An A+ for The Scarlet Letter


The Scarlet Letter is a novel written in 1850 that contains a fictional legend from the 1640s. It seems unlikely that a story from ages ago could still have relevant themes in today’s world, but The Scarlet Letter has unimpeachably stood the test of time. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne develops his characters brilliantly and crafts motifs with such vivid detail; even when the plot is slow, we are captivated by the rich descriptions of characters’ emotions and the symbols that surround them.

The narrator establishes a personal relationship with the reader by speaking to us directly, continually questioning, warning, and scrutinizing throughout the novel. In the first chapter, he offers us a rose. This flower could represent morality hidden in this story of iniquity…or perhaps the story is so sorrowful that it is the only form of solace we will have on this journey.

The legend begins when our protagonist, Hester Prynne, is released from prison and forced onto a platform––on display for all of Puritan Boston to see. She carries two marks of shame on her body. One of them is a baby girl, a devilish child conceived in sin and born in darkness, whose very existence was sparked by lustful passion. The other burden Hester bears is a scarlet letter (“A” for “adulteress”), which is embroidered on her chest with “fantastic flourishes of gold thread.”

The Puritan magistrates force Hester to wear this letter permanently. She is banished to the outskirts of town and ridiculed in public. Meanwhile, cowardice and guilt eat away at her fellow transgressor––the unrevealed father of her child. As a man of piety and honor, he cannot find the courage to free himself of his burden.

Unfortunately for Hester, her husband arrives in New England the day she is presented on the scaffold. With a different name and new identity, he devotes his life to finding the man with whom Hester committed adultery and psychologically torturing him.

Hester Prynne’s confidence, pride, and good nature make The Scarlet Letter an exceptional novel. Hester chooses to embrace the scarlet letter, and she brings her daughter, Pearl, everywhere she goes. Unlike Pearl’s father, Hester is liberated, and her natural beauty shines beneath her dull apparel. The beauty associated with her transgression causes us to question the actual sinfulness of it. Hester’s virtue and equanimity change the meaning of the scarlet letter; it does not fulfill its initial purpose because of Hester’s strong will and compassionate disposition.

Living in a society that (still) judges people––especially women––for their personal actions, perhaps we can learn from Hester Prynne to find that intrinsic self-confidence within us. We must not let society’s labels define us; we must instead let ourselves define the labels we are given.