>> 首页 >> 荣县中学英语校园网 >> 教育动态 >> 网文精华 >> 文章正文
A Summary of the Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter
发表时间:2008-9-28 19:54:37 来源:荣县中学 编辑:刘金生

[Abstract]: The Scarlet Letter makes the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne known all around the world. Hawthorne uses the symbolism so skillful that it enhances the artistic effects of his work greatly. This paper researches the symbolism in this novel from the following aspects: the changing symbolic meaning of the scarlet letter and the names of the major characters to make the symbolism clear to the readers.

[Keywords]: The Scarlet Letter, symbolism


[摘要 ] 《红字》使美国作家霍桑誉满全球,作者在作品中采用的象征手法贯穿始终的、无处不在,加强了作品的艺术效果。本文从红字的多种象征意义和主要人物的人命寓意入手,研究《红字》中的象征手法。


[ 关键词 ] :《红字》,象征  


Nathaniel Hawthorne is considered to be the first greatest American fiction writer in the moralistic tradition. His work The Scarlet Letter that is notable for its allegory and symbolism is regarded as the first symbolic novel in American literature. The novel revolves around one major symbol: the scarlet letter. Besides the names of the four major characters’: Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chilling worth and Pearl also have their symbolic meanings. The Scarlet Letter is a novel

of much symbolic.


1. Different meanings of the scarlet letter "A":

1.1 The Changes of the Symbolic Meaning of the Scarlet Letter “A”.

Symbolism is traditionally a sign or token of something. In the matter of literature, the definition of the literary device, symbolism is more complicated. Symbols of literature are usually metaphysical. In this novel, the scarlet letter "A" changes its meaning many different times. This change is significant. It shows growth in the characters, and the community in which they live. The letter "A" begins as a symbol of sin. It then becomes a symbol of alone and alienation, and finally it becomes a symbol of able, angel and admirable.

1.1.1        Adultery


The main symbol of The Scarlet Letter is the red "A" that Hester Prynne was sentenced to wear on her chest. Nathaniel Hawthorne's intention was to make the meaning of the crimson token worn on the bosom of Hester Prynne is highly ambiguous. The letter "A", worn on Hester's bosom, is a symbol of her adultery against Roger Chilling worth. This is the puritan way of treating her as a criminal, for the crime of adultery. The puritan treatment continues, because 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, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment…(P74)" Hester is ashamed of her sin, but she chooses not to show it. She commits this sin in the heat of passion, and fully admits it because, though she is ashamed, she also receives her greatest treasure, Pearl, out of it. She is a very strong woman to be able to hold up so well against what she must face. Many will have fled Boston, and seek a place where no one knows of her great sin. Hester chooses to stay though, which shows a lot of strength and integrity. Any woman with enough nerve to hold up against a town, which despises her very existence, and to stay in a place where her daughter is referred to as a "devil child," either has some sort of psychological problem, or is a very tough woman.


1.1.2 Alone and Alienation


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.” (P75) Hester's social life is virtually eliminated as a result of her shameful history. Hester comes to have a part to perform in the world with her native energy of character and rare capacity." 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 retained in the universal heart."(P78) Hester has no friends in the world, and little Pearl is the only companion of her lonely life, so the scarlet letter “A” also is a symbol of the words “alone” and “alienate”.

1.1.2        Able, Admirable and Angel 


 Along with meaning "adultery" or "Alone", Hester Prynne's letter "A" stood for "able". Hester Prynne was a very able woman. She was too strong of a woman for Puritan Boston right from the start. That was known from the very beginning of the novel when she faced the people of Boston with her sentence and her dignity. She always held her head high. She was able to accept her punishment. She was able to take with pride all the torment the townspeople could throw at her. Hester was also an able mother, nurse and seamstress. Despite everyone's talk about Pearl, Hester never let that interfere with her mothering Pearl. She was able to bring up a strong daughter. Hester had a strong devotion to her work as a nurse. She also went on with her work as a seamstress. Hester's most important accomplishment was her ability to overcome her sentence. She accepted her sin and accepted herself. She learned to love who she was. By accepting herself other people began to follow her example and embrace not what she was labeled as. Later, the scarlet letter “A” changes its meaning into being able, angel and admirable. The townspeople who condemned her now believe the scarlet letter to stand for her ability to her beautiful needlework and for her unselfish assistance to the poor and sick. “The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness is found in her so much power to do and power to sympathize - that many people refuses to interpret the scarlet letter ‘A’ by its original signification.”(P148) At this point, a lot of the townspeople realize what a noble character Hester possesses. Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge? It is our Hester – the town’s own Hester – who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comforting to the afflicted!”(149) The townspeople soon begin to believe that the badge served to ward off evil, and Hester grows to be quite admirable amongst the people of the town. Hester overcomes the shame of her sin through the purity and goodness of her soul. Unselfishly offering her time and love to those who need her most proves that she is not worthy of the fate which has been dealt to her.


The three changes in the scarlet letter are significant; they show the progressive possession of her sin, her lonely life, and her ability. Hester is a strong admirable woman who goes through more emotional torture that most people go through in a lifetime.

1.2.Biblical Archetype


The scarlet letter "A" also can be seen the symbol of Adam. It tells us that Hester's sin is the original sin of human being, it is forgivable. The writer shows his sympathy by describing the scarlet letter "A" on Hester's clothing as an ornament and a decoration. Hester's making the scarlet letter "A" into a thing of beauty offends many bystanders, who comment that, “it were well if we stripped Madame Hester's rich gown off her dainty shoulders."(P51) However, as a young woman observes, "not a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she has felt it in her heart." (P51) The feeling of sympathy, only expressed by one of the characters throughout this scene, is used by Hawthorne

to criticize the puritans for their strictness. The society is too strict in its ways, and Hawthorne shows his contempt for the treatment of Hester by constantly reinforcing how cruelly the people talk about her. Hawthorne says at the end of Chapter One," Finding it (rosebush) so directly on the

threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweat moral blossom, that may be found alone the track, or relieve the

darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow."(P46) This kind of sympathy can be seen in the novel everywhere. To Hester, the scarlet letter "A" also stands for her lover, Pearl's father, Arthur Dimmesdale. Her fantastically embroidering the scarlet letter "A", which means adultery, is somehow a way she shows her passion for Arthur. Her refusing to tell the name of Pearl's father is a way to protect him. Her choosing to remain in New England after she is released is because it is the place where her lover stays. " There dwelt, there trod the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union, before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage-alter, for a joint futurity of endless retribution."(P74) She wears the scarlet letter for seven years, and misses her lover in this way. Only when she meets Arthur again in the forest seven years later, deciding to flee to somewhere else, does she throw the scarlet letter away. After Dimmesdale's death, Hester and Pearl disappear for several years. Despite living with her daughter, Hester comes

back to live the rest of her life in her cottage again, and picks up the scarlet letter for the third time. To Hester, there is a more real life in New England than in that unknown region where Pearl has founded a home. "Here had been her sin, here, her sorrow, and here was yet to be her penitence." (P238)Moreover, here is where her lover lies. Hester eventually dies and is buried in the King's Chapel Cemetery. " It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tombstone served for both."--- " ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER, GULES"(P240)


2. The Symbolic Meaning of the four Major Characters' Names:

2.1 Hester Prynne


Hester Prynne is one of the major characters in The Scarlet Letter. The writer gives her much symbolic meaning by giving her this name. Hester sounds like Hester, Zeus' sister in Greek mythology, who is a very beautiful goddess. This gives us a sense that Hester is a passionate beautiful woman. In this novel, she is the symbol of the truth, the goodness and the beauty. Nathaniel Hawthorne describes her in Chapter Two like this: "The young woman was tall, a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale, she had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes…"(P50) For so many years, Hester refuses to speak out the name of her partner in sin, but takes over all the punishment by herself. Instead of running from the hostile colonists, Hester withstands their insolence and pursues a normal life. She proves her worth with her uncommon sewing skills and provides community service. Hester's own sin gives her "sympathetic knowledge of the sin in other hearts." Even though the people she tries to help "often reviled the hand that was stretched forth to succor them," she continues her services because she actually cares. At last, the colonists come to think of the scarlet letter as “the cross on a nun's bosom", which is not small accomplishment.  Also, Hester is the homophone of the word haste. At first, she gets married to Roger Prynne, an ugly man who gives his best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge. Not having got the news about her husband who should have arrived by ship from England, she falls love with Arthur hastily and gives birth to Pearl, for which she is condemned to wear on the breast of her gown the scarlet letter "A", which stands for adultery. But Hester’s adultery haste is nothing but a very natural thing to do. In the Holy Bible, Adam and Eve, the very ancestors of human being, who live in the Garden of Eden, eat the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden tricked by the serpent. After that, they begin to know good and evil, and also they begin to know sex. Adultery is nothing but the original sin of human being. God’s punishment to them is just sending them forth from the Garden of Eden. But in The Scarlet Letter, Hester is tortured physically and mentally for her sin. Hester says to Dimmesdale in the forest later,What we did had a consecration of its own, we felt so!”(P179) In essence, their sin is no worse than Adam and Eve ’ s. The punishment of puritan society is somehow too hard on a woman who is led by human instinct.

2.2 Arthur Dimmesdale


Arthur Dimmesdale is a well-regarded young minister, whose initials are AD, which also stands for adultery. The author obviously tells us Author Dimmesdale is the partner in sin of Hester Prynne by giving him this name. The word Dimmesdale also has many symbolic meanings. Dim means dark and weak, and dale means valley, so the dim dale here is actually a symbol of the "dim-interior" of the clergyman. He loves Hester deeply, and he is the father of Pearl, but he can only show his passion for her in the forest or in darkness. His response to the sin is to lie. He stands before Hester and the rest of the town and proceeds to give a moving speech about how it would be in her and the father's best interest for her to reveal the father's name. Though he never actually says that he is not the other partner, he implies it by talking of the father in third person. Such as, "If thou feeblest it to be for thy soul's peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer"(P63). He concedes his guilt for seven years, at the same time; he is tortured by his sin for so many years. He punishes himself by believing that he can never be redeemed. He feels that he will never been seen the same in the eyes of God, and that no amount of penitence can ever return him to God's good graces. He hates his hypocrisy to sin, but dares not tell the truth that he is the fellow-sinner of Hester. When he finally decides to expose the truth and tell his followers of how he deceives them, his fixation on his sin has utterly corroded him to the point of death. The only good that comes out of conceding his guilt is that he passes away without any secrets, for he is already too far gone to be able to be saved. At the end of the story, the writer put the morals which press upon the readers from the poor minister's miserable experience into one sentence," Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!" (P236)

2.3 Roger Chillingworth


Roger Chillingworth, like all of Hawthorne’s main characters, is complex and difficult to see through. The words “chilling” and “worth” compose the surname Chillingworth. Chilling comes from the word “chilly”, which means this man is a merciless avenger. He is calm in temperament, kindly, but keep evil intentions. Being a man already in decay and misshapen from his birth hour, he married Hester, a woman with youth and beauty, deluding himself with the idea that intellectual gifts might veil physical deformity in a young girl's fantasy. He married Hester not because he loved her but because he wanted to light a household fire in his lonely and chilly heart. He is a bookworm who spends his best time in libraries, and shows no love to his young wife. It is he that has destroyed Hester's flower like youth, and indirectly leads to Hester's tragedy. After he discovers that his wife bore another man's child, Roger gives up his independence. He used to be

a scholar, who dedicates his best years "to feed the hungry dream of knowledge," but his new allegiance becomes finding and slowly punishing the man who seduces his wife. He soon becomes obsessed with his new mission in life, and when he targets Reverend Dimmesdale as the possible parent, he disguises himself as one trust friend of the minister, attaching himself to him as a parishioner. For seven years, he digs into the minister's heart with keen pleasure. He searches the minister’s thoughts; he causes the poor minister to die daily a living death. He searches into the minister's dim interior for a long time, and turns over many precious a tread, and as wary an outlook, as a thief entering a chamber where a man lies only half asleep,--- or, if it may be, broad awake,--- with purpose to steal the very treasure which this man guards as the apple of his eyes,"(P119) When he finally found the scarlet letter "A" on the bosom of the minister, he busted out a ghastly rapture, When he does these, he is turning from a victim to a sinner. Chillingworth is also means that the avenger's life is worthless. When he finds his wife betrays him, he dedicates all his time to seeking revenge. He gives up his identity, living with the minister and being by his side all day, every day. His largest sacrifice is by far, his own life. After spending so much time dwelling on his revenge, Chillingworth forgets that he still has a change to lead a life of his own. So after Dimmesdale reveals his secret to the world, " All his strength and energy---- all his vital and intellectual force--- seemed at once to desert him; in so much that he positively withered up, shriveled away, and almost vanied from mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun."(P236) Chillingworth dies less that a year later because he has nothing left to live for. The poor forlorn creature is more wretched than his victim is --- the avenger had devoted himself.

2.4 Pearl


Pearl is one of the most complex and misunderstood symbols in the book, the daughter of Hester Prynne. Pearl, throughout the story, develops into a dynamic symbol - one that is always changing. Pearl was a source of many different kinds of symbolism. From being a living scarlet letter, to a

valuable thing with high price, then to the moral in this novel. She was a kind of burden, yet love for Hester.


The most significant symbolic meaning of Pearl in the novel is her association with the scarlet letter “A”. When Hester stood fully revealed before the crowd, it is her first impulse to clasp Pearl closely to her bosom; "not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby

conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress."(P50) "In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm…”(p50 ) Hester embroidered the scarlet letter with gold thread fantastically, and she had allowed the gorgeous tendencies of her imagination their full playing contriving Pearl's garb. “And, indeed, of the child's whole appearance, that it irresistibly reminded the beholder of the token which Hester Prynne was doomed to wear upon her bosom.”(P93) Pearl really was the scarlet letter, the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life.


Pearl is a girl of rich and luxuriant beauty. “There was fire in her and throughout her, she seemed the unpremeditated offshoot of a passionate moment.”(P93) The Bible says," the kingdom of heaven is like merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and

sold all that he had and bought it."(Matthew 13-14) Hester named the infant "pearl", as being of great price, --- purchased with all she had, --- her only treasure! if Pearl had never been born, Hester would have never been found guilty of adultery, and thus never would have had to wear that burden upon her chest. Without that burden, Hester would have led a much better life than the one she had throughout the novel. Although Hester has so much trouble with Pearl, she still feels that Pearl is her treasure. Pearl is really the only thing that Hester has in her life. Once and a while,

Pearl will bring joy to Hester's life, and that helps her to keep on living. If Pearl isn't in Hester's life, Hester will almost surely have committed suicide. This can be proved in Chapter 8, The Elf-child and the Minister. After Hester gets the permission to still keep Pearl at her side, Mistress

Hibbins invites her to go to the forest to meet the Black Man together with her. But Hester refuses and says, with a triumphant smile,” I must tarry at home, and keep watch over my little Pearl. Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Man’s book too, and that with mine own blood!”(P98) It is Pearl that saves Hester from Satan’s snare.


Pearl also serves as moral in this novel, the moral she is meant to teach is that Hester and Dimmesdale should fully commits their sin and then take responsibility for their sin. The first thing Pearl see in her infancy is the scarlet letter on her mother’s bosom. As a baby, she even reaches up and touches the letter, causing her mother intense agony at the shame it generated in her. Later, she plays a game when she throws flowers at her mother and jumps around in glee every time, she hits the scarlet letter. She also makes her own letter “A” to wear. When she finds Hester removes the scarlet letter from her chest in the forest, Pearl starts screaming and convulsing and refuses to cross the stream until Hester reattaches the letter. She is really a constant mental and physical reminder to Hester of what she has done wrong. With Pearl at her side, Hester will never escape the punishment of her wrong deed.


Moreover, Pearl is the person who eventually makes Dimmesdale admits his crime. She constantly asks why the minister keeps putting his hand over his heart, and figures out it are for the same reason that her mother wears the scarlet letter. Her role as a living scarlet letter is to announce to the whole world that the guilt parents are. After Dimmesdale manages to keep the mother and daughter together in the governor’s hall,  Pearl responses amazingly. She takes his hand and places her cheek against it. This simple gesture is full of meaning, because it implies that Pearl recognizes Dimmesdale as being connected to her. Meanwhile, Pearl’s stand of urging the minister to commit his sin is firm. When Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold where Hester suffered her public humiliation several years before, he meets Hester and Pearl, who have been at Governor Winthrop’s deathbed, taking measurements for a robe; he invites them to join him on the stand. When all three hold hands, Pearl asks Dimmesdale,” Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, tomorrow noontide?”(P140) Dimmesdale answers,” Not so, my child, I shall, indeed, stand with thy mother and thee, one other day, but not tomorrow.”(P141) Pearl laughs and attempts to pull away her hand until the minister promises to take her hand and her mother’s hand at “the great judgment day”. When they later meet in the forest, Hester says to Pearl, “He loves thee, my little Pearl, and loves thy mother too. Wilt thou love him?” Pearl says, Doth he love us?”  Then asks, “Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?” The answer is not now”. So when Dimmesdale impresses a kiss on her brow before they leave the forest, “Pearl broke away from her mother, and, running to the brook, stooped over it, and bathed her forehead, until the unwelcome kiss was quite washed off…” (P194) At the end of the novel, when the minister climbs up the scaffold with the help of Hester and Pearl, confessing his sin to his followers, Pearl kisses his lips. She accepts her father finally. Pearl’s role as the living scarlet letter is over, and Dimmesdale, who finally takes responsibility for his sin, has learned the moral, which

she is meant to teach.

4. The conclusion


Symbolism is a traditional artistic form; it also is a major feature of Romanticism. As a famous writer of romanticism, Hawthorne is skillful at the using of symbolism in his works. The various usage of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter makes the novel a work of the world.




[1] http://; www.gradesavor.com/ClassicNotes/Titles/thescarletletter/fullsumm.htm/

[2]Hawthorne Nathaniel .1981.The Scarlet letter [M].USA: Bantam Books.

[3]Holy Bible.1995.Nanjing: China Christian Council



[6]胡荫桐,刘树森.《美国文学教程》[M].天津:南开大学出版社 1997.

[7]霍桑.《红字》[M].北京:人民文学出版社 1991.

[8]姜岚. 试论《红字》人物的象征与反衬[J].济宁师专学报,1999,(10):65-69.







来源:荣县中学  编辑:刘金生
COPYRIGHT 2008 四川省荣县中学校版权所有 四川省荣县中学校8211联合设计制作
地址:四川省荣县旭阳镇文庙街110号 备案序号:蜀ICP备07000966号 邮政编码:643100
Email:rxzxbgs@126.com 联系电话:0813-6201508