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The interpretation in the letter a in the scarlet letter

The reader is thus invited to consider the whole story as a progressive uncovering of the "truth" of a symbol that constitutes one of the most enigmatic elements of American literature. Critics over the years focused on this search for a hidden significance, and put forward their own interpretation of this "truth.

Instead of offering my own A-word as a key to understanding Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece, I would like to focus on the notion of symbol itself, and on the way the author organizes this search for a meaning. The narrator frequently uses this word throughout the romance, and its various occurrences enable us to shape a definition that corresponds to his personal use of symbols.

From this starting point, I would like to show how Hawthorne stages the interpretative process within The Scarlet Letter, and how this provides keys for the reader on how to read them. The word "symbol" and its meaning in The Scarlet Letter First, I would like to provide a few basic elements on the definitions of allegory and symbol as I will use them in this analysis. Starting from that definition, Poe's analysis of Hawthorne's works as "allegorical" can be qualified, especially in The Scarlet Letter in which Hawthorne blatantly refuses some key aspects of an allegorical mode of representation.

I will try to demonstrate that the scarlet "symbol," as well as its full-fledged equivalent Pearl, pertains on the contrary to a symbolic mode of representation. Both partake of the creation of a spiritual meaning, and enable the author to provide several layers of interpretation.

The distinction between the two figures appeared later and was shaped mainly by German romantics. The distinction between symbol and allegory can be organized around three main points.

  • She had been offered to the world, these seven past years, as the living hieroglyphic, in which was revealed the secret they so darkly sought to hide, - all written in this symbol, - all plainly manifest, - had there been a prophet or magician skilled to read the character of flame!
  • The interpretation of the symbol entails social consequences, and Hawthorne is highly aware of its dangers.

The two elements remain distinct and the object's sole function is to suggest the secondary meaning. Justice as a blindfold woman carrying scales and a sword can be used as an example to clarify matters. The woman does not exist at the first level of understanding; she does not have a name or a personal history. Using such an image only aims at indirectly referring to the abstract idea of justice which exists outside of such a representation. On the other hand, the symbol has a syncretic value: The interpretation of allegory is finite, whereas that of symbol is infinite.

The blindfold woman represents the concept of justice, and that figure could be replaced by the concept without losing any meaningful element.

On the contrary, if a symbol is assigned one definite meaning, some of its reality as a literary object is ignored. Understanding allegories requires cultural knowledge, whereas the comprehension of symbol is intuitive. One must learn what the blindfold woman stands for, or to guess one must reflect upon her various attributes and relate them to the cultural idea of justice.

The figure does not appeal to sensitivity, and emotions are not part of the understanding process.

Hawthorne's definition should be set within the theoretical debate opposing allegory and symbol that first appeared in Goethe's works. Hawthorne's knowledge of German, although limited according to his wife, enables us to assume that he was at least acquainted with these theories.

Moreover, the question of understanding symbols is largely common among intellectuals at the time, since Champollion's discovery of the meaning of hieroglyphs had a great impact on various authors of the American Renaissance. According to John Irwin, Champollion isolated a series of signs that could not be deciphered and that are tantamount to the symbolic signs per se; these "anaglyphs" correspond to the lost wisdom of the Egyptians.

Starting from that definition, I would first like to show that the scarlet letter is endowed with many characteristics pertaining to a symbolic mode.

This contribution aims to describe how, in The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne ventured far into the realm of romantic symbol, discovered the ambiguities and uncertainties related to such a mode of expression, and attempted at providing a number of answers to the problems he encountered.

However, it is far from certain that he considered these answers as satisfactory.

I would like to submit the hypothesis that this is the reason why Hawthorne abandoned such a mode and returned to a more classic allegorical mode, at least up to the unfinished undertaking known as The Elixir of Life Manuscripts. Hawthorne's definition of "symbol" When commenting upon his first volume of Tales, Edgar Allan Poe indicates that Hawthorne "is infinitely too fond of allegory, and can never hope for popularity as long as he persists in it.

Jorge Luis Borges, in an article devoted to Nathaniel Hawthorne's stylistic technique, refers to the habit Hawthorne had of writing down in his Notebooks central ideas that would later constitute the backbone of his tales, thus starting from the "moral" of the tale to elaborate a narrative that will illustrate this moral. The example of "Egotism or the Bosom Serpent" is probably the most appropriate. An entry dated from in the Notebooks hints at a possible idea for a tale in such terms: But Hawthorne's use of "allegory" already bears traces of the romantic symbol, and especially puts forward the idea that the snake has a real existence.

He repeatedly insists upon the materiality of the serpent, especially in the final scene when Roderick is finally delivered: At that moment, if report be trustworthy, the sculptor beheld a waving motion through the grass, and heard a tinkling sound, as if something had plunged into the fountain.

This fusion of the spiritual meaning - Roderick acted unselfishly and is delivered from his egotism - and the material aspect - the serpent left his bosom - thus presides over the conclusion of the tale, bringing a tinge of romantic flavor to his allegorical dish.

But it is interesting to remark that Poe used the term "allegory," whereas Hawthorne preferred that of "symbol" in The Scarlet Letter.

This underlines a major inflection in Hawthorne's use of this type of stylistic figure, from the "Allegories of the heart" to The The interpretation in the letter a in the scarlet letter Letter. No less than twenty-four occurrences of the noun or the verb can be numbered, delineating a definition of symbol that undoubtedly leans towards that of the German romantics.

According to Goethe's definition, the classical allegory aims at providing the reader with a direct knowledge of what is meant, and establishes a conventional - and therefore immutable - relationship between an image and an abstract meaning.

We can find in The Scarlet Letter a blatant refusal of such a mode when he presents Hester during the first scaffold scene with this sentence: Giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful passion.

Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast, [ ] as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. The letter requires to be interpreted, but its comprehension is not intuitive, its meaning is to be taught by the religious authorities.

However, the narrative itself contradicts this declaration, since the meaning of the A evolves in the mind of the community: Such helpfulness was found in her, - so much power to do, and power to sympathize, - that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength.

If the discourse of the preacher is allegoric, that of the author is on the contrary symbolic. Hawthorne not only refuses the allegorical mode, he also endows Pearl with attributes that confirm the relevance of the romantic definition of symbol. This is particularly obvious in the following quotation: In her was visible the tie that united them. She had been offered to the world, these seven past years, as the living hieroglyphic, in which was revealed the secret they so darkly sought to hide, - all written in this symbol, - all plainly manifest, - had there been a prophet or magician skilled to read the character of flame!

  1. Hawthorne not only refuses the allegorical mode, he also endows Pearl with attributes that confirm the relevance of the romantic definition of symbol.
  2. It was immediately responded to by a light, airy, childish laugh, in which, with a thrill of the heart—but he knew not whether of exquisite pain, or pleasure as acute—he recognized the tones of little Pearl. According to John Irwin, Champollion isolated a series of signs that could not be deciphered and that are tantamount to the symbolic signs per se; these "anaglyphs" correspond to the lost wisdom of the Egyptians.
  3. The fact that Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter, Una, served as a model for the character of Pearl also corresponds to this attempt to make her as lively a character as possible. From this starting point, I would like to show how Hawthorne stages the interpretative process within The Scarlet Letter, and how this provides keys for the reader on how to read them.
  4. Hawthorne creates a web of references around the letter, both directly and more discreetly, which leads his reader to consider it as a romantic symbol.

And Pearl was the oneness of their being. Be the foregone evil what it might, how could they doubt that their earthly lives and future destinies were conjoined, when they beheld at once the material union, and the spiritual idea, in whom they met, and were to dwell immortally together? The symbolic quality of the letter is transferred to Pearl in this excerpt, which reinforces the idea that the symbol combines the reference to an abstract idea with a material existence.

Of course, the character of Pearl remains largely determined by its role as a representation of her mother's sin, and hence as an allegory of Guilt.

The child's personality and evolution corresponds exactly to the movement of her parents' culpability: She is the scarlet letter under another guise, and as such her place in the novel may seem limited by the "office" she has to perform. However, Hawthorne chose to develop her character into a full-fledged one, with her own features.

The fact that Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter, Una, served as a model for the character of Pearl also corresponds to this attempt to make her as lively a character as possible. Pearl consequently functions on two different levels within the narrative, both as a child and as an allegory. Her character provides a "connecting link" between her parents, but also between the two levels of understanding.

Hawthorne goes even further in the use of the romantic characteristics of symbol through the use of the expression "oneness. This also echoes the origin of the word "symbol," since the Greek word "symbolon" referred to a coin divided into two halves that was used as a recognition sign. Pearl is thus more than a link; she represents the ideal combination of the various levels of understanding. But the most definitely romantic element is probably the mystery attached to the letter and the multiplicity of meanings it can be assigned.

The expression "ignominious letter," used in three different occasions, hints through its etymology at something that cannot be expressed 52, 58 and Moreover, the word "symbol" is often associated with the adjective "mystic," which underlines the idea that it constitutes a mystery that can be deciphered only by the initiated.

The rosebush at the "threshold" of the prison-door - and of the narrative - was by the way a symbol of initiation into mysteries during the Antiquity. Hawthorne creates a web of references around the letter, both directly and more discreetly, which leads his reader to consider it as a romantic symbol. Interpreting signs is by the way a pervasive concern in Hawthorne's work throughout his career.

On the market-place, a villager tells Chillingworth that the name of the child's father remains unknown and that "the Daniel who shall expound it is yet a-wanting" The explicit reference to the prophet Daniel, who interprets the writing on the wall for King Belshazzar, introduces this question of interpretation in The Scarlet Letter. It provides a link between the interpretative process within the story - the interpretation in the letter a in the scarlet letter discovery of the identity of Pearl's father by Chillingworth - and the interpretative process at work in "The Custom-House" - the discovery of the meaning of the scarlet letter by the narrator.

Hawthorne's story is double, as the fact that the manuscript was found "in the second story of the Custom-House" suggests It is no surprise then to see him place the letter on his breast, as Daniel's reward is to be "clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold around his neck" Daniel, 5: In this respect, we can oppose Chillingworth's diabolic reading of the story to the narrator's symbolic one.

Interpretation within the narrative On this matter, the emphasis on the romantic theory of symbol is less definite. As a romantic symbol, the scarlet letter appeals to both intellect and sensitivity.

However, the interpretative process as Hawthorne presents it in The Scarlet Letter is complex, and the link between feeling and understanding is far less direct than it may seem at first sight. Although the idea of intuitive comprehension may be considered as an ideal, Hawthorne's pragmatism leads him to qualify it and to take into account the impact of social conventions on the understanding of the symbol.

What the narrator of "The Custom-House" tells the reader about the letter confirms the link with the romantic conception: Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind.

In Hawthorne's vision, the two elements are disconnected, and the ability of the symbol to convey emotions does not lead to any direct comprehension of its meaning. This idea is also clearly staged through the discovery of the scarlet letter. The narrator relates an emotional experience as he places the letter on his breast: It seemed to me, - the reader may the interpretation in the letter a in the scarlet letter, but must not doubt my word, - it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron.

But the narrator also insists on his inability to decipher the meaning of the letter because it belongs to another time and therefore to another set of values: It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it, was a riddle which so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars I saw little hope of solving. The bond-servant, perhaps judging from the decision of her air and the glittering symbol in her bosom, that she was a great lady in the land, offered no opposition.

When the narrator takes up the letter, it is mute, and the whole story can be read as a possible exegesis of the letter offered by the narrator to his reader. This is by the way a divine mission, as the discourse that Surveyor Pue pronounces from his grave underlines But the narrative contract establishes afterwards the latitude of the narrator, since Surveyor Pue's manuscript is "the authority which we have chiefly followed"my emphasis.

Nathaniel Hawthorne thereby establishes his very narrative as one possible insight into the scarlet symbol, but at the same time unsettles the certainties of the reader as to the validity of his interpretation. Interpretation of the symbol by the reader The symbol has the capacity to convey impressions, but the importance of the social context is prominent in interpreting this impression.

What the author suggests concerning the interpretation of signs by the various characters within the narrative can also be applied to Hawthorne's readers. His rhetorical strategy aims at emphasizing the idea of a negotiation between the narrator and the reader on the meaning that should be assigned to the letter.