Symbols & Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter: Examples & Analysis

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  • 0:03 What Is a Symbol?
  • 0:32 The Scarlet Letter
  • 2:09 Pearl
  • 3:09 The Meteor
  • 4:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Breazeale
Symbolism is used throughout literature and has been for centuries. 'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne demonstrates this, and in this lesson, we'll examine a few of those symbols.

What Is a Symbol?

A symbol is a person, place, or thing used to represent a larger, more abstract concept. Authors use symbols to engage readers but also to address a theme or topic. It makes something tough to discuss, like love, more manageable and concrete.

In this lesson, we'll look at three major symbols from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter: the scarlet letter itself, Pearl, and the meteor.

The Scarlet Letter

Ah, the scarlet letter. Since it's the title of the book, you know it's got to be important. And it is; the scarlet letter is a symbol for a myriad of things, like identity, shame, sin, and grace. Hester wears it on her chest throughout the novel, so, naturally, it's going to have a lot of meaning.

At first, the scarlet letter is symbolic of Hester's sin and shame. She commits adultery and has a child as a result. The letter 'A' is sewn into her clothing, literally marking her as an adulterer. But there's more. Hester refuses to let the scarlet letter be completely dictated by others. Sure, she has to wear it, but if she's going to wear it, she is going to own it. She embroiders it herself and makes it beautiful, which makes the punishment her own. She takes ownership of that letter, which makes it sort of a cool symbol for her identity. She's a marked woman, but she's not going to take the punishment lying down.

Later, the scarlet letter comes to stand not for the word 'adultery', but for 'able' as in: That Hester Prynne is such an able woman! She can do anything! That's awesome!' Hester works hard, and the townspeople recognize that. They begin to admire her for her grace and charity, which begins to alter the meaning of the scarlet letter in their own minds.

It's important to note that, later, Hester voluntarily takes up the letter again. It means something new, now. It means grace, and it's something to be looked at with reverence. It's something, even, to be admired. Hester has transformed the symbol of the letter through her attitude and her actions, and by being such a boss lady in the face of what could've been an awful punishment.

Pearl

Pearl is Hester's daughter, as well as a symbol for sin and redemption. There's a duality in Pearl's existence, since she's a living reminder and symbol for Hester's adultery, her sin. But, she also represents Hester's hope of redemption.

Hester gives up pretty much everything for Pearl: her reputation, her standing in the community, and her friendships, which makes Pearl precious, as seen in her name. She's a living, breathing scarlet letter, a symbol of the sin Hester commits. But she also offers Hester a new reason to live and represents the vital spirit Hester has inside her, the one that enabled her to commit the sin in the first place. In this spirit is the heart of Hester's humanity, what makes her a person.

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