Qu 5: ‘…they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin, for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deed since” what does the Scarlet letter teach us on the subject of meaning and interpretation?
It is perhaps unheard of and a little strange that one could actually consider the very letter ‘A’ within the story of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ to be considered the main character within Hawthorne’s tale. However it is due to this very letter that the entire tale of Hester unfolds. After reading the tale of Hester and her ascent from tainted woman to what can only be called a liberated if somewhat damaged soul it is hard to pin point the exact meaning of the letter ‘A’ .It is a letter as ambiguous as it sounds for it leaves open an entire dictionary of words to interpret its meaning. In a story that deals with the breakdown of the puritan society beliefs through a woman whose punishment for adultery is to wear a red letter upon her clothing it is easy to see how one can suppose the tale of ‘The scarlet letter’ to be one centering around Hester herself and yet it is perhaps the very ending of the ‘The scarlet letter’
‘It bore device, a heralds wording of which may serve for motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:
‘ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES’
that beholds the true central subject of the ‘The Scarlet letter’. That is, the very letter itself being the main protagonist leaving Hester to portray a rather small if catalytic part of the novel providing no more than a mere insight into the true meaning of the many and sometimes abstract meanings of the letter.
Through out the ‘Scarlet letter’ the reader is presented with a selection of characters within the Puritan community, which come to view and relate to the scarlet letter in their own different ways. For example at the beginning of the novel the old puritan women of the community regard it as what is the general opinion at the time of Hester’s release from prison. That of a symbol of sin and shame. Hester herself provides her own interpretation by weaving a letter whose appearance could only but reflect her own rebellious nature within the puritan society.
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Within and throughout the novel the scarlet letter takes on and changes many forms so as to leave the reader in a somewhat bewildered and confused state of mind. The beginning of the novel sees the puritan society regard the letter as the proof of sin made visible to all eyes to both punish Hester whilst at the same time serve as a warning. Yet as the tale progresses the meaning of the letter changes and transforms to create a whole different meaning around it. If the major characteristic of the symbol is its enigmatic nature, it is not surprising that the question of its understanding should be of major importance. Yet perhaps in order to begin understanding the true meaning of the Scarlet letter we must first look towards Hawthorns ‘The Custom-house where in the Scarlet letter is described as a ‘mystic symbol, subtly conveying itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind’.
As a romantic symbol, the scarlet letter appeals to both intellect and sensitivity. However, the interpretative process as Hawthorne presents it in The Scarlet Letter is complex, and the link between feeling and understanding is far less direct than it may seem at first sight. Although the idea of intuitive comprehension may be considered as an ideal, Hawthorne’s pragmatism leads him to qualify it and to take into account the impact of social conventions on the understanding of the symbol. This is evident when Hawthorn describes the feeling of ‘burning heat’ as he picks up the letter and how it appeared that the letter was not altogether made of simple red cloth but was much rather like ‘a red hot iron’, yet Hawthorne goes on to conclude that even so without any knowledge of the letter past and origins it was to then remain a riddle. Hawthorne’s ‘The scarlet letter’ which then goes on to try and give voice to the letter found in the common – house is no more than a possible insight into the many interpretations available regarding the letter itself, perhaps then leaving the reader more mystified than ever.
Martin Terence within ‘Nathanial Hawthorne’ claims that Hawthorne seems to say, this is a scarlet letter; because of that, it is capable of further meaning. The letter will have to carry the burden of the tale’. Hawthorne’s use of symbolism is fully developed in the multi-meanings hidden in the scarlet letter through a variety of characters. The scarlet letter represents different ideals to different people and should be given the proper consideration. For the puritans the scarlet letter symbolised the sign of a sinner whose moral obligation towards the community was to portray the mark of sinner to both shame and warn.
Giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast, […] as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. (71-72)
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Through the above extract one can easily see the firm belief the Puritans held that was that through her actions Hester had disgraced not only herself but the entire community. Their belief in that Hester is to take responsibility for her actions is not however carried out in the manner they had originally hoped. Hester may carry out her punishment silently and diligently yet the outcome is not the one the Puritans had foreseen, for Hester’s sin grows from that of passion to one of principle. On the other hand towards the Reverend Arthur Dimmersdale the letter takes on a whole new meaning. He regards the letter as a constant reminder of the sin and cowardice that plaque him. As time goes past this guilt constantly grows as he finds himself unable to take responsibility for his actions. The action he takes of standing upon the scaffold at night is merely one of the signs of his ever increasing guilt. It could even be claimed that his inability to like Hester wear the Scarlet letter turns out to be his downfall as by the end of the novel Dimmersdale dies. Whilst on the other hand it could also be claimed that Hester’s ability to wear the scarlet letter proves to be her salvation for although she does not forget or dismiss the original purpose of the letter she is however able to through the letter’s ability to deem her a social outcast to be left alone behind the symbol to both develop and grow as a character. Terence claims that Hester comes to view the letter as ‘an armour of pride that is also a mantle of suffering”. Her isolation from the rest of the community and the downfall of her place within society can be seen as her mantle of suffering whilst her armour of pride resides in Hester’s own beliefs that her act of adultery was rooted in the love she felt for Dimmersdale as well as her own love of Pearl.
Hester’s secret serves as an “emblem” of different fates of the Puritan generation. “Hawthorne seems to adorn the subject rather than present it, conceal it with fancy needlework, so that the letter A might have been thought to mean…anything other than adulteress”. He portrays the guilt as craftwork, which he attributes to Hester’s prototype: “sporting with her infamy, the lost and desperate creature had embroidered the fatal token with golden thread and the nicest art of needlework. The Scarlet Letter is concerned not only with passion but also with America (another possible signification of Hester’s letter). “It attempts to find in the story of Hester and Dimmesdale a paradigm of the fall of love in the New World”.
Pearl herself could be described as a character that function upon two levels within the narrative, both as a child and as an allegory. If then Pearl is the embodiment of the Scarlet letter itself ,then it is possible for the reader to understand Hester’s own interpretation of the letter even better, for what mother could ever see her child as a sin to be ashamed of. Instead it is with and through Pearl that the letter begins its ascending course, as its meaning changes to mean both motherhood and strength. It is Pearls utter devotion and obsession with the letter that helps convey the bond between the letter and the child. They are the same, they were born through the same ‘act of sin’ .This is most evident when Hester removes the letter in the woods and is then forced to replace it when Pearl refuses to acknowledge her without it. The incident is vital in conveying the bond between the letter and the child. As the living manifestation of the letter, Pearl refuses to have it discarded. It is here that critic Stephanie Carrez puts forward the notion that here it should be said that through Pearl we can see the danger of Hester’s ability to change the letter’s meaning and interpretation. This is seen when Hester does not comply with the educational values prescribed by “Scriptural authority.” This echoes the discussion set by the author on the market place as Hester steps out of the prison door, where one of the women within the crowd voices
“This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die; is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray. “Hester should have died, since such is the law, “both in the Scripture and the statute-book”.
Carrez goes on to explain that If the punishment chosen is for her to wear the letter, it does not represent the letter of the law, but rather its spirit; although the letter is supposed to be “fatal,” Hester will nevertheless live. The interpretation of the symbol entails social consequences, and Hawthorne is highly aware of its dangers. Interpreting words is potentially dangerous: is not the disappearance of the word “adultery” the best proof of the subversive power of the artist?
Even so the many interpretations of the Scarlet letter all stem out of the most common symbol found by readers and that being “adultery”. Although the letter contains various interpretations, it proves to serve only one purpose: that being to make Hester’s sin of adultery known to everyone. The letter is the revolving element throughout the novel.
As a consequence of such a use of symbols, no definite truth can be established, and truth itself becomes an uncertain concept. The resulting ambiguity of Hawthorne’s texts is at the same time a force and a weakness. Hawthorne thus seems to linger over the consequences of using the scarlet letter as a romantic symbol. If scattered and particular visions must be assembled to represent the truth, along romantic lines, he refuses to adopt the radical idea of totally subjective truth, and even sometimes mocks the possibility to do so. The multiplication of possible interpretations is at the same time an artistic necessity and a metaphysical and social threat, and this constitutes one of the keystones of Hawthorne’s ambiguity. The modern aesthetic interrogation about writing, and about the role of the reader in the construction of a truthful meaning, unsettled Hawthorne’s faith in his own work, but provided the modern reader with one of the best examples of the power of art.
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