In a very real sense, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a novel completely centered on symbolism. The mark of the title, so critical to the life and identity of Hester Prynne, dominates every page, as Hester’s fate is the crux of the novel. This is not unexpected in a work focusing on the effects of shame within a culture; stigma typically is represented by symbols, in order for the society to have a literal translation of the idea, or shame, attached to it. Hawthorne expands the meaning of this, however, and not merely in providing dimension to the letter itself. The stigma exists as well in the symbolism of Pearl, the child of the transgression, and this living representation allows the author to penetrate deeply into meanings – and effects – of stigma beyond the obvious. In the two dominant symbols of The Scarlet Letter, then, Hawthorne explores aspects of redemption, personal identity, and profound understanding which greatly transcend the parameters of the symbols themselves.
It is interesting to note how Hawthorne creates a duality regarding the scarlet letter from the beginning. He arranges Hester’s reintroduction to the town theatrically; the people are eagerly awaiting this woman who has committed sin, as the women argue over the limitations of the sentence imposed upon her. It is quickly established that Hester has defied the codes of the intensely Puritan community, and her release from prison is nothing short of an event.. At the same time, the expectancy is for the letter as much as for the sight of Hester, and this creates dimension in the overt symbol linking it completely to Hester’s identity. This in itself is achieved by an enhancement of the literal symbol by Hester herself; it is no plain ‘A”, but a beautifully embroidered letter in gold and red thread. Consequently, the shame anticipated as attached to it takes on a quality of defiance, just as Hester’s beauty stuns the town. It is evident that the guilty woman has chosen to exalt the symbol of her shame, or so it appears to the community: “’She hath good skill at her needle…did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it?’” (Hawthorne 51). From the start, then, core symbolism in the novel is open to various interpretations, as the idea of shame is expanded.
The actual impact of the symbol and the shame is never diminished by Hawthorne. Hester’s imprisonment generates in her a preternatural sensitivity, and her mind goes to her past with striking clarity, even as she is in the grip of her present misery. It is clear, however, that she comprehends the full weight of the brand, which will create her identity for the town: “The young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast” (73).
The symbol of the letter must come to symbolize her as a representation of sin, and she feels this. Nonetheless, and going back to the impulse that led her to lavishly embroider the letter, it seems she is also in a position to understand the meaning of shame far better than those condemning her. Hester glorifies the ‘A’ she wears because, in a sense, she recognizes a deeper meaning to shame, or a variety of it more profound than any sexual transgression. She is consumed with remorse, but not precisely for the perceived sin; rather, she feels more acutely the wrong she has done to Chillingworth, a wrong all the more intense because she never loved him. The symbol and the sin then serve as gateways for Hester’s greater appreciation of what is right; they have enhanced meaning because, just as she has embellished the symbol, they are more than they appear to be. This then translates to her identity as an evolving woman, and it may then be argued that Hester’s “embracing” of the symbol is a means of freedom for her. It certainly frees her to explore meaning beyond overt sin that others ignore.
Even more rich in symbolic meaning is Pearl, the uncanny product of Hester’s union with Dimmesdale. The child is alien to the mother herself, even as she clings to her, a reality certainly enhanced by the innate strangeness of the little girl. Hester regards her with wonder, asking who and what in fact she is, and Pearl’s laughing response that she is Hester’s elicits an interesting response: “’Thou art not my child! Thou art no Pearl of mine,’ said the mother half playfully, for it was often the case that a sportive impulse came over her in the midst of her deepest suffering” (90). The reader wonders: just how “sportive” is this impulse, given the circumstances? Pearl is the living manifestation of the sin, far more dimensional than any letter, and this is a symbol so powerful, it baffles Hester.
Once again, then, shame is expanded, and more remarkably. The girl is strange but delightful, and bright and active; she therefore defies in her being the very idea of sin, as she herself is no dire consequence. It then follows that Hester must regard her with love, fear, and curiosity. Hester may be compelled to embellish her letter, prompted by unknown motives to enhance what is meant to be shameful, but Pearl eclipses such efforts as minor. She is a “prize” awarded when only misery should follow, so her symbolic impact is vast. Pearl’s presence calls into question the most fundamental concerns of sin, and this acts to promote Hester’s own spirit of defiance and sense of what is truly sinful. Pearl is, by virtue of her strangeness, symbolic of an undefined or unknown quality of good, or how good and sin are inextricably linked. She is an infant symbol, then, of mysteries Hester undertakes in her soul.
It may be argued that the impact of the chief symbols in The Scarlet Letter, the child Pearl and the letter itself, is so strong that the story is more a parable or fable than a novel. Hawthorne’s work is very much a novel, however, because he presents how such symbols exist as actual forces in life. The letter, translated by Hester into something beautiful, then reflects her evolving awareness of herself as identified with sin, and meaning beneath this. Similarly, the living Pearl is as powerful a symbol as may be conceived, presenting a challenge of profound dimensions to her troubled mother. In his usage of these two primary symbols of The Scarlet Letter, then, Hawthorne explores elements of redemption, personal identity, and deep understanding which greatly transcend the parameters of the symbols themselves.