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Let's talk a little bit about what a symbol is. The common definition says that a symbol is a sign or token of something. A lion, for instance, is a symbol of courage. The bald eagle is a symbol of America. A white bridal gown is (or used to be) a symbol of purity. We take symbols like these pretty much for granted. They are a part of our everyday experience.
In literature, matters are a little more complicated. Literary symbols usually don't have instantly recognizable meanings. Rather they take their meanings from the works of which they are a part.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne gives us a symbol, a red letter A whose meaning has to be deciphered. What does the scarlet letter mean? It is a question repeated by almost every character in the novel who is confronted with the blatant red token and who has to deal with it: by Hester herself, as she sits in prison, decorating the emblem with golden thread; by Reverend Wilson, who addresses the crowd at the scaffold with such terrifying references to the scarlet A that it seems to glow red with hellfire; by Pearl, who asks about the letter so often that she threatens to drive her mother (and all of us) mad.
The symbol's meaning is hard to pin down because it is no passive piece of cloth, but a highly active agent. The scarlet letter provokes hostile feelings in the citizens of Boston, who shun Hester and insult her as something tainted and vile.
Society's response to the letter, in turn, affects Hester. On the surface, she becomes a patient and penitential figure. She looks like someone seeking to live down the sin that the scarlet letter represents. But beneath the surface, rebellion is brewing. Society's insults make Hester angry and bitter. She becomes a scornful critic of her world. Hester takes the letter to herself. She becomes in fact the renegade she is labeled. Hester breaks free of conventional ideas and, as we see in the forest scene, she opposes Puritan truths with some devastating truths of her own.
The point Hawthorne is making is that our lives are inevitably shaped by our past actions and by the signs of those actions-be they medals or badges of infamy-which we wear. Symbols like the scarlet letter shape our perceptions and our temperaments. They determine the kind of people we become.
Over the years, the scarlet letter and its wearer blend into one. The letter, whatever it means, is the summation of Hester's life. But a letter is a remarkably ambiguous symbol. It can stand for any word beginning with A.
Does the A stand for Adulteress, surely the intention of the magistrates who imposed it in the first place? Does it stand for Able in recognition of Hester's devotion as a nurse? Does it even mean Angel, with the consequent suggestion that Hester has risen above the society which condemned her?
There is danger and excitement in the uncertainty. If we knew for sure that the A stood for Adulteress, we would have Hester neatly pegged. We would know we were supposed to condemn her. But Hawthorne is not content to let the matter rest at that. He asks us to look at Hester from other, very different, viewpoints. We are never altogether sure whether we should condemn Hester or admire her.