Page 202. " their earthly stock of hatred and antipathy transmuted into golden love "
The stained glass window
Public DomainThe stained glass window "Education" shows science and religion in harmony - Credit: Louis Comfort Tiffany

The idea of a substance being transmuted into gold draws upon Chillingworth’s quest for the philosopher’s stone, while the notion that this takes place in the spiritual world evokes the heavenly transformations in which Dimmesdale believes. This image, therefore, reconciles the opposing forces of the former’s scientific ideology and the latter’s Christian creed.

An alchemist showing the base metal he has transmuted into gold
Public DomainAn alchemist showing the base metal he has transmuted into gold - Credit: Jan Matejko
Page 202. " little Pearl, at a marriageable period of her life, might have mingled her wild blood with the lineage of the devoutest Puritan among them all "
Allegory of Avarice (1587)
Public DomainAllegory of Avarice (1587) - Credit: Jacopo Ligozzi
The Miser (1901)
Public DomainThe Miser (1901) - Credit: Raja Ravi Varma

This is a rather cynical sally at the integrity of the Puritans, implying as it does that there are none among them who would not toss their concerns about witchcraft and illegitimacy aside for a firm grasp on a well-stuffed purse. It is not without its historical justifications: Ann Hibbins, who has been alluded to so many times, was only condemned as a witch after she lost her wealth, while her presumed sisters in sorcery rarely had any to begin with.

Filthy lucre
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeFilthy lucre - Credit: Lars Hammar

Page 204. " a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness "
Arranged like a yin-yang symbol, this couple embody the equality and harmony between men and women that Fuller yearned for
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeArranged like a yin-yang symbol, this couple embody the equality and harmony between men and women that Fuller yearned for - Credit: Mollie Bryan
Margeret Fuller
Public DomainMargeret Fuller - Credit: John Plumbe
New woman (200 * 240)

This, and what follows, is a paraphrasing of Margaret Fuller’s convictions. Her writings argued passionately for a reform of “the present relation between the sexes,” which decreed that “the woman… [belongs] to the man, instead of forming a whole with him” and anticipated a prophetess who would lead the way towards a new equality. In denying this role to Hester, Hawthorne also denies it to Fuller, whose own romantic life didn’t bear much resemblance to the joy-imparting “sacred love” he envisions. It’s important to note, however, that he does not lay the blame for this at her feet: the restrictions imposed on the nineteenth century woman, like those which weigh down upon her seventeenth century forebear, place the “ethereal medium of joy” beyond her reach. Though Hawthorne eludes straightforward interpretation, he provides plenty of grist for a feminist reading of The Scarlet Letter.

Page 204. " there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon "
Elizabeth Pain's grave
Creative Commons AttributionElizabeth Pain's grave - Credit: Boston Public Library

An escutcheon is a shield displaying a coat of arms. There’s a particularly interesting example of a grave bearing such a device in the King’s Chapel Burying Ground which Hawthorne, a regular visitor, would have encountered during one of his many wanders there. It belongs to Elizabeth Pain (1652-1704) and its striking capital A has long been considered an inspiration for The Scarlet Letter. Critics argue about the extent to which Hawthorne drew upon Pain's life for his portrayal of Hester, but it is true that both had illegitimate children (Pain later married her partner) and suffered public humiliation and imprisonment (Pain for the greater crime of infanticide). 

Forms of escutcheon favored in different countries
GNU Free Documentation LicenseForms of escutcheon favored in different countries - Credit: MG


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.