Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter
In terms of embroidery, sewing and clothing in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the aspect of embroidery seems to take a dominant role in how the plot pans out, how the characters transform and are shaped, as well as the the persistent main themes and points that are crafted through the use of this one type of form of art that seems like a simple act of sewing. The embroiderment on Hester represents her beloved daughter Pearl, while also her individuality, and to Hester, together they both are a reflection of who she is and all that encompasses her. But this symbolism morphes and grows into more than what we think it represents as she continues to wear it while embracing all that it brings to her.
When we examine the circumstances Hester is faced with, she understands the shame and immorality of wedlock with the towns preacher. But, at the same time she had a choice to make where she could either wallow in despair and disgrace like Puritan society wanted her to, or she could acknowledge what she had done along with the consequences and move on to lead a healthy and happy life. Embellishing the A was her way of owning her mistake without letting it overcome her.
By embellishing the symbol of her adultery and promiscuity with gold, Hester is most certainly reclaiming its power for herself. It was meant to be a sign of shame, so for her to own it and make it hers was to laugh in the face of those who condemned her to wear it. As it is described so ornately, the reader must know that it has more significance to it than meets the eye while reading. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter ‘A.’ It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony (2, 10). Hester was not so much ashamed of her relationship with Dimesdale. Rather, she stood by him and protected him by not revealing the true parentage of her child. Hester using the color gold is especially interesting because it may have been used primarily for more expensive or dressier clothing in her embroidery work for the townspeople. It can also be noted that Hesters proficiency in needle work has a symbolic meaning as well and can be directed to her independent character. The defiant spirit, which is clear when the book describes her with a haughty smile when she stands on the scaffold with little Pearl in her arms. This also compels her to use her needle to ornament with gold embroidery her mark of shame and to making a living scarlet letter of Pearl.
Along with the symbols that are accompanied with the aspect of embroidering, lest we forget about the sewing needle. There is a significant connection that hints at symbolism with the needle that cannot be denied. Although Hesters skill at needle work is admired wildly and is always in demand, she is not being commanded to embroider even a single wedding dress. Here, needle work functions as a symbol, indicative of the attitude of the puritan settlers towards penance, guilt and sin. It does not encourage Hesters social position being restored among the townspeople, and there is absolutely no hope in sight for her scarlet sin being washed off. The letter A makes her social banishment painfully complete. The exclusion of her needle from embroidering a wedding dress completely symbolizes the harshness of the Puritan attitude.
As Hester builds a new life for herself, her charity and precious work end up altering the letters initial symbolism that it holds. Some people even “”refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification”” (8, 3), which they essentially forget or choose to forget that it’s a symbol of her sin of wedlock with Dimesdale. Rather, they exclaim that the “”A”” stands for “”Able”” to imply that she is a woman who is readily able to do what it takes for anything.
As the plot progresses and Hester continues wearing this embroiderment, the letter even grows more so to achieve a status of certain holiness. According to the text, it has “”the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness, which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril. Had she fallen among thieves, it would have kept her safe”” (13, 5). But now many years later when she returns and takes it upon herself to wear the scarlet letter again, it has become for her, and others, a symbol of grace. With evidence, it concisely portrays this grace within the letter, “”a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked up with awe, yet with reverence too”” (24, 11).
If our focus transitions back to Pearl and how she simply reflects the embroiderment as well as Hester herself, we can easily point to how Hester and Pearls relationship is. From the text, it is so evidently clear that their relationship is almost like an interlinked symbol in itself. They simply symbolize each other because when Hester, the reader or Pearl herself thinks of Pearl and what she symbolizes and means, we think of the embroidered “”A”” automatically. The same goes for the “”A””, as the meaning behind it is about Pearl herself when the characters and reader think about that letter. From the text, we can see how the twos relationship is unbreakable and indefinitely strong even from the beginning of Pearls life, God gave her into my keeping repeated Hester Prynne, raising her voice almost to a shriek. I will not give her up! And here, by sudden impulse, she turned to the young clergyman, Mr. Dimmesdale, at whom, up to this moment, she had seemed hardly so much as once to direct her eyes (8, 24). With this kept in mind, we still know that Pearl is a constant reminder that Hester is a sinner. Pearl and the letter symbolize adultery and truth. Pearl represents the scarlet letter and everything it stands for. Despite this, it can be easily concluded that their relationship is strong and continues to be bonded through the sharing of the A. Since they both have a connection to it and realize its importance and individuality from everyone else, it essentially bonds them to be how they are characterized in the text as well as how they act and express their feelings to each other.
Another important part of the text is when Hester goes back to her way of wearing the scarlet letter, due to her past playing an important part of her identity and creating individuality for herself. By simply embroidering the letter, it can be said that Hester transforms a badge of shame into a symbol of individuality. It just cannot be something that can or should be erased because someone has decided it is shameful. But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home. Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed, of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it, resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the worlds scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too (24, 337). What she takes on is more similar to reconciliation than penitence. She creates a life where the scarlet letter acts as a symbol of overcoming adversity and of knowledge gained rather than a sign of failure. She assumes control of her own identity and in doing this, she becomes an example for others. She is not, however, the example of sin that she was once intended to be. Rather, she is an example of redemption and self-empowerment. Through all of these various symbols of Hester and Pearl that have been examined through this embroiderment of the letter A, we see how these characters have their own symbols in themselves that are easily translated into the symbols of the letter. Individuality, sin, possibility of redemption and more are uncovered and are then transformed into changing meanings for these characters while they travel through their life with this letter.
All classic literature uses symbolism in one way or another to embellish meaning and deeper analysis for the reader to further examine. The very basis of every character, their personal appearance and the way they act revolves around one thing: The Scarlet Letter in crimson fabric. The aspect of embroidery takes a dominant role in how the plot pans out and how the characters transform and are shaped. The embroiderment on Hester is simply a representation of her beloved daughter Pearl whom she has a growing love and of her individuality of this crime that becomes a deep part of her, which expresses her individuality. The letter and her daughter Pearl are essentially a reflection of who she is and all that she is. We do see that as the story progresses that this symbolism of the scarlet letter morphes and grows into more than what we think it represents. These persistent main themes and points that are crafted through the use of this one type of form of art of sewing and needles is what carries such a strong function in this book and with these characters.
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