One might say that symbols are the most important things in a story, and that they unlock the secrets of a novel. Hawthorne, in The Scarlet Letter, uses many symbols to represent different things. Some symbols represent the same thing. The letter "A" has many meanings, each character has their own meanings, and even the different parts of nature are symbols. Also, apart from providing structure for the novel, each scaffold scene conveys something different. One could say, arguably, that nearly everything in The Scarlet Letter is a symbol of something else.
In the novel, there are four different versions of the letter "A". The first is presented at the beginning of the book, where Hester is forced to wear a scarlet letter "A" upon her breast. The second occurrence is during the second scaffold scene, when the pastor Arthur Dimmesdale is on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl, and a meteor causes a letter "A" to appear in the sky. The third version of the letter "A" appears when Pearl makes the letter "A" out of seaweed and puts it on her own breast. The fourth and final letter "A" is shown at the end of the book, on Dimmesdale's breast when he confesses. The letter "A", in all its forms, represents many things in the novel. At the beginning, the letter is supposed to represent Hester's guilt or shame for committing adultery, though Hester wears it proudly. Later on in the book, however, it represents something completely different. That same letter "A" on her breast represents her able or angelic nature, instead of her sin in the past. The second letter "A", seen in the sky, represents not only Dimmesdale's cowardice and shame, but the fact that the townspeople make up meanings for occurrences to mean what the townspeople want them to mean. According to Nina Baym, Rowe 2
"Dimmesdale knows that if his deed is discovered, he will be thrown out of what is, to him, Heaven..." (215). The third letter "A" represents Pearl's intelligence, for she sees then that Dimmesdale's hand upon his heart and Hester's letter on her heart are for the same reason. Also, it shows how Hester is still guilty, for she lies about what her own letter means. The last letter "A", on Dimmesdale's heart, is a symbol for the pastor's sin, and his repentance for that sin. When he reveals it, he is forgiven by God and ascends into heaven.
Hester is a symbol of nature, and its resistance to civilization, which is symbolized by the townspeople. She thinks with her heart, not her mind. Like the wild rosebush outside the prison, she decides to go her own way, and not be affected by what others thought of her. Also, she is a symbol for the Catholic faith. When she is on the scaffold, during the first scaffold scene, Hawthorne describes her as Divine Maternity (53), another name for the Virgin Mary, who the Catholics revere. Also, like the Catholics believe, she repents by working all her life to do good deeds, instead of the Puritan belief that repentance is spontaneous and forever. Another example of such is the fact that she embroidered her letter "A" to be decorative and fancy, which is a more Catholic idea. The Catholics decorate their churches, where Puritans feel that such decoration takes away from God.
Dimmesdale symbolizes a few things as well. He is a symbol of temptation, as shown by the original sin of Hester and Dimmesdale, and also later in the story when he asks Hester to run off with him. He tempts her, and she gives in to the temptation in both instances. He is a symbol of Puritanism, not only because he is the pastor, but also the way he repents. When he confesses and dies, he goes straight to heaven, because he repented once and for all. That is a representation of the Puritan belief, that one only needs to repent once, and all is forgiven. Also, one might say that Dimmesdale is the Black Man, from when Hester says that the letter is a mark from her Rowe 3
encounter with the Black Man (170). While in the forest, Dimmesdale tries to...
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