Table of contents
1.1. The Scarlet Letter
1.2. Puritanism in 17th-century America
2. The significance of the scarlet letter ‘A’
2.1. In the Puritan community
2.2. For Hester
2.3. For Pearl
2.4. For Dimmesdale
2.5. For Chillingworth
4. Impressions of a 21st-century reader
1.1. The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel and was published in 1850. Its subtitle A Romance consciously places the novel apart from everyday life. Set in 17th-century Boston it tells a story about sin, guilt and love. As the moral values back then still were in force among Hawthorne’s contemporaries, he uses the imaginative and symbolic form of the romance to alleviate the impression of the unusual themes in his novel.
The Scarlet Letter deals with the life of a woman, Hester Prynne, who committed adultery and is sentenced to wearing a scarlet letter on her dress as a reminder for her and the Puritan community she lives in. She does not confess who the father of her child is that she conceived in her crime. She is expelled from the community and has to make her own way.
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the admired minister of the Puritan community and unknown father of Hester’s child, gets sick because he cannot tell anyone about his guilt. Roger Chillingworth, who turns out to be Hester’s husband who was thought to be dead, makes it his task to find out who his wife’s lover was and to punish him.
During the course of the novel, the original significance of the letter imposed on it by the Puritan officials changes. In this regard the letter is the main character of Hawthorne’s romance. This is already prepared by the introductory autobiographical chapter “The Custom-House” that deals as a frame for the action. It describes the discovery of the letter two hundred years later.
To understand the full extent of Hester’s crime and the Puritan community’s reaction, we have to know what principles Puritanism is based on. This I will examine in the following paragraph.
1.2. Puritanism in 17th-century America
Puritanism is a religious movement which originated in 16th-century England that looked for a way between Roman Catholicism and Protestant Reformation. The name is rooted in the wish to purify the Church of England, which basically means to reform it.
There are three fundamental principles in Puritanism. One of them is morality: this principle assumes that humankind is basically sinful, but the Puritans believe that God promised to save a certain number of human beings. Who will be saved is predestined. The Puritans see themselves as God’s chosen people.
The other principles are worship and a community based on God’s commandments: self-discipline and introspection are central in both of them. The Puritans were supposed to be faithful and worship God in a simple way, especially on Sundays, which was opposed to the Anglican Church: King James I. preferred to organize games on Sundays. Furthermore, the Puritans were opposed to the Episcopal system, as it did not conform to the Bible. By taking this position, the Puritans took a stand in politics.
When the Puritans did not succeed in reforming the Anglican Church, some decided to go to America. There they wanted to found autonomous congregations, a “Christian commonwealth” in the wilderness that should be determined by biblical covenants with God. The Puritan saw himself as a new Adam, who was sent to live in a paradise on earth - America.
Three covenants can be named in this context: the first “Covenant of Works” that assured that a life of good deeds according to the moral principles of the Bible would lead to eternal life. This covenant was rejected by the Puritans as it was part of Catholicism. The second covenant was the “Covenant of Grace” that demanded the life of a saint and punishment for sins. The third, the “Covenant of Redemption”, claimed that the Christians will be saved by Christ’s suffering.
2. The ambiguity of the letter ‘A’
Culture is a structure of meaning that is not ‘natural’ or automatic but locally variable, historically changing and thus both inescapable and humanly revisable – as the changing meaning of Hester’s letter within the Puritan community makes clear. (Millington, p.69)
2.1. The significance of the letter in the Puritan community
In the second chapter the scarlet letter appears for the first time; at first in the gossip of some women in the marketplace, then physically on Hester’s gown.
The women in the marketplace have their own thoughts on the verdict of the officials of their community. They think it is not hard enough: “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there no law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book” ( p.49, ll.15ff.). This gives a clear picture of the role of God’s commandments and also sin in their community. Sin is not tolerated in the Puritan world of morality and to be punished radically. This also indicates the high influence of religious principles on worldly jurisdiction, which can be transferred to all parts of social life.
The scarlet letter with the golden embroidery is striking in the gloomy surroundings of the marketplace. Every one of the Puritans assembled knows Hester as a member of their community. Now they all have come to see the sinner and the consequence of her sin, her child, on the scaffold.
But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer, - so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time, - was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself. (p.51, ll.3ff.)
Hester is not to leave this lonely sphere again. The Puritan community expels her because of her sin. What makes it worse is her refusal to give away the name of her child’s father. But even without that people will avoid her: Hester has neither met the expectations connected to her role as a woman in the patriarchal Puritan society (cf. Schwarztrauber, p.253) nor kept the Ten Commandments: she has broken the 7th Commandment. Therefore, for the Puritan community the letter ‘A’ stands for A-dultery, the sin Hester has committed. The letter is a warning for the others in the community to live obedient to the rules of the Scripture. Hester becomes
 This paragraph is based on:
Donna M. Campbell. “Puritanism in New England.” Literary Movements.
 All quotations if not marked otherwise, have been taken from:
Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Penguin Classics. New York, et al.: Penguin Books, 2003.
- Quote paper
- BA, MA Kathrin Gerbe (Author), 2005, The ambiguity of the letter 'A' in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/45656