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Symbolism of the letter a in nathaniel hawthornes the scarlet letter

The definition of symbols in their cultural respect 3. The dynamics of the scarlet letter: From punishment to power? Hawthorne's portrayal of the Puritan Society 3. Introduction In discussions about Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter[1] much attention has been given to the question what the "A", which the sinful heroine Hester Prynne was ordered by the magistrates of the Puritan society to wear on her bosom, means.

This diagnosis indicates that the meaning of the symbol A changes during the course of the plot. However, not so much attention has been given to that process of change and to the symbol as a strong instrument of power to determine social discourse[4].

This study will deal with the question of symbolic power in The Scarlet Letter, or, to be more precise: How does Hester change the meaning of the A, which originally has been forced upon her to stigmatize her clearly as sinner and in this way to exclude her from the rest of the society, in such a manner to her own benefit that it is turned upside down? What does that imply for the power-relationship between sinful individual and patriarchal society?

Since the different actors Hester, magistrates, common people develop different attitudes towards the symbol, every single view must be analyzed individually to hint at least roughly at the diverse readings of the letter.

Particularly, Hester's illegitimate daughter Pearl as the "living symbol" of her sin is an important part of the analysis, because she — by her own reading of the letter — serves throughout the novel as a reminder of sin and guilt. One major question that follows is whether Pearl replaces the original function of the letter and thus restrains the symbolic power Hester gains by changing the meaning of the A.

  1. A second semantic derivation indeed occurred.
  2. The opposition between the preachers and the narrator that I highlighted earlier takes its whole significance, and the narrator's rendering of Hester's story is bound to become a form of criticism of the Puritan rule.
  3. 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. Others, again, - and those best able to appreciate the minister's peculiar sensibility, and the wonderful operation of his spirit upon the body, - whispered their belief, that the awful symbol was the effect of the ever active tooth of remorse, gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly, and at last manifesting Heaven's dreadful judgment by the visible presence of the letter.

The first part should deal with the definition of symbols in their cultural respect which was given by Frauke Berndt and Heinz Driigh 2009 and very briefly with the theoretical concept of symbolic power which has been formulated by the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu 1930-2002. His ideas can be made fruitful for this study, because he has concentrated especially on symbols as a kind of social power that operates softly on a subtle level.

This is — and remains to be shown in this study — also evident in The Scarlet Letter. The second part should begin with a brief description of the Puritan society as it is portrayed in The Scarlet Letter to contextualize the society and the common discourse Hester has come into conflict with. In the main part, the text analysis, starting with the first scene that shows Hester coming out of the prison while wearing the letter, the most important text passages that refer to the symbol and its changing meaning will be described and interpreted.

  • Hester should have died, since such is the law, "both in the Scripture and the statute-book" 49;
  • 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;
  • Due to the governmental repression they became an important political party which for a short period of time got into power during the Glorious Revolution in 1649.

Accordingly, Pearl will be analyzed with regard to her punitive function as symbol as well. In the last part, the extent of Hester's symbolic power should be estimated and her return to the Puritan society interpreted. A number of scholars have focused their critical writing on the letter and its symbolic function s.

His work is crucial, because he relates symbolism in culture to American ideology and political history, thus provides us with a much broader perspective than can be offered in this study since here the main focus is on Hester.

However, the text of The Scarlet Letter itself should stand in the foreground of this study. The definition of symbols in their cultural respect According to Frauke Berndt and Heinz Driigh symbols in the first place are signs and images that have been agreed upon by the members of one society.

  1. The Library of America,1984 587. The letter requires to be interpreted, but its comprehension is not intuitive, its meaning is to be taught by the religious authorities.
  2. Hawthorne thus qualifies the romantic idea that the symbol has one natural signification. If the narrator, as it happens in The Scarlet Letter, refuses to guide the reader towards a given interpretation, this time the enigmatic smile of the dead pastor seems to mock the efforts of the reader to decipher this riddle.
  3. This leads Hawthorne to a double interrogation, one on a metaphysical level, and one on a social level. Starting from that definition, I would first like to show that the scarlet letter is endowed with many characteristics pertaining to a symbolic mode.
  4. Interpreting signs is by the way a pervasive concern in Hawthorne's work throughout his career. Bercovitch describes the original intention of the stigmatization in The Scarlet Letter as follows.

The meaning of the various symbols is given by this "sensus communis"[9]. Symbols serve to keep up and strengthen societal arrangements and convey ethical, aesthetic, political and social conceptions of order. By doing so, they protect the boundaries of a society in-and outwardly and are the medium by which the members of the society understand one another and the world.

On the other hand, they are innovative and flexible, because they can be changed by those who challenge them by introducing new meanings that with time become accepted by the others.

The power potential that lies in this concept of the symbol, namely gaining power over those, who follow your interpretation of a symbol or symbol-system, has been analyzed by Pierre Bourdieu. It is impossible to deal with his ideas in detail and although this might mean running the risk of oversimplifying his theories, his general description of the term "symbolic power" should be taken up here.

Symbolic Power in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'

According to Bourdieu, symbolic power is "a power of [. Furthermore, "it is defined in and through a given relation between those who exercise power and those who submit to it"[15], which means that it can only be exercised if he who wants to determine the symbolic system can make others recognize his interpretation or his reading of the symbol.

That does not imply that one's symbolic power is realized by the others as such. And those, who have symbolic power, might lose it to others if the latter successfully challenge the imposed symbolic meanings.

In The Scarlet Letter, the letter undergoes a significant transformation and the rule over its meaning changes. This should be discussed in the following chapters. Before we turn to the development of the symbol itself, the setting of the plot needs to be explained in order to understand what function a public punishment in form of a stigma had in the Puritan society. Hawthorne 's portrayal of the Puritan Society The setting of the plot is a Puritan[16] settlement in Massachusetts Bay, which was founded only 15 years earlier.

According to the narrator, the members of this religious group have originally come from Old World Europe to found a "Utopia of human virtue and happiness"[17] on "virgin soil"[18].

But already in the first chapter "The Prison Door", it becomes apparent that they have brought ancient institutions of oppression and persecution with them to the New World: Quakers or Indians are publicly punished. The other place that is mentioned is the cemetery, which sounds just as little rosy. The town, according to the narrator shows all indications of age and "seemed never to have known a youthful era"[19]. This morbid picture is also reflected in those, who rule the community, the Puritan leaders.

They a]re described as authoritarian, overly intellectual, stern and grim "bearded men"[20], who exercise enormous political power while at the same time consulting the advice of the clergy. According to Claudia Durst-Johnson, the disciplinary actions of the magistrates e. Hester as married woman has broken the "sacredness of Divine institutions"[24] that is being propagated by the Puritan community and has thus acted against its moral codes. The usual Puritan punishment, as one townsman tells Chillingworth, would be death.

But in her case, the magistrates have shown mercy and with Chillingworth it can be assumed that they did so to present her as "a living sermon against sin"[25] by wearing a red token. This hints at one of the original functions of the letter, namely to integrate society or to symbolically establish a collective consciousness or collective values by excluding another member. The Yale Journal of Criticism, 10: Hester's Civil Disobedience, in: ESQ, 53, 1st quarter 2007, pp.

Instead, the latter understand the world in the terms the discourse given by the former allows. See the concept of the french philosopher Michel Foucault 1926-1984who has focussed much on language as powerful tool to shape discourse, summarized on http: Grundlagentexte aus Asthtetik, Poetik und Kulturwissenschaft, Sinzheim 2009, p.

Pierre Bourdieu, On Symbolic Power, in: Das symbolische Kapital, in: Grundlagentexte aus Asthtetik, Poetik und Kulturwissenschaft, Sinzheim 2009, pp. Bourdieu, On Symbolic Power, p. All these elements work symbolically. Bourdieu turns his attention in particular to language as symbolic power. He states that the ruling class of a society e. Herrschaftsanalyse nach Pierre Bourdieu, Konstanz 2008, p.

They had a strict concept of moral, believed in predestination and rejected the episcopal system. They were persecuted by the authorities and many of them fleed to America to join or found new colonies. Due to the governmental repression they became an important political party which for a short period of time got into power during the Glorious Revolution in 1649. How Hawthorne uses this image of the patriarchal Puritan elite has also been discussed by Nina Beym, compare: New England Quarterly, 43: Johnson, Understanding the Scarlet Letter.

It is thus only consequent that after the scaffold scene, one of the clergyman adresses "to the multitude a discourse on sin". Bercovitch describes the original intention of the stigmatization in The Scarlet Letter as follows: Anyone can submit; the socialized believe.

It is not enough to have the letter imposed; you have to do it yourself, and that involves the total self-past, present, and future; private and public; thought and passion and action, if necessary, inaction. This is essentially the office of the A as the Puritan magistrates intended it [.