An Analysis of Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne is a great romantic novelist in America in the 19th century. As a great romantic novelist, Hawthorne is outstanding in handling application of symbolism. The Scarlet Letter is Hawthorne's most important symbolic novel, in this work, Hawthorne uses the symbolism so skillfully that it enhances the artistic effects of his work greatly. Symbolism runs through the whole novel. The most important symbol is the scarlet letter itself. In order to display the theme, symbolism plays an important role. Some of the symbols are obvious while some obscure, but no matter what they are, they are all out of the author’s deliberate imagination .So without the symbolism, the the
me of the novel cannot be expressed so vividly and impressively. This thesis mainly concentrates on symbolism.
Key words: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, symbolism,
Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the leading American writers of his century. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850.The novel, with the background of New England life in Colonial period, describes a young girl called Hester Prynne, who is bound up with the illegal marriage, and publicly exposed for adultery, however, she reconstructs herself in spirit owing to atoning for her crime for a long time.Hawthorne remarkably handles the puritan background, and carefully unfolds the deep
shadows from which the grim tragedy naturally proceeds. Moreover, all those moods are woven so consistently, naturally and harmoniously into the story that its characters, action, and setting blend into a delicate but enduring work of art.
II. Symbolic “A” In the novel, the scarlet capital letter “A” changes its meaning many different t
imes, so it’s ambiguous. This change is significant. It shows growth in characters and the community in which they live. The letter “A” begins as a symbol of sin. It then becomes a symbol of solitu
de and alienation, and finally it becomes a symbol of the word “Able”, “Angel”, and “Admirable”.
The letter “A” is the first letter of the word “Adultery”. It is considered as “the mark of guilt” w
hen it appears at the first time, for Hester commits the crime of adultery, in accordance with the stern puritan laws she is made to stand in the public scaffold with her illegitimate child and to wear the letter A embroidered on her dress. The puritan treatment continues. As Hester walks through the streets, she will be looked down upon as if she is some sort of demon from hell that commits a terrible crime. This letter is meant to be worn in shame, and to make Hester feel unwanted. “Here, s
he said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment.”  Hester is ashamed of her sin, but she could not escape it. Though she is ashamed, she also receives her great treasure —Pearl, as her only source of survival! She is a very strong woma
n to be able to hold up so well against what she must face. Other people will have fled Boston, and
seek a place where no one knows of her terrible sin. That Hester chooses to
8 stay there shows a lot of strength and integrity of her. The scarlet letter “A” also stands for
Hester’s lonely life in New England. After she is released, Hester lives in a cottage near the outskirts of the city. “It had been built by an earlier settler, and abandoned, because the soil about it was too sterile for cultivation, while its comparative remoteness put it out of the sphere of that social activity which already marked the habits of the emigrants.”  Hester’s social life is virtually elimin
ated as a result of her shameful history: However, there was nothing that made her feel as if she
belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came to contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than the rest
of human kind. She stood apart from moral interests…seemed to be the sole portion that she retai
ned in the universal heart.  Hester has no friends in the world, and little Pearl is the only companion of her lonely life, so the scarlet letter “A” is also a symbol of the words “Alone” and “Ali
enate”. Later the scarlet letter “A” also stands for Hester’s ability and virtuous hearts. So the scar
let letter “A” changes its meaning into being “Able”, “Angel”, and “Admirable”. Hester is skillful
in her beautiful needlework. The scarlet letter first shows her terrific skill. She stitches a large A onto her dress with gold tread, giving the letter an air of elegance. And her excellent needlework for
the rich allows her to maintain a fairly lifestyle. Furthermore she tries her best to help the poor and the
9 sick although she is really poor too: The letter was the symbol in her…so much power to d
o, and power to sympathies…that many people refused to interpret the scarlet letter “A” by its orig
inal signification. They said that is meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s stre
ngth…  Gradually, people begin to regard Hester as a diligent kindhearted and able woman. “
Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge? It is our Hester—the town’s own Hester—w
ho is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted!”  Till now Heste
r becomes a highly respected person in puritan society by overcoming one of the harshest punishments, the scarlet letter. This object on her bosom, however, does the exact opposite of that which it was meant for. Eventually, Hester inverts all the adds against here due to her courage, pride and effort. Hester went beyond the letter of the law and did everything asked for here in order to prove that she is able. At last, Hester became quite a popular seamstress, admired all over the town of Boston for her work. Thou, the letter “A” meant “Angel” in their eyes. The changes in The Scarlet L
etter are significant. They show the progressive possession of her sin, her lonely, and her ability. Hester is a strong woman who goes through more emotional torture than that of most people go through in a lifetime.
11 on the edge of the woods. It shows that Hester does not live under the strict puritanical moral code, but rather tries to live in a place of limbo between the moral and the immoral universe simultaneously. The stream in the forest also has its special meaning. In the chapter nineteen, Pearl refuses to cross the stream on the other side of the boundary, even though her parents think they can run away. “I have a strange fancy, that this brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thy Pearl again.” This brook is the boundary of two world—the child and the
parents; And it shows that the two lovers an never really meet their daughter. As the author mentioned earlier, The Scarlet Letter is pervaded with symbolism. Some prominent and complex symbols have already been revealed. However the novel also revolves around two other major symbols: light and darkness and the scarlet letter A! The novel is filled with light and darkness symbols because they represent the most common battle of all time, good versus evil. When Hester and her daughter are walking in the forest, Pearl exclaims: “Mother, the sunshine does not love you. It runs a
way and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. Now See! There it is, playing a good way off. Stand you here, and let me run and catch it. I am but a child. It will not flee from
me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet.” At that time Hester tries to stretch her hand into the
circle of light, but the sunshine vanishes. This short scene actually represents Hester’s daily strug
gle in her life. The light represents what Hester wants to be, which is pure. The movement of the light represents Hester’s constant denial of acceptance. Hester’s lack of surprise and quick suggesti
on to go into the forest, where is dark, shows that she never expected to be admitted and is resigned to her station in life.
V. Conclusion In closing, one of the most important reasons that The Scarlet Letter is so well known is the way Hawthorne leaves the novel open to be interpreted several different ways by his abundant use of symbolism. This background, together with a believable plot, convincing characterization, and important literary devices enable Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter develop the theme of the heart as a prison. Hawthorne describes the purpose of the novel when he says: “Be tr
ue! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worse, yet some trait whereby the worst
may be inferred!” The theme is beneficial because it can be put into term in today’s world. Th
e Scarlet Letter is one of the few books that will be timeless, because it deals with alienation, sin, punishment, and guilt, emotions that will continue to be felt by every generation to come. At the same time, through the tragic love between Hester and Dimmesdale, Hawthorne gives us the deep meaningful lesson: marriage should be based on pure love with aim to make both
18 men and women feel happy in their relationship.