The Scarlett Letter

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1. Introduction

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is obviously full of symbolisms. The main symbol is of course the scarlet letter itself – the badge of shame that Hester Prynne is forced to wear after she gave birth to her illegitimate daughter Pearl. This child with its peculiarity and unusualness is also a very strong symbol. In principle symbolism is also represented through other things and characters, e.g. Roger Chillingworth, Arthur Dimmesdales heart, the woods or nature. But the scarlet letter and Pearl are dynamic symbols which develop simultaneously to the characters they belong to. Both symbols – the scarlet letter and Pearl – have an ambiguous meaning and undergo a certain change in the romance. What kind of change this is and what this means for the story of The Scarlet Letter I would like to analyze in the following.

2. The Scarlet Letter
2.1 A symbol of sin
Hester Prynne committed a sin: She had an affair while her husband was lost for two years. The result of her love affair was a baby girl called Pearl. And because she got pregnant her sin became public. The puritan community she lived in decided to force her to wear a scarlet “A” - which stands for “adulteress” or “adultery” - on her chest for the rest of her life. The first meaning of the symbol is quite obvious: The letter represents the sin Hester committed and is a sign for her public punishment. In a modern society nobody would care about a person wearing a scarlet letter on his shirt or dress. No one would know the meaning of such a symbol and even if they did, nobody would care about. Adultery in modern society is a common problem. It happens at any time and almost everywhere. But in contrast to the puritan society adultery in modern society is a problem between two people. In Puritanism adultery was one of the biggest sins one could commit. It was not only the breach of contract between a husband and his wife; it was a sin committed against the community (GradeSaver). And this is why Hester Prynne had to be punished for the shame she brought upon herself, her husband and the community she lived in. The scarlet letter has the function to show every man, woman and child that adultery will be punished, and that the persons who do it, will be isolated and scorned for the rest of their life. Everyone knew the meaning of the letter, and even strangers were encouraged to foredoom the person wearing it, without really knowing him or her. Because of the scarlet letter Hester Prynne is a walking warning for all the people in the community not to make the same fault she made and not to live in sin. The scarlet letter is also a symbol for the isolation and indignity of Hester Prynne. This motive of isolation is a typical theme for Hawthorne’s stories (High 50). The letter becomes a kind of stigma that never makes the people in her community forget, what crime she committed. After she was released from prison Hester lived in a small cottage apart from the town. The letter shows that she is not longer part of the community. Nobody really talks to her, she has no person she can refer to with her sorrows; she is all alone with herself and her child. If Hester Prynne is walking through the town, the people do not see the person – they only see the scarlet letter and the sin it symbolizes. Even the children who do not really understand what the letter means, know that Hester is an outcast. They show her that she is worthless in society, when they say: “Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter […] Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!” (Hawthorne 86). As a result of this, the scarlet letter is a symbol for many negative aspects: It is a symbol of sin, public abasement and isolation.

2.2 A symbol for Hester’s abilities
However, there is also a second side of symbolism in the scarlet letter. Hawthorne describes the letter with the following words: “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate...
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