The Scarlet Letter

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The Scarlet Letter Symbol Analysis

The Scarlet Letter Symbol Icon
The Puritans mean for the scarlet letter to be a symbol of Hester's shame. But the narrator describes the letter as a "mystic symbol" that means many things. The letter does represent Hester Prynne's adultery, but as she grows and changes in the novel, the letter's symbolism evolves as well. For example, it comes to mean "able" when she becomes a successful seamstress, and Dimmesdale refers to Hester twice as "angel," giving the letter yet another meaning. In the end, the letter comes to symbolize Hester's triumph over the very forces that meant to punish her.

The Scarlet Letter Quotes in The Scarlet Letter

The The Scarlet Letter quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Scarlet Letter. 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 5 Quotes
Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast,—at her, the child of honorable parents,—at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, —at her, who had once been innocent, —as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne, Pearl
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Letter
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Hester's confinement in prison ends, she no longer has any future changes to which she can look forward. As she emerges from the prison, she must confront the rest of her life. Her community will always remember that she conceived a child out of wedlock. Educators -- parents, preachers, and teachers -- will use Hester as a "symbol" ("the figure, the body, the reality") of moral transgression, depraved desire, and female weakness. When Hester stays in this town, she will be "giving up her individuality." Yet, she will stay; there is a feeling of inevitability following her shame that the narrator captures through the future tense of these descriptions ("Thus the young and pure would be taught...).

Chapter 7 Quotes
Little Pearl—who was as greatly pleased with the gleaming armour as she had been with the glittering frontispiece of the house—spent some time looking into the polished mirror of the breastplate.

"Mother," cried she, "I see you here. Look! Look!"

Hester looked, by way of humoring the child; and she saw that, owing to the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. In truth, she seemed absolutely hidden behind it. Pearl pointed upward, also, at a similar picture in the head-piece; smiling at her mother, with the elfish intelligence that was so familiar an expression on her small physiognomy. That look of naughty merriment was likewise reflected in the mirror, with so much breadth and intensity of effect, that it made Hester Prynne feel as if it could not be the image of her own child, but of an imp who was seeking to mould itself into Pearl's shape.

"Come along, Pearl!" said she, drawing her away, "Come and look into this fair garden. It may be, we shall see flowers there; more beautiful ones than we find in the woods."
Related Characters: Hester Prynne (speaker), Pearl (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Letter, Pearl
Page Number: 98-99
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hester and Pearl walk in Governor Bellingham's mansion, their adventures proceed as expected; Pearl acts like an "imp," who refuses to behave properly out of strange delight with her surroundings. She also becomes preoccupied with the way that the decorations (in this case, the reflection in a convex mirror) in this site of Puritan authority visually and metaphorically exaggerate the scarlet letter on Hester's chest, as well as Pearl's own otherworldliness. In response to Pearl, Hester suggests that they go to the governor's garden, to see flowers "more beautiful" than flowers in the woods -- flowers which are superior to the ones Hester and Pearl can view from their dwelling at the margin of the town, close to the wilderness of the forest. Even when Hester and Pearl physically travel to the society of the town, their separation is apparent.

Chapter 16 Quotes
“'Mother,' said litter Pearl, 'the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom.... I am but a child. It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!' 'Nor ever will, my child, I hope,' said Hester. 'And why not, mother?' asked Pearl, stopping short, just at the beginning of her race. 'Will not it come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?'
Related Characters: Hester Prynne (speaker), Pearl (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Letter, Pearl
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hester seeks Dimmesdale in the wood, hoping to intercept him and inform him about Chillingworth's true nature, Pearl (naturally) accompanies her. On this day, Pearl is able to stand in the patches of sunlight that make their way onto the forest path, but these bursts of light disappear when Hester attempts to touch them. Pearl, as usual, interprets this phenomenon with uncanny metaphorical accuracy for such a young child; the sunlight, like a townsperson, "runs away and hides" from Hester because of her scarlet letter ("something on your bosom"). Yet we also see Pearl's childlike simplicity, as she assumes that every woman must have such a letter on her, thinking that it grows naturally. Pearl indirectly raises the tension of the novel when she so innocently draws attention to the reason why only Hester has a scarlet letter, referencing but not stating Hester's specific sin. 

Chapter 18 Quotes
But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness.... 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.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Letter
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Hester claims that she will join Dimmesdale as he flees from this Puritan town and his past life, Dimmesdale can only gape at her because of his intense emotions -- "hope" mixed with "fear" and "horror." It is difficult for Dimmesdale to fathom Hester's boldness, as he has only lived within his small society as a clergyman, while Hester has lived for seven years without society's approval (in this often-called "moral wilderness"), as an outcast who sinned. Hester's condemnation has indeed led to "shame, despair, solitude," but it also makes her a "strong" enough individual to envisage escaping her current social circumstance -- a prospect which Dimmesdale cannot so easily imagine, as a man caught within conformity.  

Chapter 24 Quotes
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 world's scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too.
Related Characters: Hester Prynne, Pearl
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Letter, Pearl
Page Number: 244-245
Explanation and Analysis:

After the narrator describes Pearl's uncertain fate, he more confidently relates that Hester stayed "here," the site of the story. The narrator has described Hester's future with an air of inevitability throughout the novel, and it continues here; it seems that Hester had no way to escape from the scarlet letter, as her association with it was too powerful. The meaning of the scarlet letter continued to mutate over time, however. In the novel it initially signified "adultery," serving as a symbol of shame, and then came to mean "able," serving as a symbol of Hester's abilities, but finally it became a sort of legend -- a garment which brought solemn respect, even reverence (perhaps a reference to it's final possible meaning, "angel"). Hester did not take off the letter again -- Dimmesdale was gone -- yet the letter changed, with Hester, over the ensuing many years.

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The Scarlet Letter Symbol Timeline in The Scarlet Letter

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Scarlet Letter appears in The Scarlet Letter. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Custom House
Sin Theme Icon
...storage area of the Custom House. The package contained a piece of fabric with a red letter "A" affixed to it along with several pages explaining the history of the letter. The... (full context)
Chapter 2
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
On her chest Hester wears a scarlet letter "A," affixed with beautiful embroidery that strikes some women in the crowd as inappropriate. The... (full context)
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
As the crowd stares at Hester, the crowd focuses on the scarlet letter , which transfixes everyone. The letter sets Hester apart, enclosing her in "a sphere by... (full context)
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
...the present. She looks out at the menacing crowd assembled before her. Hester touches the scarlet letter and squeezes her baby, Pearl, so tightly that Pearl cries. Hester then realizes that the... (full context)
Chapter 5
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
...the source of her alienation: sin. Hester is determined to keep the meaning of the scarlet letter a secret from Pearl. (full context)
Chapter 6
Puritanism Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
...Hester, Pearl is painfully aware of her isolation. She has an innate sense that Hester's scarlet letter is linked to their rejection by society. She pleads with her mother to explain the... (full context)
Chapter 7
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
The Occult Theme Icon
...the breastplate of a suit of armor: Hester appears to be completely hidden behind the scarlet letter . Hester seems to feel Pearl's distance as they gaze in the mirror, and she... (full context)
Chapter 8
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
...can justify keeping Pearl. Hester says she'll teach Pearl what she's learned from wearing the scarlet letter . The Governor says that the letter is her badge of shame. (full context)
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
...again. He points out that Hester even dresses Pearl in red, likening her to the scarlet letter . (full context)
Chapter 10
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
The Occult Theme Icon
...cemetery outside Dimmesdale's home. Pearl is playing on the headstones and attaching burrs to Hester's scarlet letter . (full context)
Chapter 13
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
...passed since Pearl's birth. Hester has become more accepted by the community, and the embroidered scarlet letter has evolved into a "symbol of her calling," not just her sin. (full context)
Chapter 14
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
...the sea, he tells her the council has recently discussed allowing her to remove the scarlet letter from her chest. She says the letter should stay until she's worthy of its removal. (full context)
Chapter 15
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
...letter "A" on her own chest. She pleads with Hester to tell her what the scarlet letter means, and asks if Hester wears it for the same reason Dimmesdale covers his heart... (full context)
Chapter 16
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
The Occult Theme Icon
...story and she responds that an old woman told her the Black Man put the scarlet letter on her mother. Eager to settle the matter, Hester confirms the false story of the... (full context)
Chapter 17
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest and hold hands. Dimmesdale says life with a scarlet letter would be preferable to his life of deception, since Hester is the only person with... (full context)
Chapter 18
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
...Hester. He calls her his "angel" and says he's been renewed. Hester flings away her scarlet letter and feels an enormous swell of relief. (full context)
Chapter 19
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
...to her parents when they call. Hester attributes her reluctance to the absence of the scarlet letter on her bosom. Hester puts the letter back on and Pearl accepts her. (full context)
Chapter 22
Sin Theme Icon
The Occult Theme Icon
...Black Man, and that both Hester and Dimmesdale are such servants. Hibbins also compares Hester's scarlet letter to Dimmesdale's habit of covering his heart. (full context)
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
Some Indians standing in the gathered crowd think Hester's scarlet letter is a mark of distinction. (full context)
Chapter 23
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
...Hester. As Chillingworth looks on in despair, Dimmesdale tears away his clothing to reveal a scarlet letter carved into his breast. (full context)
Chapter 24
Sin Theme Icon
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
Puritanism Theme Icon
People came up with various explanations for the origin of Dimmesdale's scarlet letter . Some thought Dimmesdale carved it himself, as a penance. Others that Chillingworth, through magic... (full context)
Individuality and Conformity Theme Icon
...in Boston. She lived there for many years before her death and still wore the scarlet letter , which had taken on its own legend over time. She was buried next to... (full context)