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by William Golding

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Laura Amy Schlitz

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7. Symbols: A is for a-lot-of-things.

The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850
Famous for: That scarlet letter “A”, the tormented Reverend Dimmesdale, and fiendish husband Roger Chillingworth.

learn-about-symbolsA bad reputation is hard to shake. Especially when it’s been sewn to your shirt, like a scarlet “A.”

Lest you miss the point, Nathaniel Hawthorn names his book after that scarlet stigma: “A” for “adulteress,” the label Hester Prynne’s accusers sentenced her to wear for the rest of her life.

In their hands, that letter was a symbol of guilt. But Hawthorne transforms it into a symbol of redemption, one carrying a message about identity that’s as relevant to life in a 21st-century high school as it would have been to Hester Prynne.
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A is for Artist. 

Initially, the embroidered scarlet “A” identifies Hester as an adulteress. But as Hester changes her life, the meaning of that “A” evolves with her. She takes up needlework: Hester-the-Adulteress becomes Hester-the-Artist. She uses her artistry to benefit the poor: Hester atones for her sin through noble works of such magnitude that some who condemned her no longer acknowledge the scarlet letter’s original meaning: They say “A” now stands for Able.

A is for Angel. 

Symbols and themes in literature are closely linked. That’s certainly the case in The Scarlet Letter, where Hawthorne weaves the symbol of that letter “A” into his story’s theme about identity and how identity is defined.

Think about it: Hester Prynne’s actions enable her to redefine the meaning of that label stitched onto her garment and to defy those who identify her as a sinner and outcast. Hester’s story challenges readers of The Scarlet Letter to ask: Do you define your own identity? Or do you let others define it for you?

By the end of The Scarlet Letter, Hester has found a measure of redemption: She’s refused to allow society to define her. Yes, that “A” will follow Hester to her death. But her ability to adapt and atone has freed her from the label adulteress. Hester’s redefinition of herself is so complete, that glittering “A” now identifies her as an Angel.

 

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