Nina Baym's The Scarlet Letter

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At first glance, The Scarlet Letter is a story of sin, guilt, love, and revenge set in a strict Puritan community shortly after the Salem witch trials. However, the story is more than it appears to be at first glance. Beneath its sinful cover, it uses psychological elements to portray a deeper understanding and meaning. Nina Baym’s article, The Scarlet Letter in the Scarlet Letter, examines the importance of the scarlet letter in the story and how it rejects Puritan laws and beliefs. Baym’s article explains why the scarlet letter is the main character, how the letter goes beyond meaning, and how the letter ultimately changes people’s thoughts. While some may claim that the role of the main character goes to either Hester or Arthur, upon…show more content…
If the definition of character isn’t reserved to a living being, it opens up the possibility for the letter to be the main character, and the letter often overpowers Hester in reflections throughout the novel. When explaining the symbolism of the overpowering A, Baym writes, “The symbolism is that to the Puritan rulers, Hester has no identity except the letter,” (84). If the letter is Hester’s identity—and this is highly likely considering its constant recurrence throughout the novel—then the letter is more important than Hester and is, therefore, the main character. The letter has an identity of its own that is constantly changing, and it lends this identity to Hester, who loses her individual identity when she’s marked as an adulteress. A main character has to have its own identity to set itself apart from every other character, but Hester is unable to do this, so the letter takes over for her, figuratively and literally. When Hester goes to visit the governor, Hawthorne writes, “The scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. In truth, she seemed absolutely hidden behind it,”…show more content…
The letter is assumed to mean adultery, but it is always taking on new meanings throughout the novel. In the article, Baym points out, “Not only is the letter in flux at the start, having changed its meaning from the Puritans’ original intention at the moment Hester makes it, but it continues throughout the story as the focus of multiple readings,” (87). If the letter’s meaning is always changing, there is no way to determine its exact meaning because it has too many meanings for just one to be accurate, and as soon as one meaning has been picked, it is possible that it could have already changed. The letter starts off meaning adultery, but it changes in no time at all to a word with a better connotation as people start to see Hester differently. When Hester is seen as selfless and kind, the meaning changes, and to describe the change, Hawthorne writes, “The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her,—so much power to do, and power to sympathize,—that many refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able,” (111). People don’t want to associate Hester with adultery anymore because they see the good in her, despite her mistakes. If the community cannot make up their minds about what the letter means at any given

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