The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who has had an illegitimate child. Despite being publicly humiliated by wearing a large scarlet letter 'A' on her dress, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child's father, even as the vindictive newcomer Chillingworth becomes determined to make her confess. This story explores the themes of sexual liberation, sin, and vengeance.
The most powerful symbol of the novel is, not surprisingly, the letter itself. It is a symbol of inescapable consequences, and it has many manifestations throughout the course of the novel, some shown, some hidden. It is seen most often as the ornately embroidered badge that Hester must wear. When the townspeople first see the symbol they are in awe of it, and it seems to cast a spell on all who look at it. Hester has made the letter that she wears with her own hands and chooses to make it red with gold flourishes, thus making it stand out. Her letter is there for all the world to see and she makes it so bold that she cannot hide it from anyone. This is the symbol that Pearl is attracted to and fascinated by. She touches it, throws flowers at it, and eventually mimics it for herself out of seaweed. It is such a powerful symbol that rumors develop about it being a direct mark from the spirit world, and that it glows at night.
Dimmesdale has his own, secret version of the letter. Though some discount its existence, the narrator implies that its presence was seen the day Dimmesdale died. He keeps his letter hidden, though its effects on his health and spiritual well-being are evident. He constantly keeps his hand over his heart, thus keeping in contact with the symbol, and allows Pearl to make the connection between Dimmesdale and Hester. Though Hester's symbol causes a similar pain, Dimmesdale's suffering is far more acute because his symbol is hidden and he refuses to share it with the world.
The Scaffold is the symbol of Puritanical strictness and punishment. The narrator describes it as the most inhumane form of punishment, as it does not allow a person to hide their face in shame. In this way it symbolizes exposure and honesty, since all things that are hidden are brought into the open for all to see. Hester climbs the scaffold three times over the course of the novel. Hester first stands before the town, with her baby Pearl and the letter "A," and Dimmesdale stands silently by as she refuses to name him as the father of her child. The second time Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold during his nighttime vigil and invites Hester and Pearl to join him. They stand together, holding hands and making an "electric chain." It is here that Dimmesdale sees the meteor and is confronted with the nature of his guilt and shame. The last time Hester climbs the scaffold, it is to help Dimmesdale up so that he can make his final confession to the world before dying. They are joined by Pearl and Chillingworth, all equal participants in the sorrowful story. In this scene, the scaffold is transformed to a place for confession and forgiveness rather than punishment.
The meteor, which appears as Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearl stand on the scaffold together for the first time, symbolizes the inescapable consequences that Dimmesdale and Hester must bear. Dimmesdale interprets it as the way the spiritual world expresses his need for confession and exposure.
The rosebush, as the narrator suggests, can represent the moral lessons imbedded in the dark sorrow of the story. It is a way of taking something positive out of the bleak situation in which Hester and Dimmesdale find themselves. Like Pearl, who is a positive effect of the sin between Hester and Dimmesdale, the rosebush outside the prison offers a bright contrast and glimmer of hope in a world of guilt and shame. Similarly, the rosebush symbolizes all that is good that manages to survive in harsh conditions, just as Hester manages to maintain her goodness and kindness towards people who can benefit from her help, despite the way the society scorns her.
Throughout the novel, there is a sharp contrast between what happens during the day and what happens at night. Hester is allowed to move about freely at night; she is not bothered by children who taunt her, nor is she stared at or coolly ignored by adults, as she walks about in the day. She works in the night, offering comfort to the sick and the dying, and it is in these situations that she develops her reputation for being a "Sister of Mercy." On the other hand, during the day, all appearances are maintained, and she is still one who is isolated, while Dimmesdale is hailed as a saint. He is the revered minister in daylight hours, but at night he suffers his silent torture, whipping himself and holding all night vigils. In the nighttime he stands up with Pearl and Hester on the scaffold, though he refuses to do it during the day. It is only when he does stand up on the scaffold during the day that the spell that keeps Hester in the night and Dimmesdale in the day is broken.
Much like the difference between day and night, the contrast between civilization and wilderness can be found throughout the novel. Boston is civilization; it is an outpost on the edge of the wilderness, but the border between the two is distinct. Within the town, rules are clear, and the way people must behave is inflexible and strictly defined. It is the environment in which Governors and clergymen hold court, and they are involved with all decisions that are made and all problems that arise. In the wilderness, nature is in control, and the laws of man are not followed. Mistress Hibbins, the witch, she watches all that goes on there. It is the residence of the "black man," and the place where the constraints of society and civilization can be transgressed. In the forest, like in the night, Dimmesdale can talk freely with Hester and they can make plans to escape civilization and the doom it offers. It is where they can gain a deeper understanding of their situation because they can view it outside of the bounds of thoughts allowed by civilization.
The names of three of the main characters each evoke some characteristic that defines their nature. Chillingworth follows his coldhearted, chilling, path of revenge. Dimmesdale evokes a dim, feeble character which betrays its cowardice by not having the strength to confess. Pearl is so named because she is the pearl of great price--she is precious to Hester, but she came into existence only through a great sacrifice.