The Scarlet Letter

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Red and Black Symbol Analysis

Red and Black Symbol Icon
Red symbolizes the glow of Hester's passion. Black represents the devil and sin. Chillingworth, for instance, refers to their shared fate as a "black flower." The inscription on the tombstone Hester and Dimmesdale share says "On a field, sable, the letter A, gules," which means "On a black background, the scarlet letter burns."

Red and Black Quotes in The Scarlet Letter

The The Scarlet Letter quotes below all refer to the symbol of Red and Black. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Sin Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of The Scarlet Letter published in 2015.
Chapter 2 Quotes
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 ... 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.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne
Related Symbols: Red and Black, The Scarlet Letter
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

The second chapter, "The Market-Place," first details a public scene: men and women of the colony are crowding around and conversing outside of the prison-house, discussing Hester Prynne. Once the door to the prison opens "from within," Hester stands at the entrance, on display for the crowd. She holds an infant conceived out of wedlock in her arms, and the breast of her gown displays an elaborately embroidered letter "A." This letter is meant to serve as the symbol of her punishment, a reminder that she failed to follow the common rules of the Puritan colony (the "A" stands for Adultery), yet the "A" itself also becomes another flagrant transgression of the colony's "sumptuary regulations," which limit any luxury or boldness in items such as clothes. Through this letter's extraordinary artistry, the "A" becomes a way for Hester to claim and express her punishment and social isolation in her own manner. 

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Chapter 4 Quotes
As he spoke, he laid his long forefinger on the scarlet letter, which forwith seemed to scortch into Hester’s breast, as if it had been red-hot. He noticed her involuntary gesture, and smiled. “Live, therefore, and bear about thy doom with thee, in the eyes of men and women—in the eyes of him thou didst call thy husband—in the eyes of yonder child! And, that thou mayst live, take off this draught.”
Related Characters: Roger Chillingworth (speaker), Hester Prynne, Pearl, Arthur Dimmesdale
Related Symbols: Red and Black
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

When Hester returns to the prison after this public scene, she is in a state of such agitation that the jailer brings in a man who seems to be a physician. This "physician" knows Hester, however; he is the man who held his finger to his lips, silently asking Hester to not reveal his identity. He gives Hester a medicinal drink ("draught") to ease her distress, but Hester doubts his motives, even questioning if he seeks to murder her for vengeance. His response is chilling; with "cold composure," he comments that Hester's life of shame would be a better form of revenge than death. He then lays his finger on her scarlet letter, instead of on his lips (as he did earlier). A supernatural, strange occurrence follows this man's description of Hester's "burning shame": Hester's breast burns where his finger touched her. This suggests that the strange man will almost personify evil in the novel, despite his familiarity with medicinal knowledge and healing. It is telling that he only reveals his identity as Hester's perhaps former husband (as "him thou didst call thy husband") after he reveals his nefarious nature. 

Chapter 8 Quotes
“Wilt thou go with us tonight? There will be a merry company in the forest; and I well-nigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should make one.”
Related Characters: Mistress Hibbins (speaker), Hester Prynne
Related Symbols: Red and Black
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hester and Pearl leave Governor Bellingham's mansion, the witch Mistress Hibbins briefly appears. She is the "bitter-tempered" sister of Governor Bellingham, one of the most authoritative and proper individuals in the colony; her appearance reminds us that authority and dissent are closely associated with each other. Here, they are two sides of the same coin. 

In this scene, Mistress Hibbins is also linked to Pearl; immediately before Hester departs, Dimmesdale comments that Pearl "hath witchcraft in her" and is similar to such a witch. Yet, this "little baggage," that so reminded Dimmesdale of a witch, is the reason that Hester refuses Mistress Hibbins' offer to go to the forest and serve the devil (the "Black Man"). Despite her character similarities to characters who engage in witchcraft, Pearl fosters virtuous behavior in her mother -- as Dimmesdale earlier suggested. This illustrates one of the many ways in which the novel plays with binaries such as good and evil. 

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Red and Black Symbol Timeline in The Scarlet Letter

The timeline below shows where the symbol Red and Black appears in The Scarlet Letter. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Sin Theme Icon
...prison was most likely built upon the founding of Boston and describes prisons as the "black flower of civilized society." (full context)
Puritanism Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
Next to the prison door stands a blooming wild rose bush . The narrator imagines that perhaps the rose bush grows in such an unlikely place... (full context)
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
The narrator describes the rose bush as sitting on the threshold of the story he plans to tell. He then plucks... (full context)
Chapter 2
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
...tall, with a head of dark glossy hair, and a beautiful face with deeply set black eyes. She has a lady-like dignity, which the narrator says never was more powerfulor beautiful... (full context)
Chapter 8
Puritanism Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
Mr. Wilson asks Pearl who made her. Pearl says that she was plucked from the rose bush just outside the prison door. (full context)
Chapter 12
Sin Theme Icon
The Occult Theme Icon
...Dimmesdale delivers his most powerful sermon ever. Afterward, the church sexton returns to Dimmesdale a black glove he found on the scaffold, saying Satan must have left it there. He mentions... (full context)
Chapter 14
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Hester says she must tell Dimmesdale about Chillingworth. He responds that their fate, a "black flower," is no longer in anyone's hands. He apologizes to Hester for not having offered... (full context)
Chapter 23
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
...scaffold. He asks them to approach him at the scaffold. Chillingworth warns Dimmesdale not to "blacken" his fame. (full context)