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.


Allegory of Painting (1638-9)
Public DomainAllegory of Painting (1638-9) - Credit: Artemisia Gentileschi

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. 


A for art
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeA for art

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.