Use of Symbols in Hawthrone’s 'The Scarlet Letter'

The use of symbols is a distinctive feature of American literature. In this regard, Hawthrone’s The Scarlet Letter is a pioneer novel for the use of symbols. In Hawthrone’s use of symbol in The Scarlet Letter we observe the author’s making one of his most distinctive and significant contribution to the growth of American fiction. This novel is usually regarded as the first symbolic novel to e published in the United States.

Moreover the use of symbols makes his narrative more convincing. In this novel the writer depicts the early colonial society dominated by the Puritans. The Puritans had a tendency to see everything allegorically. They looked also ever simple matter from allegorical point of view. Hawthrone vividly portrays this puritan tendency to look for a symbolic meaning in everything.


Several of Hawthrone’s symbols in “The Scarlet Letter” are obvious. In the first chapter, for example, he descries the prison as “The black flower of civilized society” by using the building of the prison to represent the crime and punishment which were aspects of early Boston’s civilized life.

Wild rose Bush

In the same chapter, he uses the grass plot “much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru and such unsightly vegetation” as another symbol of civilization corrupted by the elements which make prisons necessary. He also points out another symbol that is the wild rose bush. He says that “it may serve to symbolize some sweet moral blossom” to relieve the gloom of a tragic story


Shortly afterward, in chapter 2, Hawthrone uses the “Beadle” as a symbol of Puritanism.

These symbols are easy to find. Moreover impressive, however are the symbols which Hawthrone sustains throughout the novel, allowing each of them, to develop and take on various appearances and meanings as the book progresses. Among such symbols is the letter “A” itself. In its initial form it is a red cloth letter which is a literal symbol of the sin of adultery. Hester is doomed to wear it throughout her life. But Hawthrone makes the “A” much more richly symbolic before the novel ends.
The letter A appears in a variety of forms and places. It is the elaborately gold embroidered A on Hester’s heart, at which Pearl throws the wild flowers. On the night of his vigil on the scaffold Dimmesdale sees an immense red A in the sky. While Hester is conferring with Chillingworth near the a shore, Pearl arranges eel-grass to form a green “A’ on her own breast. One of the most dramatic of the several A’s in the book is the A so frequently hinted at earlier and which is finally revealed to be an A on Dimmesdale’s chest by “most of the spectators” who witnesses his confession ad death. At the very end of the novel, as a kid of summary symbol there is the reference to the scarlet A against the black background on Hester and Dimmesdale’s tombstone.

Different Meanings of A

Not only the A appears in various forms, but is also acquires a variety of meanings. Even as the original mark of adultery, the scarlet letter has different personal meanings to the various characters. To the Puritan community, it is a mark of just punishment. To Hester, the A is a symbol of unjust humiliation. To Dimmesdale the A is a piercing reminder of his own guilt. To Chillingworth, the A is a spur to the quest for revenge. To Pearl, the A is a bright and mysterious curiosity. In addition, the A also symbolizes things other than adultery. For example, it symbolizes “Angel” when it appears in the sky on the night of Governor Winthrop’s death, and it symbolizes “Able” when years after her humiliation on the scaffold, Hester has won some respect from the Puritans.


Many of the other sustained or important symbol in the novel lie either in the setting or in the characters. The scaffold, for instance, is not only a symbol of the stern Puritan code, but it also becomes a symbol for the open acknowledgement of personal sin.

Night Day

Night is used as a symbol for concealment, and day is a symbol for exposure Dimmesdale’s mounting the scaffold and standing with Hester ad Pearl at night will not suffice. He knows that his symbolic acceptance of his guilt must take place in the day light.

The sun

The sun is also used as a symbol of untroubled guilt free happiness or perhaps the approval of god and nature. The sun shines on Pearl, even in the forest; she seems to absorb and retain the sunshine. But the sun flees from Hester and from the mark of sin on her breast.

The Forest

The forest itself is symbolic on a variety of ways. It is a symbol of the world of darkness and evil. In addition, it also symbolizes a place where Pearl can run and play freely, a friend of the animals and the wild flowers, and where even Hester can throw away her scarlet “A” let down her hair, and feel like a woman again. It is also symbolic of a natural world governed by natural laws-as opposed to the artificial, strict community with its man made Puritan laws.

The Brook

The brook in the forest is also symbolic in several ways. First, it is suggestive of Pearl- because of its unknown source and because it travels through gloom. Because of its mournful babble, it becomes a kind of history of sorrow, to which one more story is added. And when Pearl refuses to cross the brook to join Hester and Dimmesdale, the brook becomes to Dimmesdale “a boundary between two worlds”. The natural setting, then, provides many of the most striking symbols in the novel.


But perhaps the most revealing display of Hawthrone’s symbolism lies in his use of characters. His minor characters are almost wholly symbolic. The Puritan notions of Church, Sate, and witchcraft are personified in the figures of the Reverend Mr. Wilson, Governor Bellingham, and Mistress Hibbins. It is interesting to note that Hawthorne mentions all three of them in connection with each of the scaffold scenes. The groups of unnamed somber and self righteous Puritans in the marketplace (chap 21-23) are clearly representative of Puritanism generally, even down to the detail of the gentle young wife who saves Hawtrone’s condemnation of the Puritans from being a complete one.

Four major characters

It is however, in the four major characters that Hawthrone’s powers as a symbolist are brought into fullest play. Each of his major characters symbolizes a certain view of sin and its effects to the human heart. And one of them, Pearl is almost a self contained symbol perhaps the most striking symbol that Hawthrone ever created.


Pearl is almost as important as the scarlet letter, because she is herself the scarlet letter in another form. Pearl is “the scarlet letter endowed with life” when Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne ad Pearl stand together on the scaffold one night. The author refers to Pearl as a symbol, as the connecting link between the other two. Pearl is not only an innocent child of nature, she is at the same time an agent if retribution.

Symbol enlarges and deepens a writers meaning. Hawthrone’s principal device for developing meaning is the symbol.