The basic story of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is that of a woman rearing an illegitimate child alone. She has no friends and little confidence in her own goodness, and enjoys not even the simplest pleasures in life. Her child is labeled the child of the devil. Shame and guilt were the inevitable consequences of unwed motherhood for well over three hundred years after the seventeenth century, the time of The Scarlet Letter. One begins to see many human elements that the scarlet letter represents as the novel moves along. While the letter has many implied meanings, it also has particular and explicit meanings. The scarlet letter, in addition, has many implied meanings. To get at the many meanings of the scarlet letter, it is useful to see, first, how it is represented in the community, and finally, to its specific relationship to Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth.
The religious society of Boston, even though it is located in the New World, on the edge of uncharted wilderness, has little other affinity with nature and the natural; nor has the community acknowledged the full truth of the scarlet letter; nor is it tolerant of the whole range of human faculties, from angel to adulteress, that the letter represents (Johnson 1995). The people of the community, like their harsh ancestors whose portraits hang in the governor’s mansion, gaze “with harsh and intolerant criticism at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men” (106). Hester wears an “A” for her passion, but despite a theology that teaches that all people are innately, or by nature, evil, the community does not recognize that they themselves are sexual or passionate.
Joy is frowned upon in this community as well. No entertainments, especially those that make people laugh, are allowed at the Election Day festival: “All such professors of the branches of jocularity would have been sternly repressed not only by the rigid discipline of law, but by the general sentiment which gives law its vitality” (217). One need only compare Pearl’s joyous play with the other Puritan children’s grim games. Furthermore, the narrator remarks that this suppression of an essential part of human nature continues well into the nineteenth century:
Their immediate posterity, the generation next to the early emigrants, wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up. We have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gayety. (218)
It is such a community that compels Hester Prynne to wear a scarlet letter as punishment for giving birth to an illegitimate child. In examining the meaning of the scarlet letter to Hester and her lover, Dimmesdale, it is important to note their relationship to both the letter “A” and to little Pearl, who so often represents the letter (Johnson 1995). It is appropriate that Hester, unlike the child’s father, has to wear the badge of her passion for all to see, for by virtue of her biological nature, she cannot, as he can, hide the consequences of giving way to that desire. From the first, everyone sees that she is pregnant and that she gives birth to a child who then lives by her side, a reminder of what she is and has done always in full public view.
Hester gives the reader an important clue to her attitude when she immediately and richly embroiders the scarlet letter with gold thread. The community is outraged that she has made a mockery of her punishment by making this plain symbol of adultery into a gorgeous decoration:
On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter “A.” It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony. (60)
The women in the community recognize the impertinence of what she has done to negate the awful meaning of the letter:
“She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain,” remarked one of her female spectators; “but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?”
“It were well,” muttered the most iron-visaged of the old dames, “if we stripped Madam Hester’s rich gown off her dainty shoulders; and for the red letter, which she hath stitched so curiously, I’ll bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one!” (61)
If the “A,” as we have seen, is a symbol of the full range of human nature, both of its base and its angelic qualities, then in assigning her an “A” of scarlet to wear as punishment, the community shows that it regards human nature, especially passion, to be devilish. And Hester, in embroidering the letter in gold, is trying to change her human reality, to make it prettier than it really is. She also is ashamed of her human nature. This can be seen in the way she dresses to present herself to the community, in somber gray hues and with her hair hidden under her cap:
There seemed to be no longer anything in Hester’s face for Love to dwell upon; nothing in Hester’s form, though majestic and statue-like, that Passion would ever dream of clasping in its embrace; nothing in Hester’s bosom to make it ever again the pillow of Affection. (158)
Even though she doesn’t remove the scarlet letter publicly when Chillingworth tells her seven years later that the townspeople say she may, she does take it off privately in the forest. This action and Pearl’s violent reaction to the removal of the letter seem to suggest that, even after seven years, she has not accepted the truth of her passionate nature (which is, of course, the truth of every person’s nature, not just hers).
Hester’s scarlet letter represents not only her creativity as a mother but her creativity as a seamstress. “A” also stands for her artistic nature. As the narrator writes of her sewing, “It was the art, —then, as now, almost the only one within a woman’s grasp— of needlework” (85). Yet, tutored as she is by her Puritan contemporaries, she also feels guilty about her art, and, in fact, about anything that gives her pleasure, as her art does: “Like all other joys, she rejected it as a sin” (87).
So, as the narrator tells us, “the scarlet letter had not done its office” (160). The community had intended that wearing it would cause Hester to feel repentant. But she doesn’t. Rather than coming to believe that she must accept her true nature and love others in order to repent (in other words, that repentance must come from within), she believes that change should come from society, not within herself.
Hester’s greatest self-deception, however, is believing that through her charitable acts within the community she can change her human nature and make up for what she is and has done. She has become a sister of mercy, ministering to the sick and dying, but she has no charity in her heart. To Dimmesdale in the forest she says, “Is there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and witnessed by good works?” (183). In the same scene, the narrator concludes that the trials that Hester has endured because of the scarlet letter have “taught her much amiss” (190).
Yet, ironically, it is what the scarlet letter represents that saves her: her pride, her passionate love for Dimmesdale, the child that she has created and embraced, and her vocation as an artist. As she tells the three men in the governor’s mansion, “Pearl keeps me here in life!” (112). Just after this visit, she declines old Mistress Hibbins’s invitation to a witches’ meeting, saying that if Pearl had been taken from her, she would have succumbed: “Even thus early had the child saved her from Satan’s snare” (116). These things make it possible for her to survive the isolation and humiliation heaped upon her by the community and to have a greater hold on truth than her unfortunate lover has.
The first and most obvious is that Hester’s “A” stands for adultery and, as the narrator puts it, “women’s frailty and sinful passion” (83). But the “A” on her breast begins to represent different things as Hester’s story unfolds. For example, as a result of her charitable acts in the community, some people begin to think the “A” stands for able. And when the community sees a scarlet “A” in the sky on the night of John Winthrop’s death, they believe it stands for angel. So, in the course of the novel, the “A” seems to encompass the entire range of human beingness, from the earthly and passionate “adulteress” to the pure and spiritual “angel,” taking into account everything in between.
The scarlet letter is not only the token of Hester’s violation of the social code and of her pride and vanity, but it also typifies her moral aberration in the spiritual world. In this badge Hawthorne depicts Hester’s sin by means of witchcraft symbolism. The letter, as with a magic spell, encloses her in a sphere by herself (p. 74). She tells Pearl that the letter is the mark of the Black Man, whom she once met (p. 223), and twice she converses briefly with Mistress Hibbins, the witch (pp. 144, 286-288). On the first of these occasions, Mistress Hibbins announces that there will be a meeting of witches with the Black Man and urges Hester to attend.
In her relation to Pearl, there is the same horrible division in Hester’s heart. The child is the scarlet letter incarnate. Once she is compared to the demon of plague or scarlet fever – a demoniacal little creature, in her red dress. Then again she is tender and loving – but always uncertain. The subtle, steely pallid mockery is never absent from her eyes. The strange Judas principle, of betrayal, of the neutralisation of the one impulsive self against the other, this is purely expressed in Pearl. She can love with clinging tenderness – only that she may draw away and hit the mouth that kisses her, with a mocking laugh. She can hate with dark passion – only to turn again with easy, indifferent friendliness, more insulting than rage. Her principle is the truly deadly principle of betrayal for betrayal’s sake – the real demon principle, which just neutralises the sensual impulse with a spiritual gesture, and neutralises the spiritual impulse with a sensual gesture, creates a perfect frustration, neutralisation, and laughs with recurrent mockery. This is the one single motive of Pearl’s being, this motive of neutralisation into nothingness. And her triumph is in her jeering laugh. In the end, very fitly, she marries an Italian nobleman. But we are not told whether she outmatched him, or he her, in diabolic opposition (Reynolds 2001).
Hester, inevitably, hates something that Pearl is. And as well she cherishes the child as her one precious treasure. Pearl is the continuing of her terrible revenge on all life. “The child could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence a great law had been broken; and the result was a being whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder, or with an order peculiar to themselves, amidst which the point of variety and arrangement was difficult or impossible to be discovered” (55).
“A” also stands for Arthur; whether actually or metaphorically, Dimmesdale also wears a scarlet letter over his heart and is constantly aware of it (Crowley 1995). He knows that it is there, but he refuses to acknowledge it to the rest of the community, and rather than accepting the truth of his nature, he is tortured by it and tries to change it. This refusal is consistent with his rejection of Hester as his lover and Pearl as his child. But passion is nevertheless a decided part of Dimmesdale’s basic nature. Indeed, “passion” is a word frequently used in describing what in most respects is a pale, passive man. When he loses his temper at Chillingworth, the old physician observes: “But see, now, how passion takes hold upon this man, and hurrieth him out of himself! As with one passion, so with another! He hath done a wild thing ere now, this pious Master Dimmesdale, in the hot passion of his heart” (34). In the forest with Hester, Dimmesdale’s fury upon learning that Chillingworth is her husband is described as “the violence of passion” (185).
The ultimate proof that Dimmesdale denies the truth of his nature, as represented by the scarlet letter, lies in his pretense of saintliness, even though he has felt sufficient sexual passion to father a child with a woman who is married to someone else:
The minister well knew—subtile, but remorseful hypocrite that he was!—the light in which his vague confession would he viewed. He had striven to put a cheat upon himself by making the avowal of a guilty conscience, but had gained only one other sin, and a self-acknowledged shame, without the momentary relief of being self-deceived. He had spoken the very truth, and transformed it into the veriest falsehood. (140, 141)
At the same time, he also—in secret—attempts to literally beat his passion out of himself in his closet. Even his midnight vigil on the scaffold is a way of trying to give himself peace without showing the public his scarlet letter. The narrator says: “Was it but a mockery of penitence? A mockery, indeed, but in which his soul trifled with itself! A mockery at which angels blushed and wept, while fiends rejoiced with jeering laughter!” (144).
Still, the fact of Dimmesdale’s human nature remains. It surfaces when he leaves the forest after his talk with Hester and begins to fantasize about behaving indecently:
As she drew nigh, the archfiend whispered him to condense into small compass and drop into her tender bosom a germ of evil that would be sure to blossom darkly soon, and bear black fruit betimes. Such was his sense of power over this virgin soul, trusting him as she did, that the minister felt potent to blight all the field of innocence with but one wicked look, and develop all its opposite with but a word. (207)
Chillingworth, in his connection with the scarlet letter, is the worst of the Puritan community. He is always identified as the devil or the devil’s emissary (126), as an “archfiend” (151). Pearl, who sees through everyone, is the first to associate him with Satan. And by the time of Hester’s last private interview with him, just before she reveals his identity to Dimmesdale, she also sees him as a satanic figure in the form of a bat (169).
He is the epitome of cold intellect and old age, without the full range of redeeming qualities generated by the heart and soul. He has been a scholar in Europe and passes for a medical scholar in the New World. In Hester’s memory of him, even when they married, he was already old and wedded to his books. She remembers him as “a man well stricken in years, a pale, thin, scholar-like visage, with eyes dim and bleared by the lamplight that had served them to pore over many ponderous books” (65). In the jail after Hester has stood on the scaffold, Chillingworth describes himself as “a man of thought, the bookworm of great libraries—a man already in decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge” (78). Then, seven years later, Chillingworth adds to this, remembering himself as a cold, old intellectual when he was married to Hester in Europe:
Even then I was in the autumn of my days, nor was it the early autumn. But all my life had been made up of earnest, studious, thoughtful, quiet years, bestowed faithfully for the increase of mine own knowledge…. Was I not, though you might deem me cold, nevertheless a man thoughtful for others … and of constant if not warm affections? (166).
In The Scarlet Letter, adultery, unnamed, begins as the “self-evident” meaning of a woman alone with a child exposed to public scorn. The identification of Pearl with the letter further emphasizes that its meaning must be understood historically, through experience, growth, and development. The Scarlet Letter does consider an alternative status for the letter, for its embroidery manifests Hester’s will and not only that of the public.
Crowley, J. Donald. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Critical Heritage. Routledge: London, 1997.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. J. M. Dent & Sons: London, 1906.
Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding the Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, 1995.
Reynolds, Larry J. A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Oxford University Press: New York, 2001.