Hawthorn’s Novel, The Scarlet Letter, is brimming with many vivid symbols, the most apparent of which is the scarlet letter “A”, that Hester Prynne is made to wear upon her chest. Throughout the novel, hawthorn presents the scarlet letter to the reader in a variety of ways. Yet an important question emerges, as the life of Hester Prynne is described, which deals with the affects that both the scarlet letter and Hester have on each other. There is no clear-cut answer to this question, as many examples supporting both arguments can be found throughout the novel. The letter obviously causes Hester much grief, as she is mocked and ostracized by many of the townspeople, yet on the other hand, later in the novel Hester’s courage and pride help to change the meaning of scarlet letter in the eyes of both herself and the public.
First, there many instances, both literal and symbolic, which support the notion that the scarlet letter has a strong affect on Hester. As seen early in the novel, the public opinion of a seventeenth century puritan society can be quite narrow-minded. As Hester is first marched out of the prison, the women of the town scowl at her. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead.” (p.36) The initial opinion of the society is extremely cruel and Hester, who tries desperately to remain strong and undisturbed in the face of this mob anger, is by no means deaf. The cruel actions of the townspeople throughout the novel contribute to the ways in which the scarlet letter affects Hester. Yet, these affects of the scarlet letter on Hester can be defined more specifically when examined on the symbolic level. In many ways, Hester’s daughter Pearl, serves as a symbol for the scarlet letter. Pearl is after all the cause of the scarlet letter, for if she had not been born, Hester would have never been found guilty and therefore never accused of adultery. Pearl becomes the embodiment of the scarlet letter, just as the scarlet letter is a permanent reminder of Hester’s sins, Pearl serves as a living reminder of Hesters submission to lust. Many of the things that young Pearl utters, fill Hester with dread. For example, upon being told that she was sent to earth by God, the young toddler responds, “ ‘He did not send me!…I have no Heavenly Father!’” (p.67) It is pearls mentioning of such things as this that cause Hester to speculate where the young child even came from. “ ‘Thou art not my child! Thou art no pearl of mine!” (p.67) It is in this sense that the scarlet letter, which young Pearl symbolizes, torments Hester. Thus, in both the literal sense, of the crowd’s mockery of Hester, and the figurative sense of the anguish caused by pearl, the scarlet letter has great affects on Hester Prynne.
An equally quelling argument in contrast to the one aforementioned can be made, in which Hester greatly affects the letter she is made to wear. Throughout the novel, Hester tries extremely hard to remain strong in the face of those that ridicule her. By and by, through her diligent actions, in an attempt to repent for her sins, she begins to change the peoples opinion of the letter. “The scarlet letter had the affect of a cross on a nun’s bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness, which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril.” (p.112) The townspeople begin to see the letter to stand for able, rather than for adultery. The new meaning Hester gives the letter is also shown on a symbolic level, when during a meteor shower the letter “A” displayed in the sky is interpreted by the town to stand for the word “Angel”. In addition, if Pearl is a symbol representing the scarlet letter, Hester views Pearl as her only joy in the world. Hester sees Pearl to be “a blessing as a reminder of her sin”. Hawthorn gives the inkling of a biblical allusion in which Hester views Pearl as “The pearl of great price” (Matthew 13). The “pearl of great price” refers to heaven, and Hester views Pearl as the only piece of heaven she will ever have. Therefore, due to Hester’s great courage in the face of adversity and her ability to change the way people view her, along with the fact that she embraces pearl as her only joy shows that Hester has a strong control over the scarlet letter.
Throughout the novel, Hawthorn gives many reasons that support both sides of the argument over the affects that both the scarlet letter and Hester have on eachother. Yet, when symbolism depicts the scarlet letter to be Pearl, the argument between Hester and the letter is best epitomized in the following quotation. “In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being, whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder…” (p.62) The quotation, if examined with the thought that “her” refers to the scarlet letter, depicts that although Hester’s courage allows the letter to be seen as beautiful, there still remains a shadow of haunting disorder that the letter casts over Hester’s life. Hester shapes her life so that it remains in fragile balance with the ominous shadow of the letter.