Review: The Scarlet Letter Uses Symbolism to Challenge Social Norms


Anna Haubensak and Carsyn Loncke work on their Scarlet Letter projects in American Literature.

Anna Haubensak, Writer

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is an extraordinary novel based on the Puritan beliefs and values. The story is about Hester Prynne, a woman who is accused of committing adultery in Puritan New England in the 17th century. In order to publicly shame Hester, the people of the town of Salem force her to wear a scarlet letter A on her chest. The story then follows Hester as she tries to come to terms with her supposed crime and her defiance of the strict religious order in the town. Throughout the story, Hawthorne never reveals what the A actually means. Rather, the meaning of the letter changes throughout the story as Hester’s actions effect the towns peoples perception of her.

Symbolism is defined as the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities. Symbols are present throughout many parts of the novel. With the main symbol being the scarlet A, it represents so many different words or even ideas depending on which character is talking about it. In the beginning, it can be assumed that the A means “adultery,” as that was Hester’s “crime.” However it is never said what the A actually represents. As the novel evolves, the A’s meaning begins to change. Hawthorne writes, “They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.” Toward the end of the novel, the A is said to stand for “able.” Hester is very open to living a life of shame and embraces it. This leads her to overcome the strict Puritan life values and expectations.

I thought The Scarlet Letter was an intriguing story with a unique use of symbolism. Hester was able to break a strict idea of a puritan life and live with her mistakes for everyone to see. Even though everyone around her lives a life of sin, she was the only one able to admit it, and, as a result, may have worked to change a social norm within the community.