Hester Prynne lives in a harsh Puritan community in the 17th century. To the Puritans, the A was an unambiguous emblem signifying adultery, but Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter invests the letter with a series of possible alternative meanings.
Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl joined hands and the “three formed an electric chain” (p.2387) on the platform. Then, they saw a meteor form the red letter “A.” This meteor symbolizes the family that Pearl is yearning for. On the other hand, the gray-bearded sexton told Mr. Dimmesdale that the community saw “a great red letter in the sky-the letter A,-which we interpret to stand for Angel.” (Lauter, p.2390)
The community believes that the letter “A” stands for “Angel.” Also they take it as a sign that their “good governor Winthrop was made an angel.” Therefore, the Puritan community takes it as a sign which has been sent by Heaven to assure them that their governor has safely arrived to Paradise.
Furthermore, some people in the community think that the letter “A” stands for “Able.” Some people think that “such helpfulness was found in her,-so much power to do, and power to sympathize,-that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able.” (Lauter, p.2392) Hester has given “of her little substance to every demand of poverty.” (Lauter, p.2391) She has helped the poor and she has nursed the sick people. With her “human tenderness”, she has provided charitable work in the community. Therefore, some people think that the “A” stands for “Able.”
Thus the scarlet letter has been assigned many different meanings by different people. Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of the novel, wanted to convey to the reader the possible alternative meanings throughout the story.
The Scarlet Letter takes place in the 17th century in a Puritan setting and context. Hester whispered to her daughter, “Holy thy peace, dear little Pearl! We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest.” (Lauter, p.2432)
In the novel, the town square symbolizes the Puritans and their rigid mentality. Puritans condemned adultery as both a crime and a sin, imposing punishments that ranged from public humiliation to execution. The town place is represented by the scaffold which represents “a penal machine.” (2336) Hester had to stand on the scaffold at midday “under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and concentrated at her bosom. It was almost intolerable to be borne.” (p.2337)
In the other hand, the forest symbolizes the “moral wilderness in which she had so long been wandering.” (p.2403) The forest beyond the town represents the place where Hester and Dimmesdale had committed their sin. Hester and Dimmesdale are sitting side by side “on the mossy trunk of the fallen tree” (2409) just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Even.
Also, the “forest was obscure around them” and they felt far away from the Puritan surveillance. They were protected from the Puritans’ judgment in the forest. It was the only place where Dimmesdale was able to confess his love to Hester.
In the forest, Mistress Hibbins was able to escape from the Puritan community in order to meet her “merry company in the forest” (2368) and have an orgiastic midnight assembly with all the Devil’s devotees.
Hawthorne, N. The Scarlet letter. Eds. Lauter, P. et al 5th ed. Boston: Houghton, 2006 2307-2444