"on the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A"
A is for Adultery
Public DomainA is for Adultery - Credit: Andrzej Kwietniewski
Punishment of a Drunkard (1890)
Public DomainPunishment of a Drunkard (1890) - Credit: William Andrews

Though the Puritans believed execution was divinely justified in cases of adultery, they rarely resorted to it, preferring instead heavy fines and whipping. Public humiliation was often used to underscore these punishments, though not — as in Hester’s case — to replace them. Branding wrong-doers with letters indicating their specific crime or forcing them to wear them on their clothes was common.

 

A scarlet letter
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeA scarlet letter - Credit: Monceau

Though the letter A clearly stands for adultery (a word never actually used in the novel), it comes to represent many other things. It corresponds to the Greek alpha, a synonyn for “beginning” in English and, as the first letter of the alphabet, betokens the source of language. Affording all the possibilities entailed in literary creation and transformation, the novel's A is a potent symbol of authorship and art.