What Letter Was the Scarlet Letter?

Instructor: Sarah Bennett

Sarah has a Bachelor's degree in English and has taught for several years. She also has her Technical Writing Certification.

Find out what letter the scarlet letter was in the book ''The Scarlet Letter'' by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Learn about the importance the letter plays in the story as well as what it means.

The Crime of Adultery

The letter in The Scarlet Letter was an A. The A stood for adultery, a crime committed by anyone having sexual relations outside of a marriage, and anyone who had committed this sin was forced to wear the letter on top of their clothing as a form of public shaming during the Puritan era in The Scarlet Letter. Adultery was judged as one of the worst sins a woman could commit, therefore punishable by the whole community. The punishment was also taken extremely seriously by the community because the Puritans saw this sort of a crime as damage to their own reputation.

In real Puritan communities, the punishment for adultery could be much worse than wearing a scarlet A on your clothes (though sometimes this was done). Women were often punished for adultery by being publicly whipped, fined, divorced by their husbands (which could mean losing homes, children, and finances), or even sentenced, in some extreme cases, to death. Though men and women were punished for this crime, typically the men had a lesser sentence than the women in these communities.

The Letter in The Scarlet Letter

Hester Prynne is the main character who is forced to wear the scarlet letter after giving birth to her daughter. Hester's daughter is a result of her affair with another important character, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is not her husband. Arthur is a Puritan minister and does not confess the sin he committed with Hester. He instead endures torturous amounts of guilt and even has an A branded or carved onto his chest.

For Arthur, the letter is painfully a permanent part of his skin and it symbolizes the pain and guilt he constantly walks around with, even though none of the people in the town know what he has done. He has actually committed two sins instead of one: first he committed adultery with Hester, but then he also chose to lie and not come forward about his crime. Arthur's suffering is private and hidden, unlike that of Hester.

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