path towards God. Not only does it remind her of her falter, it also teaches her not to return to her sin. Hawthorne shows this when Hester is defending her right to keep Pearl. She is responding to the governor’s claim that she does not deserve to keep Pearl and says, “I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this!, answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token.” This defense by Hester shows that she has learned from the shame of the scarlet letter. The committee was worried that the sin of the letter would make teaching Pearl impossible, but Hester is claiming that it is the exact opposite. She is saying that the “A” has shown her that the sin was wrong and because of this she will avoid any further sin. As time progresses in the novel Hester comes to regard the “A” as a necessary evil. This can be seen when Chillingworth hints that the committee may have the “A” taken off of Hester and she replies that it is not up to them to decide. She says “It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take...

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