Meaning of the letter A in The Scarlet Letter
Puritanism, a strict Calvinist form of Protestant Christianity, differed from mainline Christianity in five principal beliefs. These beliefs constituted the Puritans' path to salvation and created a religion with a strict and rigid morality. In order to understand the meaning of the letter A in The Scarlet Letter, it is first necessary to understand Puritan Society.
For the Puritans, Original Sin brought total depravity to all humanity. Because of Original Sin, all humans are destined to die and suffer eternal damnation. Unlike Catholics and Christians of other denominations, who believed that Christ died for all mankind, Puritans believed that the death of Christ on the cross did not redeem the entire humanity. On the contrary, they maintained that Christ’s sacrifice was limited to only a few previously chosen by God (Limited Atonement). What this means is that Puritans considered that the majority of humans remained as sinful after Christ’s death as they were before it, and only those few who were elected to be redeemed by Christ are just, virtuous, and will be saved. This leads us to the consideration of one of the basic tenets of Puritanism: Predestination.
Catholics and other Christians believe that humans possess free will to choose between good and evil. Depending on which of the two they choose, they will receive either salvation in Heaven or punishment in Hell. It is their choice, not God’s. For Puritans, on the other hand, there is nothing a man can do to alter his or her eternal destiny. Either he or she is one of the many destined to suffer eternal damnation because of Original Sin, or else he or she belongs to that small and exclusive group of people previously chosen by God before birth to be redeemed by Christ and saved.
From the Puritan point of view, men’s acts are not the cause of their future destiny, but the consequence of their predetermined nature. If a person behaves in a virtuous way, complying with the norms of Puritan society, it is because of God’s choice, not because of theirs. One of the basic institutions of Puritan society was Marriage. Women had to be completely submissive to their husbands’ authority, and they were expected to be obedient and completely loyal. As a result, Adultery was considered extremely negative and hardly punished. If a member of Puritan society committed adultery, his or her fellow citizens would consider such adultery a sign that that person was not in actuality one of the chosen and was therefore hardly punished, humiliated, and ostracized.
Adultery has been around almost as long as marriage. It has always come with a harsh punishment, from banishment to death. In the Puritan world of colonial America, its punishment may have been worse than either.
In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the protagonist Hester Prynne is a lonely Puritan woman who commits infidelity with a preacher and has a son from the untruthful union. She is not put to death immediately because her husband is missing and may or may not be alive.
To punish her for this act, the council of leaders forces her to wear a large “A” on her bosom, which stands for “Adultery”, in order to let all know what she has done. However, the letter “A” has many different meanings, apart from the one mentioned.
For Hester, wearing the letter “A” can have, despite its negative connotations, some positive aspects as well: not only does it remind her of her falter, it also teaches her not to return to her sin. Hawthorne shows this when Hester is defending her right to keep Pearl. She is responding to the governor’s claim that she does not deserve to keep Pearl and says that she is going to learn from the letter. This defense by Hester shows that she has learned from the shame of the scarlet letter. The committee was worried that the sin of the letter would make teaching Pearl impossible, but Hester is claiming that it is the exact opposite. She is saying that the “A” has shown her that the sin was wrong and because of this, she will avoid any further sin. As time progresses in the novel, Hester comes to regard the “A” as a necessary evil. This can be seen when Chillingworth hints that the committee may have the “A” taken off of Hester and she replies that it is not up to them to decide. She knows that wearing the letter is hard, but she thinks that only God can remove the letter. She also believes that she must wear it to work towards repenting the sin.