The Scarlet Letter

Significance of Letter in The Scarlet Letter

Adultery is an age-old act that has persisted throughout human history. It has always been met with severe penalties, ranging from exile to execution. However, in the Puritan society of colonial America around the mid-1600s, its punishment might have been more severe than either of these. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” presents us with Hester Prynne, a solitary Puritan woman who slips into an illicit affair with a clergyman and bears a child from their secret relationship.

As a penalty for her actions, the community leaders require her to bear a large “A” on her breast, a public testament to her sin. The letter “A” in the novel possesses diverse connotations for different characters throughout the book. For Hester, the townspeople, and Pearl, the letter “A” assumes varied interpretations during the course of the book.

Hester Prynne and The Letter

Hester Prynne is obliged to wear the “A” for as long as she resides in the community. For Hester, the letter represents a mark of shame. As she stands on the scaffold at the beginning of the narrative, she feels extreme embarrassment and disgrace at having to display the letter in public.

“She turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes! – these were her realities.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter”

Society’s Perception of The Letter

To Hester’s society, she is a pariah who has no place within its boundaries. Her letter does not alienate her in itself, but it reinforces her exclusion. It is a mark that the locals perceive as a sign of past evil.

Also Read: Narrative Technique of  “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her and concentrated at her bosom.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter”

Pearl’s Interpretation of The Letter

As Hester’s daughter, Pearl has a unique insight into the letter’s meaning. Pearl is born into a sin that is not her fault. She perceives the significance of the letter as soon as she is born. Pearl starts seeing the letter as a symbol for her mother.

“But that first object of which Pearl seemed to become aware was-shall we say it? –The scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom!” – Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter”

Throughout this tale of human suffering, the scarlet letter remains a constant symbol; this symbol has different meanings to different groups at different times. This story holds true, even today, with the suffering and pain humans inflict on each other.

Hawthorne beautifully pieced together this masterpiece over two hundred years after the time period took place. Hester Prynne did not let shame come in the way of loyalty or love, and this is the greatest victory of all.


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