But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left. It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth,—for time and wear and a sacrilegious moth, had reduced it to little other than a rag,—on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A.
This is the first mention of the scarlet “A” in the novel, the detail that directly connects the introductory chapter titled “The Custom-House” with the ensuing narrative. The narrator works at the Salem Custom-House and spends much of his time leafing through documents and ephemera in the big empty rooms. When he finds the strange scarlet “A,” he places it on his chest and experiences a sensation of burning heat “as if the letter were not of cloth, but red-hot iron.” This visceral connection leads the narrator to contemplate the object’s history and meaning, which in turn leads to the fictional storytelling of the romance, set two hundred years earlier than the introduction’s time.
They averred, that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight, whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night-time. And we must needs say, it seared Hester's bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit.
The Puritan community created legends about Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, including this idea that it glowed at night and actually burned its wearer. This repressed community had a vivid imagination, fueled by fear of the supernatural and a fundamentalist religious zeal. The community fully participated in both Hester’s punishment and her daily life; they owned and reacted to the symbol nearly as much as Hester herself.
“I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this!” answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token. “Woman, it is thy badge of shame!” replied the stern magistrate. “It is because of the stain which that letter indicates, that we would transfer thy child to other hands.”
Hester and Pearl visit Governor Bellingham’s mansion to deliver a pair of gloves Hester has sewn for him. While there, the governor explains to Hester that authorities have been discussing whether she is a fit mother for Pearl. When the governor asks what Hester can teach her child, she answers that the scarlet “A” is her daily teacher and that it can also teach Pearl. As the governor has never had to wear such a badge of shame or learn how to live in a society that constantly scorns him for being human rather than attempts to lift him up, he can’t understand how the scarlet “A” has taught Hester, never mind how she might be able to transfer those lessons onto her daughter, Pearl.
As the last touch to her mermaid's garb, Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother's. A letter,—the letter A,—but freshly green, instead of scarlet!
After meeting with Roger Chillingworth to talk in the woods, Hester reunites with Pearl, who has waited for Hester in another part of the forest. Here, Hester notes that Pearl, while playing, has crafted a letter “A” onto her own chest with plants. Hester can’t help but wonder if Pearl truly understands the symbol’s meaning. When Hester asks Pearl why she thinks her mother wears the “A,” Pearl responds that it is the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart. Pearl may be too young to understand adultery, but she understands that the scarlet “A” represents the connection between Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale.
So speaking, she undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves. The mystic token alighted on the hither verge of the stream. With a hand's breadth farther flight it would have fallen into the water, and have given the little brook another woe to carry onward, besides the unintelligible tale which it still kept murmuring about.
In this scene, Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest and acknowledge their love for one another, both past and present. They feel joy and hope. Here, Hester tosses the scarlet “A” into the woods and removes her cap, allowing her dark hair to fall. The freedom is exhilarating but short-lived. When Pearl appears, she will not go to her mother without the “A” on her breast, so Hester reattaches the symbol to her dress and gathers her hair back into her cap; her few moments of freedom have quickly passed.