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The Scarlet Letter: An Analysis Of Symbolism

1775 words - 7 pages

Cursed with the permanent mark of adultery upon her bosom, Hester Prynne, the main character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book, The Scarlet Letter, faces many hardships and disgrace. Hawthorne references these hardships in order to portray the scarlet letter as the forbidden mark of adultery. Upon first meeting Hester, the scarlet letter is a symbol for adultery and disgrace. As the story progresses, the scarlet letter evolves into a symbol of wisdom and identity. Hawthorne utilizes each different meaning of the scarlet letter to make a commentary on the Puritan society. While many readers view the scarlet letter as simply a mark of adultery, it is really a symbol of Hester’s identity.
In the beginning, the scarlet letter obtains a negative connotation. In the prologue of the novel, while exploring the attic of the Custom House, the curator finds the scarlet letter, “my eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter…certainly, there was some deep meaning in it…as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron” (Hawthorne 31). Even years after Hester Prynne’s death, the scarlet letter continues to have a negative impact on anyone that views it. Originally, the scarlet letter is meant to put Hester to shame. While initially being publically prosecuted for her crime, a young wife in the crowd mentions, “let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always on her heart” (49). This immediately sets Hester apart from the rest of society and employs that the letter will be a part of her for the rest of her life. During her public prosecution, Hawthorne depicts Hester’s elegant, dignified beauty and the crowd’s eyes being drawn to the scarlet letter by stating, “it had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself” (51). The purpose of Hawthorne’s negative connotations of the scarlet letter is to expose Hester and cause the reader to feel empathetic towards Hester. She is placed into social isolation so that the reader can initially see Hester for the way society sees her.
Even though the scarlet letter is meant to be shameful, Hester automatically changes the letter into something she can wear with pride. Once pulled out of prison and placed on the scaffold to serve her punishment, Hawthorne describes Hester’s attitude towards the subject, “and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed” (50). This action portrays Hester’s defiance towards the society. Hester causes the scarlet letter to take on a new meaning. Additionally, during her prosecution, Hawthorne describes the scarlet letter, “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” (50). This further emphasizes the scarlet letter’s new meaning because it portrays Hester’s handiwork and allows her to take control of her punishment. Since she must wear the scarlet letter, Hester transforms...

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