Symbolism and Imagery in The Scarlet Letter

The scarlet letter is a Romance which has constant interaction between the real and the imaginative. It is through symbolism and imagery that Hawthorne tells his tale of Hester Prynne’s sin and her punishment.

The Scarlet Letter

The most important symbol is scarlet letter itself. It represents the various layers of meaning that Hawthorne wishes to convey through the plight of Hester Prynne. Initially it marks Hester out as an ‘adulteress’, it is a symbol of her sin. As Hester transforms herself into a sister of mercy, it comes to signify ‘Able’ to many people of settlements. When Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold along with Hester and Pearl on the dark night of vigil and a meteor flashes across the sky, people interpret the scarlet A to signify ‘Angel’ and they believe that the good governor Winthrop has become an angel after his death. But the dominating implications of the letter Scarlet A remains a badge of shame for Hester that she is doomed to wear for the rest of her days to come because she has had a child out of wedlock.

Hawthorne has shown great skill in handling the symbol A in the novel. He never tells in many words what the symbols stands for. It is often referred to as “the mark”, “a certain token”, “the letter A”, “the scarlet letter”, “the red letter” and “the ignominious letter”. Neither Hester nor the reader is allowed to forget it. It comes to have an evil or sinister significance for Hester. She is perpetually and keenly aware of the stigma on bosom. It is symbolic of the sin that she has committed and even though she does not at any stage think herself to be a sinner, it constantly reinforces the Puritan belief in the Original Sin, the breaking of the Seventh Commandment, to the community. Hester is treated as a social outcast and the scarlet letter makes her feel a burning sensation on her bosom. When, in Chapter 3, she is led back to the prison, we are old that “the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way of the interior”. According some observers, the symbol ‘A’ is magnified in a mirror to exaggerate and gigantic proportions so as to become the most prominent feature of Hester’s appearance. Pearl is delighted to see the magnified reflection, which greatly distresses Hester who feels that it is not her own child but an imp making fun of her.

Pearl of course , is the living embodiment of the scarlet letter. Like the scarlet letter, Pearl is the ‘retribution’ for her mother’s sin. She never forgets the symbol, which is constantly the center of her attraction and in her thoughts. It has a strange fascination for her. She cannot see her mother without the scarlet letter. When Hester takes it off  and throws it away during her meeting with Arthur Dimmesdale in the forest, the act disturbs Pearl. Only when Hester picks it up and places it on her bosom that Pearl is mollified. Sometimes she flings wild flowers at the letter and dances joyfully or she arranges prickly burrs along its lines of on her mother’s bosom and once she frames the letter ‘A’ with eel-grass on her won bosom. Pearl keeps pestering her mother about the meaning and significance of the symbol, thus, torturing her with incessant reminders of her moral trespass.

The imagery of the heart plays another significant role in The Scarlet Letter. Arthur Dimmesdale is always seen with his hand over his heart. He is rumored to have imprinted ‘A’ on his heart, which Chillingworth has a glimpse of when the minister is asleep and towards the end when the minister dies and some people  see ‘A’ on his breast . The letter “A’ also takes the shape of s meteor that flashes across the sky when Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold along with Hester and Pearl. It is a symbol of remorse in the minister and a mark of punishment for Hester. But to the townspeople, it stands for Angel which good Governor Winthrop has become after his death. To people in distress whom Hester helps, it signifies ‘Able’.

Hester’s proficiency in needle work has a symbolic meaning also. It points to her independent character. The defiant spirit, which is evident in her “haughty smile” when she stands on the scaffold with little Pearl in her arms, also impels her to use her needle to ornament with gold embroidery her mark of shame and to making a living scarlet letter of Pearl.

Although her skill at needle work is greatly admired and is always in demand, Hester is not commissioned to embroider even a single wedding dress. Here needle work functions as a symbol, indicative of the attitude of the puritan settlers towards sin, guilt and penitence. It does not encourage Hester’s social reinstatement among the townspeople, nor is three any hope in the sight of God for Hester’s scarlet sin being washed off. The letter ‘A’ makes Hester’s social ostracism painfully complete. The exclusion of her needle from embroidering a wedding dress symbolizes the harshness of the Puritan attitude.

Arthur Dimmesdale’s gesture of keeping his hand over his heart is associated with his own private scarlet letter that has been growing more and more vivid and painful. Pearl repeatedly asks why the minister keeps his hand over his heart and the comments on the strange gesture, ‘a gesture that had grown involuntary with his ‘A’.

Another symbol employed in the novel is the brook flowing with a sad murmuring sound. It seems to be burdened with many sorrows, a reminder of her own sorrows to Hester. To Dimmesdale, it is a symbol of the estrangement between Hester and Pearl. He says: “I have a strange fancy that the brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thy Pearl again.

The dark forest, too, has a symbolic meaning. It is a place where one goes morally astray. Here the act of adultery has taken place and here the two lovers meet once again and profess their love for each other, with Hester throwing away the stigma of the scarlet letter and letting loose her hair form the tight hold of her cap. However, the forest also stands for natural innocence.

The scaffold which in the beginning of the tale, is the place where Hester faces the hostility of the crowd, plays a significant role in The Scarlet Letter. It subsequently becomes a place for expiation for the minister – first on the ark night of the vigil and later when he climbs it to make a public confession of his guilt.