In the antiquated parlance of heraldry, this motto translates as “on a black shield, a scarlet letter A.” In death, the token of Hester’s shame takes on the honored form of a coat of arms, suggesting a posthumous incorporation into the higher echelons of the social order. However, Hawthorne’s paradoxical insistence that it is both a source of light and of shadow denies her the comfortingly clichéd ending of complete redemption.
Critics have spotted a parallel between the legend on Hester’s grave and the end of Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Unfortunate Lover.’ Painting love as a cruel, tempestuous force that destroys those it seizes upon, Marvell’s narrator finds solace in its transformation through art:
This is the only banneret
That ever Love created yet;
Who, though by the malignant stars,
Forcèd to live in storms and wars,
Yet dying, leaves a perfume here,
And music within every ear;
And he in story only rules,
In a field sable, a lover gules.
Throughout the novel we have seen the scarlet letter embellished, transformed, interpreted and reinterpreted. It has appeared before us in as many different forms as the shape-shifting deities of Greek myth. With the characters, Hawthorne and the reader all colluding in this creative process of determining meaning, perhaps we conclude that the scarlet A ultimately stands for art itself.