Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Prison Door

The prison door is described as having never known "a youthful era," i.e., innocence (1.2). It’s made of iron and is a little worse for wear, if you catch our drift. Yet, the wild rosebush that grows at the side of the portal is its saving grace. The rosebush represents kindness and forgiveness to the prisoners who must face either a prison sentence or a death sentence (1.2). The iron door seems to represent all that is strict and unrelenting in Puritan society, while the rosebush seems to represent the concept of "grace" or forgiveness. In Christian thought, grace is "unmerited mercy," that is, forgiveness of sins even though forgiveness is undeserved. Since the prison is a place of darkness and sin, the beauty of a wild rose bush growing in such an unexpected place is a symbol of grace. We encounter this prison door and this rosebush in the very first pages of The Scarlet Letter, and both objects seem to tell us that, even in a place of such cold and rigid law, there is hope and there is love.

Pearl, Hester’s Daughter

Pearl, Hester’s daughter, is a symbol of all that Hester gave up when she committed adultery and gave up her place in Puritan society. Pearl is a "pearl of great price," a reference to Jesus’ proverb in the Gospel of Matthew: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it." Matthew 13:45-46. Hester has gone through hell and high water as a result of giving birth to a child. She lives in perpetual punishment because of Pearl, and that is why she loves Pearl so much. The name “Pearl” makes us think of precious jewels, and there is indeed something very regal about Pearl – we know that she becomes a great and wealthy heiress. The name “Pearl” also reminds us of the fact that pearls come from oysters, and oysters are hard to pry open at times. Pearl definitely is not an easy nut to crack – she mysterious and full of mischief.

The Scarlet Letter

The symbolism behind the scarlet letter A changes throughout this novel. Though initially this letter A symbolizes the sin of adultery, Hester Prynne alters its meaning through her hard work and charity. Some people begin to suggest that the A stands for "able," since Hester is such a capable woman. Others begin to recognize that the scarlet letter has begun to achieve holiness, righteousness. It has "the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness, which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril. Had she fallen among thieves, it would have kept her safe" (13.5). Many years later, when Hester returns and voluntarily takes up the scarlet letter again, it has become, for her and others, a symbol of grace.

Hester sews this letter herself while in prison, and the result is breathtaking:

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. (2.10)

By embroidering the “A” so finely and ornately, Hester takes control of her own punishment. She owns it. Though the letter causes Hester to live a lonely life of banishment and ostracization, it seems almost immediately to become a symbol for something far nobler than “adultery.” The letter showcases her talent and artistry – skills that allow her to make a living as a single parent in Puritan Boston. As such, it represents her strength and independence. Such qualities set her apart from every other woman around her. Wearing the letter cuts her off from society, but it also frees her in many ways. She is able to observe the cold and strict ways of Puritan society from the perspective of an outsider.

The Red Mark on Dimmesdale’s Chest

The red mark on Dimmesdale’s chest in the shape of the letter A is the physical manifestation of the minister’s guilt. We are never given an exact description of this mark or its origins, but Dimmesdale tells Hester it is from God. Although he refuses to confess and be punished, his sin ultimately marks his body more permanently than Hester’s scarlet letter made from thread does.

The Meteor

We learn that things like meteors-in-the-shape-of-an-A and exploding stars are common occurrences in early America, and that Puritan communities and community leaders would interpret these celestial explosions to be messages from God, typically warning them about bad things ahead or commenting on issues affecting the community. The meteor in The Scarlet Letter exposes both a communal and an individual reaction. The Massachusetts Bay Colony community interprets the meteor-in-the-shape-of-an-A to be a message from God commemorating the life of the recently deceased Governor and proclaiming him to be an angel (“A” for “angel”). Dimmesdale, on the other hand, sees this meteor as symbol of his own sin, as though God were trying to expose his secret to the entire world. He thinks solely about what the meteor means to him and him alone. To us, this crazy occurrence suggests that there’s more than one way to interpret anything. How did you feel when you read about the meteor-in-the-shape-of-an-A? What do you think it signifies?

The Black Man

The Black Man is a euphemism for Satan in this book. Hester considers the scarlet letter A to be the Black Man’s mark, and Pearl wonders aloud if the Black Man left his brand on Dimmesdale’s heart. Our narrator loves to compare Chillingworth to Satan as well. By invoking Satan, our narrator raises the question of whether humans are innately good or evil. A favorite pastime of the Black Man is to hang out in the woods and lure the locals to come hang out with him and sign their names in his book (with their own blood). Mistress Hibbons knows the Black Man well, apparently.

The Forest and the Wilderness

The forest and wilderness are seen as the home or dwelling place of evil by the townspeople. It’s the unknown. Such a wilderness is compared to the moral wilderness in which Hester has been lost for years: "She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest" (18.2). The forest contrasts sharply with the town, or "civilization," the former representing a place where passion and emotion reign, and the latter, a place where law and religion prevail. Interestingly, Hester lives on the edge of town, on the border between wilderness and civilization. She straddles both worlds.

We associate Nature with kindness and love from the very beginning of this story, for our narrator tells us that the wild rosebush reminds all that “the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him” (1.2). As much as we want to root for Nature in this book, it isn’t always a place of comfort and peace. When Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the woods, the brook and the trees seem to listen, talk, and to have secrets of their own. After a few hours in the woods with Hester, Dimmesdale becomes incredibly mischievous and unrestrained. The woods seem to affect people in interesting ways. The creepy Chillingworth harvests his medicine and remedies from the woods and from the seashore – remedies that help keep Dimmesdale alive and, therefore, tortured.The brook that Pearl plays with while her mom and Dimmesdale chitchat is a particularly important brook. It babbles and talks, taking on an almost humanlike quality:

All these giant trees and boulders of granite seemed intent on making a mystery of the course of this small brook; fearing, perhaps, that, with its never-ceasing loquacity, it should whisper tales out of the heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or mirror its revelations on the smooth surface of the pool. Continually, indeed, as it stole onward the streamlet kept up a babble, kind, quiet, soothing, but melancholy, like the voice of a young child that was spending its infancy without playfulness, and knew not how to be merry among sad acquaintances and events of somber hue. (16.23)

Like Pearl, this brook seems to be almost childlike and yet full of all of the deepest, darkest secrets. It seems to know everything, and it doesn’t seem to be a cheery, gushing brook out of a fairy tale. There’s something distinctly sad about this streamlet. Pearl tries to cheer the brook up, but it won’t be cheered. Her mom tells her that she could understand what the brook was saying if she had suffered something in her life. Pearl thinks the brook is too boring and gloomy to be a plaything, so she finds other things to occupy her while her mom chitchats with Dimmesdale.

However, when Hester calls Pearl over to her in order that she might embrace her dad (Dimmesdale), Pearl hesitates at the edge of the brook, and it forms a kind of divide between her world and that of her mothers. Pearl will not cross this divide until her mother fastens the scarlet letter once more to her chest. It’s as though the scarlet letter binds Pearl to her mother in a way that little else in the world does. She doesn’t seem to know her mother without it. The scarlet letter is a part of both of their identities and is a significant part of their relationship. Why do you think Pearl makes her mother put the scarlet letter back on again? Why is it significant that this babbling, melancholy brook provides Pearl with a perfect, almost flawless mirror reflection at the moment her mother summons her across it?

The Custom House

You may have fallen asleep or skipped the little introductory appetizer to The Scarlet Letter known as “The Custom House.” We don’t really blame you. The language seems particularly thorny, and it’s hard to make out why exactly this introduction is so important. In it the narrator tells us the story of how he came across the scarlet letter and of how he came to write the story down. Our narrator is the chief executive officer of the Salem Custom House (sometime during the mid-1800s). His account is a mixture of fact and fiction and loosely follows the story of how Hawthorne himself came to write The Scarlet Letter.

A Custom House is a governmental building situated near a port or a wharf. All sailors, sea captains, merchants, and sea traders are required to report directly to the Custom House upon laying anchor in Salem. These tradesmen must pay taxes on their imported goods. Things aren’t so hopping in this particular Custom House – business has slowed down and the building itself is falling apart. The narrator describes a statue of the American eagle that hovers over the Custom House entrance:

Over the entrance hovers an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw. With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears, by the fierceness of her beak and eye, and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community. […] But she has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and, sooner or later—oftener soon than late—is apt to fling off her nestlings, with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a ranking wound from her barbed arrows. (Custom House.3)

Woowee, that’s one cold bird. We all know the eagle is one of the most famous and beloved symbols of America and of the freedom that America represents. Here, however, we get the image of a very unwelcoming and unfeeling symbol – one that doesn’t care whether you survive or not. This eagle, a statue though it may be, suggests that something might not be right with the Custom House or with the government to which Custom House reports. Upon reading The Scarlet Letter, we begin to think this eagle might be a descendent of the strict Puritans that spurn Hester Prynne so harshly.

The narrator goes on to tell us that his ancestors were involved in both the Salem Witch Trials (check out Shmoop History on the Witch Trials and The Crucible) as well as in the persecution of Quakers. Needless to say, the narrator feels mighty guilty and mighty weirded out by the fact that he is related to so many hateful and cold people. He also seems to hear their voices in his head, mocking his dream of becoming a writer (“Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” [Custom House.9]).

One day, while exploring the abandoned and slightly creepy second floor of the Custom House, our speaker comes across a scarlet letter A and an account of its history written by a former chief executive officer of the Custom House. Our narrator, inspired to write his own version of this incredible story, can’t seem to tap into his creative juices in the stifling workplace environment. As luck would have it, he gets laid off! He finds himself scorned and rejected by an organization he has so long worked for, and, therefore, he feels a connection to Hester Prynne. Through his account, we see a more modern account of house laws and government can be stifling and cruel.