Society determines what kind of person you are based upon your behavior and actions and they can deem you a sinner or an angel. Within Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the perceptions of the scarlet “A” are constantly changing within the story. In the novel the “A” is the signifier and the signified is represented by all the different perspectives from the Puritans. It can be argued that the “A” changes because Hester’s actions determine the way that Puritan society will perceive it, whether it be sin, agony, angel, able, or life.
At the start of the novel, the “A” was viewed as a symbol of her sin and her feeling of agony. For instance, during the time when Hester was led out of the prison one of the many women crowded around the jail said, “But she, – the naughty baggage, – little will she care about what they put upon the bodice of her gown” (45). This showed that the women of the town perceived Hester as a sinner and as a bad person. Even though she was truly a kind person at heart, the women chose to overlook that aspect.
As Hester was being led out to the scaffold the narrator revealed that, “Hester Prynne had always had this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon the token; the spot never grew callous; it seemed contrary, to grow more sensitive with daily torture” (72). According to Hawthorne she felt a horrendous amount of agony because people were glaring at her and judging her based on the sin she committed and the “A” on her bosom. With all that is said and done the “A” in the start of the novel was a symbol of agony and sin. There was no direct definition of the “A” because everyone perceived it in different ways.
For Example, when Reverend Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl were all up on the scaffold, Dimmesdale claimed that the “A” “burning duskily through a veil of cloud; but with no such shape as his guilty imagination gave it; or, at least, with so little definiteness, that another’s guilt might have seen another symbol in it” (128-29). The signifier in this statement is the immense, red, “A” in the sky, and the signified is the way it is perceived. Dimmesdale believes it is a symbol of all the sins he and his fellow puritans have committed.
But, the following day it was brought to his attention and the attention of all the others in society that the “A” could possibly represent angel. That night Governor Winthrop passed away and the sexton revealed that “-the letter A, – which we interpret to stand for Angel. For, as our good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night, it was doubtless held fit that there should be some notice thereof” (131)! The “A” was signified by both angel and sin. Several years have now passed and during the years the meaning of the “A” has stayed consistent to sin and agony, but now it took a turn for the better.
Hester no longer had the agonizing feeling in her chest and people got so used to seeing the “A” that they overlooked the sin and saw her as a good person. She had been helping the poor and the ill in town and Hawthorne stated, “The letter was a symbol of her calling. ” Her calling was her unit and the rule was that even though she has sinner she would still be a good figure in society and help those less fortunate. This caused the signifier, the “A”, to have a new perspective. The people believed that the “A”, “meant Able, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength (134). ” The “A” is also viewed as a symbol of goodness.
For instance, when a puritan was with a stranger and they would see Hester walk by they would explain, “Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge? It is our Hester, – the town’s own Hester, – who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted (134-35)”! They point her out as a great person rather than shunning her and she is transforming for the good. By the end of The Scarlet Letter the “A” became a symbol of Hester’s life. She proved to herself and everyone else that without the “A” she is not Hester without the “A”. It defines who she is to herself and Pearl, and who she is to society.
Hester had left Boston shortly after Dimmesdale died, but many years later she returned after Pearl was married. She not only returned to location of her sin, which she felt indebted to fill out her punishment, she also returned because she wanted to be buried next to the man she loved and committed the sin of passion with. The Scarlet Letter, a novel about judging other based upon their actions and appearance rather than on the type of person that they are. Hester’s “A” , the signifier, was constantly changing what is meant. This meant that the signified was never the same and it was determined by the way people perceived her.