An "A" Paper

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An "A" Paper

Laine Edwards

Throughout Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter, the appearance of the letter "A" on Hester Prynne's bosom is a consistent reminder of the town's judgment of her character. The letter initially represents Hester's sin of adultery; however, throughout the course of the novel the letter's meaning changes according to the whims of the townspeople. As time passes and Hester's original sin becomes faded in the memory of the town, the meaning of "A" adjusts to the feelings of the community and begins to symbolize the various roles that Hester occupies within the town. The scarlet letter, in effect, is not so much a steady reminder of Hester's sin, but is instead a fluid symbol of the townspeople's constant judging of her character.
The Puritan community in which Hester lives thrives on the constant battle between good and evil. The townspeople turn their religious fervor into a sort of competition, each trying to outdo the other in terms of piety and faith. When Hester first emerges from the jail that first morning a large group of villagers awaits her. There is a group of women who take particular interest in Hester and the punishment that is about to ensue. The women are outraged at the magistrate's leniency towards Hester because they feel her transgressions reflect directly upon them and the congregation of Reverend Dimmesdale. The hatred that these women feel towards Hester is not mitigated in the least by their common bond as women, but instead appears to be strengthened by their shared femaleness. One matron goes so far as to prescribe death for Hester, saying, "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" (122). For these women, Hester's sin is a reflection of the moral quality of the entire community and they feel that a harsher punishment is necessary in order to atone in the eyes of God.
The women of the town are not the only community members who find the punishment of Hester to be a redeeming quality of the village. When Hester's former husband, Roger Chillingworth, first sees her on the scaffolding he asks a village man about her crime. The man answers with pride in his town's punishment of the perpetrator, stating "methinks it must gladden your heart, after your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness to find yourself, at length, in a land where iniquity is searched out, and punished in the sight of rulers and people" (130). The townspeople of Boston see it as their natural right to place judgment on sinners and they take pride in their ability to do so accurately. Hester, therefore, is the unfortunate victim of the townspeople's penchant for equating "justice" with shame and discrimination.
The Scarlet Letter begins with Hester's "A" symbolizing her sin of adultery. She gives birth to a child out of wedlock and refuses to name the father so that he may share in her shame. Her punishment, therefore, is to wear a scarlet letter "A" on her dress as a reminder to both herself and to others of the true nature of her character. For the townspeople "she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify an embody their images of women's frailty and sinful passion" (142). In the weeks and months immediately following Hester's time atop the scaffolding the townspeople view the "A" as only a symbol of Hester's disgrace because that is the only role she is allowed to occupy in society- that of an "example" to other potential sinners. As time passes, however, Hester becomes freer in her actions and moves about the village with a renewed sense of purpose. The villagers take notice of her behavior and consequently the meaning of the "A" comes to symbolize roles other than that of adulterer.
In the years after her public shaming Hester takes on a role of public service to the village community. She tends the sick and the dying, she clothes and feeds the poor, and the letter begins to symbolize her ability to do good works in the village. No longer does the "A" stand solely for adulterer, but its meaning changes due to the townspeople's altered view of Hester. For the townspeople, the shame inherent in the "A" is lessened and it is tempered with a greater respect for Hester's good deeds. Hester gives comfort to the other villagers in times of need and for her "power to do, and power to sympathize [...] many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able" (202). Originally, the townspeople view Hester as a pariah within the community, however, her role changes as the villagers find in Hester a woman with whom they share a common bond and this is a comfort to them because in her, they also see themselves and their own proclivity towards sin.
From the time the scarlet letter was first sewn on to her dress, the letter "A" set Hester apart from the other villagers. The "A" announces Hester as a sinner and the townspeople keep away form her in case that they too might be tempted to sin. The public interpretation of Hester's "A", however, is very different from the villager's private notions of what the letter symbolizes. Because Hester provides such comfort to the villagers during sickness or at the time of death they come to rely on her. They cannot continue to shun her in the way they previously and in order to let her back into the community a collective shift in understanding the meaning of the letter "A" is necessary.
Slowly, as Hester reestablishes her reputation and her credibility increases, the townspeople allow her to reenter the community as a woman who has been shamed, but is nonetheless a valuable member of the village. The wrath of the group of women has been subdued and they are ready to recognize her skill in sewing and tending the sick. Although there is a shift in the group understanding of the meaning of the "A", it is an unspoken shift that happens quietly and privately. There continues to be a stigma surrounding Hester and her sin, however, the community is read to forgive and this comes about through the mutation of the symbol of the "A" from "adulterer" to "able". Hester demonstrates her understanding of this shift when she explains to Pearl the reason for the "A" on her dress. Hester thinks to herself that the letter may be "a talisman of a stern and severe, but yet a guardian spirit" (215). The "A" undoubtedly transforms Hester in the eyes of the townspeople, but it also changes the way that she views herself. The scarlet letter becomes a badge of humility allows Hester the freedom to be true to herself and her sins in a way that the other villagers are not.
Although the Puritan community in Boston proclaims to be extremely pious, one of the many ironies of Hawthorne's novel is the sin inherent in passing judgment on another sinner. The "black man" has also tempted those who judge Hester harshly for the truth of her sin. The only difference between them is that Hester's sin has become public knowledge due to the birth of Pearl. In the seven years that pass between the beginning of the novel and the end, the townspeople begin to recognize themselves in Hester. As sinners themselves they can commiserate with her suffering. The guilt that they experience as time passes softens their judgment of Hester and the community understanding of the meaning of the letter "A" shifts to allow Hester to be partially reinstated as a member of the community.
The scarlet letter that Hester Prynne is forced to wear as part of her punishment for committing adultery marks her as an "other" in the Puritan community of Boston. Her role as an "other", however, gradually forces other members of the town to recognize within themselves the sins that they have committed. While Hester is never exonerated of her adultery, the collective understanding of the meaning of the letter "A" is allowed to shift to include meanings far more favorable than "adulterer". Hester's good works with the sick and dying and the townspeople's recognition of the impact she has had forces them to reconsider their interpretations of the letter "A" in a way that will allow them to bring Hester back into the community. The transformation of Hester's scarlet letter comes about both as a result of her good works in the community, but also and more importantly, because of the townspeople's recognition of their own sins and their inability to further condemn Hester for her adulterous relationship with Reverend Dimmesdale,
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Rita K. Golin. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002

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