Adulteress, banished, condemned…words that flash across the minds of Boston citizens when viewing the scarlet letter ‘A’ that is afixed to Hester Prynne in the 17th century of Nathaniel Hawtorne’s novel. Is it a symbol worthy of scorn and judgment? In their hypocritical eyes, there is no doubt about that. A fallen woman deserves that shame she brings upon herself.
Symbolism is a common literary element that is found repeatedly in The Scarlet Letter. Symbolism is the use of a letter, figure, another character, a mark, or any combination of some of these items that then represents something beyond its face value; a symbol provides a second meaning to something. The letter ‘A’ is a powerful, ever present symbol in The Scarlet Letter. Throughout Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, the reader sees a greadual decline in the strength and hold that the letter ‘A’ initially had over Hester Prynne. The beginning portion of the novel showcases the intended meaning of the ‘A.’ During the middle chapters, the ‘A’ shows a differing change in meaning than the beginning. The novel finishes by portraying what the letter ‘A’ truly symbolized to Hester.
The beginning portion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter showcases the intended meaning of the letter ‘A’ on Hester Prynne. When publicly tried for her crime of adultery, which led to the birth of an illegitimate daughter, Hester is ordered to wear a scarlet letter, the letter ‘A.’ This letter was supposed to symbolize the shame of her sin. It was supposed to set Hester apart from the rest of the townspeople by way of banishment since she was known as a fallen, sinful woman. The elders and magistrates had hoped that by having Hester wear the ‘A’ then no one would want to associate with her and, it would prevent Hester from committing this crime again. The magistrates also just wanted to show their power in making Hester wear the ‘A;’ this was there chance to show the townspeople that they were still in control. The leaders of the little Boston town first succeeded in the grip that they held over Hester. Hester felt shamed when she first wore the ‘A,’ but she still followed the commands of her elders. She let the ‘A’ highlight and define herself by wearing only dark, drab colors like gray with the fancy scarlet letter embroidered with gold thread.
The letter ‘A’ had the desired effects that the magistrates had first been after, it publicly shamed and condemned Hester Prynne in the eyes of all of her fellow townspeople. “Ah, but let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will always be in heart.” (Chapter 2 “The Marketplace” pg. 80 townswoman speaking). This quote shows that it is believed that no one will ever forget the sin Hester committed no matter what. The power of shame that the ‘A’ stands for in the beginning of the novel is portrayed as a sin that will never be forgotten, forgiven, or transformed as long as Hester Prynne is alive and able to see the judgment in everyone’s eyes.