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The Meteor in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson examines the symbolism of the meteor in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece, ''The Scarlet Letter.'' The lesson argues that the meteor plays a complex role in the novel, at once uniting the lovers and condemning them.

Foul Deeds Will Rise: The Meteor in The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is one of the most controversial novels in American literature. Widely hailed as a classic, it is also among America's most banned books.

The iconic story of the adulterous love affair between the married Hester Prynne and the highly-respected Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is not an easy pill to swallow, nor is the complex and seemingly contradictory morality the novel seems to embrace.

Set in a Puritan community (that is, one seeking to purify society through strict application of Christian doctrine) in 1640s Massachusetts Bay Colony, the novel depicts Hester's and Dimmesdale's struggles to come to terms with their individual views on sin, guilt, and redemption.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the infamous meteor scene that takes place about halfway through the book. The couple stands together at midnight with Pearl, the daughter they conceived, on the scaffold in the marketplace. It is the same scaffold on which, seven years prior, Hester was publicly condemned by her community, formally and forever excluded from it by the scarlet letter 'A' she was forced to wear on her chest.

This scene is the novel's turning point, the moment Hester realizes that Dimmesdale, who never confessed his sin, has been eaten alive by guilt. This is when Hester realizes she must do something to help him…and the meteor points the way.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne

A Blessing and a Curse

The meteor can symbolize many different things, both good and bad, in this important scene. But, Hawthorne suggests, this all depends on the characters; the choices they make will determine whether the meteor is a blessing or a curse.

Blessing the Family's Union

By far the most positive interpretation of the meteor is as a blessing on the reunification of the family. Dimmesdale berates himself for not publicly standing with Hester and Pearl on the scaffold seven years earlier. After all, he is every bit as responsible as Hester is.

Even more than righting a wrong, Dimmesdale and Hester standing together on the scaffold echoes a wedding ceremony. The meteor appears soon after the three take one another's hands and form a chain. In this instant, it seems as though the heavens are blessing the couple's union and recognizing the family as a unit, even if man's law and orthodox religion refuse to do so.

The Curse of Shame

Though the couple feels united as they stand on the scaffold, and though even the heavens seem to bless this union, wise little Pearl is not so easily won. Repeatedly in this scene, she asks Dimmesdale if he will stand with her and her mother the next day, at noon, for all the town to see.

Dimmesdale, the beloved reverend, the supposed embodiment of Christ's commandments on Earth, can't stand to lose his social standing, despite the ravages of his guilt. He evades Pearl's questions. He makes excuses. He tells her they will stand together on the great day of judgment but not before.

In this case, the meteor functions as a condemnation, casting its angry light on the family, and highlighting the shame of a father who still cannot acknowledge his own.

The Blessing and the Curse of Revelation

The meteor does not simply seem to condemn Dimmesdale for his continued cowardice. It also seems prepared to expose him. It forms a letter 'A' in the sky, mirroring the badge of shame Hester must wear.

This does several things: first, it suggests that Dimmesdale's secret will be exposed. He cannot escape forever. Soon, all will see what he's been hiding.

The fact that the light of the meteor covers the entire town brings an even more powerful message: ALL have sinned. It is as though everyone is wearing a scarlet 'A', as though everyone has a secret shame to be revealed.

If this is true, of course, then Hester's and Pearl's shame is not so terrible after all, and their exclusion and the ridicule they face are unfounded and unfair. If a member of society is to wear a scarlet 'A' for falling short of what's expected of them, then every citizen must wear one, because they all fall short in one or another way.

This reading of the symbolism behind the meteor transforms Hester's badge of shame into a token of her humanity. The curse of stigma becomes the blessing of acceptance.

The Blindness of the Townspeople

Since ancient times, meteors have been interpreted as signs of future events, both for good and for evil.

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