Hawthorne, Feminism, and the Malleability of Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter

The novel seems intent to make a point about how flawed people are at making meaning from life’s events, people’s interactions, and even the symbols we make of each other.

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The Letter Kills. The Letter Heals.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is an discussion on the how the meaning of a symbol changes over time and context. Hawthorne takes a microscopic view of symbolism by selecting only one symbol to study here: the letter “A”. What could it mean in all its various interpretations?

The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter

It starts as an innocuous letter, the first of the alphabet, simply a block to build a word with. But the people of Boston ascribe a heavy symbolic weight to it and inscribe it on Hester Prynne’s chest. To them it means danger, shame, and chastisement. To her, however, who has experienced the full weight of her punishment already, there is no danger. To her it means remorse, loneliness, and (ironically) misjudgment. The people of Boston believe they see the letter clearly for what it is and that it belongs perfectly on Hester’s breast, but they have read her wrong. She is not a wanton woman destined to destroy their community. She’s a woman caught between her will and the place she’s been put in by society.

Hester, herself, in fact, becomes a symbol for the community. She begins as a cautionary tale and allegory that preachers can simply allude to in a service in order to chase fear into the hearts of their hearers. Over time, though, the residents of Boston learn to read the symbol of this woman. In the context of the scaffold where she was sentenced, she was the picture of shame. By their deathbeds and in their moments of suffering when she pulls a blanket up around their necks on cold nights, she changes to become an almost divine messenger of mercy. How could a symbol have such radically different readings? Even the “A” on her chest, which was emblazoned there as an everlasting reminder of her perfidy becomes an adornment that marks her as a wounded healer, suffering with those who suffer and sharing the humanity of those who seek (and fail) at being divine. People begin to admire the A as they admire Hester. It comes to mean “A” for Abel, and in it they read that Hester suffers as a martyr with a “woman’s strength”.

To Hester, however, the symbol never loses its weight. What’s more, she has another symbol to contend with: that of her daughter, Pearl. Throughout the novel she wonders as to the meaning of Pearl’s existence. Is she a punishment? Is she just the fruit of her sin? Does Esther have responsibilities to her as a mother to correct and refine her to fit into the role of womanhood in society? Or is the meaning of this symbol beyond her control?

What is a woman?

Hester Prynne and Pearl
Hester Prynne and Pearl

This takes us to the symbol that has the broadest application and what makes this novel so timely for readers in this era. It doesn’t take much to realize that Hester, herself, is struggling with the symbol of womanhood. Hawthorne seems to use the scarlet “A” as a surrogate to discuss the symbol of womanhood that is stitched onto a woman’s chest when she tries to be anything but the symbolic “woman” in a patriarchal society.

Hester’s daughter, Pearl, is obsessed with the letter, asking her mother questions about its meaning and what it portends. She asks her in one scene, “Will not it come of its own accord when I am a woman grown?” (pg. 103). By this, Hawthorne, through Pearl, asks if womanhood does not blossom with a mark of shame and chastisement for violations of propriety.

Hester meditates on that condition herself at another point.

“Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth accepting even to the happiest among them? As concerned her own individual existence, she had long ago decided in the negative, and dismissed the point as settled.” (Pg. 93).

It troubled her so much that she next contemplates whether it wouldn’t be better to just kill Pearl to save her from the hardship of growing up a woman in that Puritanical society or not.

In Puritanical Boston, the words “man” and “woman” have fixed symbolic values and anything that does not fit within their definitions, any woman that begs to be reinterpreted, is driven from the fold. This is where Hester finds her freedom, however, outside the context of that patriarchal structure. Almost by accident, she discovers the forest outside the perimeter of their town. It is wild, primeval, and unstratified. In the forest, there are no symbols, so symbols have no meaning. One simply is, irrelative to their symbolic value in society and the expectations that it carries. It’s because of this freedom to exist undefined that Hester is able to confront the villain of this story as an equal and to provide her own strength to the frail husk of the man that she loves.

Most travelers take their symbolic understanding of the world into the forest with them, trying to understand its fathomless mysteries by their structured hierarchy of knowledge and moral standards. Then there are those who lose their “town” identity when they step outside the limits of the gate. Hester is one of those. She walks back and forth between the woman free to define herself in the forest and the woman burdened by society’s definition of her in the town whenever she crosses that threshold. Pearl, however, is the same in both domains. She is only the child of the forest. Because of this, she’s unfit for the life of civilized men and women. She sets people back on their heels, but she’s not punished because she has not stepped into womanhood yet.

So, does Hawthorne provide Hester a chance to reinterpret symbolic womanhood? To us, he does. He says that:

 “The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!”

In essence, this means that women must be able to reveal the meaning of their own nature to society, each person giving meaning to themselves rather than having meaning placed there by tradition. Unlucky for Hester, she lived in a time where she was merely “a prophetess”, heralding that time. Her life called for women to begin a re-evaluation of the place they held and the expectations held of them in society.

Even though Hester doesn’t blatantly overthrow notions of what a woman is to her neighbors, Hawthorne does spend a good deal of time on Hester’s strength. In fact, he crushes the man in this tale under the weight of his presumed holiness, which situates him at the apex of the patriarchal structure.

Hester, on the other hand, grows stronger from her being cast out of this world to fend for herself. He says,

“The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.” (p. 112)

Meaning is a negotiation

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Though Hawthorne speaks to us as readers of this dare to rethink the meaning of “woman” in society, the novel seems intent to make a point about how flawed people are at making meaning from life’s events, people’s interactions, and even the symbols we make of each other.

In a key scene, the “guilty” parties in this novel see a meteor shoot overhead and make out from its trail the shape of an “A”. For them, it is God’s illumination of their guilt, trumpeting it before the earth. But in town, the governor has just died. Learning of this the next morning, the rest of the townsfolk interpret the symbol to be a sign from God confirming that the governor has become an angel.

The narrator says,

“Oftener, however, its credibility rested on the faith of some lonely eye-witness, who beheld the wonder through the coloured, magnifying, and distorted medium of his imagination, and shaped it more distinctly in his after- thought. It was, indeed, a majestic idea that the destiny of nations should be revealed, in these awful hieroglyphics, on the cope of heaven. A scroll so wide might not be deemed too expensive for Providence to write a people’s doom upon. The belief was a favourite one with our forefathers, as betokening that their infant commonwealth was under a celestial guardianship of peculiar intimacy and strictness…But what shall we say, when an individual discovers a revelation addressed to himself alone, on the same vast sheet of record. In such a case, it could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a man, rendered morbidly self-contemplative by long, intense, and secret pain, had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul’s history and fate.” (p. 87)

The point Hawthorne makes here is confusing, as it is clearly a device he’s used to amplify the sense of doom that his main characters feel. It confirms the guilt that they feel so strongly. Still, the narrator states that we each read meaning into our lives as we experience them, often more clearly when we look back on a moment. To us, the whole universe is a parchment that was laid out for the worth of our lives to be spelled out on. But the fact of the matter is that we’re often wrong about how we interpret these “signs”. They may be signs from Providence or signs from people, but we cannot state with absolute certainty what a sign means. To do so is foolishness, as we see in the novel, and it leads to pain and conflict with those who don’t interpret the sign in the same way.

Hawthorne’s remedy isn’t only to treat our perception, though, because the final words of the novel are an exhortation to “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” (pg. 144). It’s not just people’s responsibility to leave room for interpretation of a symbol, but for us to be truthful with each other so that our meaning may be clear. You might say, “Just go live in the forest where there are no symbols,” or, “Let’s just be who we are without any need for assigning meaning to things.” That’s no way to build society, though. A community can’t function without symbols. Symbolism is inherent to the human experience. You don’t find symbolism in the forest because there are no people there, no other consciousness to make messages and send them to us, to interpret our own. Symbolism is how we transfer the truth we have experienced to another person.

Hawthorne tells us that both sides of this symbolic exchange are responsible to make a better world. If people are bigoted or presume to know the whole story, then be true with them. They may have already made up their minds as to what an African American man or a woman or a Syrian refugee is. If you know there’s more to the story than that, then it’s your responsibilty to tell them. Don’t be so concerned with putting on a perfect face so you can garner more followers on Instagram. Be true with people, even if it means they see the worst of you. This will lead to conflict because it forces people to redefine the meaning of their symbols. Those in power don’t want to let those meanings change because the symbols that are established are what’s keeping them rich, comfortable, and in control.

Lillian Gish in Victor Sjöström's The Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish in Victor Sjöström’s The Scarlet Letter

As Hawthorne shows us, we need to be open to reconsidering the meanings we have given to the symbols, signs, and definitions of our world and those that live in it. Meaning is a continual renegotiation between senders and receivers. The sender may modify their message. The receiver may choose to look at it from a different perspective. Being willing to be a part of that process puts everyone at the table, lifts everyone’s quality of life, and helps us to shape a better world than the one we’re living in right now.

Of course, I could just be misunderstanding this whole thing.

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