The Scarlet Letter
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by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The novel begins with the narrator, a Custom House official, who happens to find a scarlet letter “A” in a box he finds one day in the office. The narrator then relates the story of Hester Prynne, the original bearer of the scarlet letter, who lived in Boston when it was just a small Puritan settlement in the seventeenth century.
Hester’s story begins on a scaffold just outside the town prison. She has committed adultery, given birth to a child out of wedlock, and refuses to name the man with whom she had the affair. The village leaders hope to shame her into naming her lover by making her into a public spectacle. Even under intense pressure, Hester refuses to reveal her secret. She alone must bear the shame and isolation resulting from her actions. As a punishment, Hester is made to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her chest at all times. The letter “A” stands for adultery and causes her and her daughter to be scorned by the members of her community.
Hester’s former husband returns to witness Hester’s shame. He decides to seek revenge against the man who, in his opinion, ruined Hester’s life and stole his wife from him. He assumes a new name, Roger Chillingworth, and becomes known as a physician specializing in alternative medicine. He befriends the Reverend Dimmesdale, the sickly young minister. Chillingworth eventually determines that Dimmesdale is the father of Hester’s daughter, Pearl. He plots an elaborate scheme in order to avenge the wrong he perceives was committed by Dimmesdale.
Hester discovers Chillingworth’s plan to torture Dimmesdale on a daily basis, and recognizes that Dimmesdale’s health is significantly impacted by the revenge plot. Her secret is slowly killing the minister. As a result, Hester must break the promise she made years ago to never reveal the identity of Chillingworth in order to save Dimmesdale’s life.
She reveals Chillingworth’s true identity to Dimmesdale and begs for his forgiveness. She expresses her desire for Dimmesdale to leave the country for his own safety, but Dimmesdale does not want to be alone. Hester offers to leave with him, and they plan to leave on a ship bound for Europe in three days. However, both Hester and Dimmesdale are plagued by feelings of dread and doom that continue to interrupt their elation.
Another threat to their future happiness remains. Chillingworth is aware of the conversation between Hester and Dimmesdale. He remains committed to seeking revenge, and will use any means necessary to fulfill his need. Will Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale be able to start a new life as a family n Europe, or will Chillingworth finally attain his retribution?
Themes in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter include isolation, hypocrisy, the nature of evil, the role of a woman in society, the destructive power of guilt, revenge, and the pressures society places on individuals to conform. Symbolism is another literary device prevalent in the novel. Examples include the scarlet letter itself, the brook, the roses, and Pearl’s name. These literary devices and Hawthorne’s plot continue to resound with readers, allowing the novel to remain popular with readers today.
- Had an affair with Reverend Dimmesdale
- Refuses to name Dimmesdale in order to protect him
- Mother of Pearl, but has a difficult time connecting with her daughter at times
- Former wife of Roger Chillingworth
- Bearer of the scarlet letter
- Had an adulterous affair with Hester Prynne
- Keeps his role in the affair a secret in order to protect his position within the community
- Consumed by guilt over his actions
- Suffers from failing health as a result of his secret
- Former husband of Hester Prynne
- Studied alternative medicine and the black arts
- Assumes a new identity in order to seek revenge
- Befriends Dimmesdale in order to torture him on a daily basis
- Hester’s daughter
- Because she is isolated from the community, she creates imaginary friends
- Fixated on the scarlet letter worn by her mother
- Has emotional fits and becomes angry when she is around other children
- Notices relationships that others may not see
- A church elder who disapproves of Hester
- A powerful leader in the community
- Is concerned that Hester may not be a fit mother for Pearl
The Custom House- Introductory to The Scarlet Letter
The narrator is an official at the Custom House, which was once an important meeting house, but because the port is no longer bustling, the Custom House is not what it used to be.
The first settlers of the area are now long gone, but their lives still impact the community. The narrator is related to an early settler who was a judge and a ruler in the church known for his severity towards women.
The narrator meets other Custom House officers, also members of the Whig party. The narrator provides a character sketch of each officer.
He finds an old package in the office of the Custom House. A red cloth in the shape of a letter “A” is in the box. A scroll explains that the letter was worn by Hester Prynne. The narrator begins to retell the story of Hester and the scarlet letter.
Chapter 1- The Prison Door
One of the first buildings constructed by the settlers of Boston was the prison. Despite being cleared of all brush, a wild rosebush grows at the threshold of the prison door. It is thought the rosebush symbolizes morality and can relieve human frailty and sorrow.
Chapter 2- The Market Place
One summer morning 200 years ago, every person in town is paying close attention to the prison door because a local woman is being held within the prison. The women are particularly interested in the fate of Hester Prynne.
The prison door opens and Hester is led out. She is holding an infant. A red letter “A” has been sewn on her gown. She is then escorted to a scaffold where she must stand on a platform as a part of her punishment. Everyone in the town watches her, including her father. Hester is ashamed as she looks out at the sea of faces.
Chapter 3- The Recognition
From the platform, Hester sees a Native American and another man enter the market place. The man asks who Hester is and what she has done. The man learns Hester committed adultery and will not name the father of her baby. She is being punished in the hopes she will reveal the name of her lover.
Both Reverend Dimmesdale and Reverend Wilson try to get the information from Hester, but she refuses.
Chapter 4- The Interview
After being returned to the prison, Hester is being watched by the guards so that she does not harm herself or her child. Hester becomes emotional and upset, alarming the guards further. Another man, Roger Chillingworth, offers to calm Hester. He is given time alone with Hester because he claims to be a physician. He gives Hester and the baby calming draughts.
It is revealed that Roger is Hester’s husband. He is not angry; he pities her. He knew she never loved him, but he married her anyway. Roger says they have both been wronged and asks the name of the man who is responsible. He says he will get revenge for both of them.
Hester refuses to name her lover. Roger makes her promise never to reveal his identity to anyone in town.
Chapter 5- Hester at Her Needle
Hester is released from prison but must still wear the scarlet letter until she reveals her lover’s identity. Her burden and shame grows every day because she is singled out as a sinner in the Puritan community. However, she is free to return to Europe, but she chooses to remain in the community.
Hester and her daughter move into a thatched cottage on the outskirts of town. Hester is without friends, but her needlework is in demand for christening gowns, and fancy dresses. Hester dresses very plainly, but dresses her daughter in the finest clothes.
Hester is not welcomed at the church and is tormented by the local children. She is isolated from everyone in the community and is not welcome to attend church services.
Chapter 6- Pearl
Hester decides to name her daughter Pearl because she paid a great price for her treasured daughter. She initially feared Pearl would be plagued by unhappiness because of Hester’s experiences while carrying her. Pearl is a happy and playful child, but she sometimes has fits of emotion. Hester is confused by these episodes.
Pearl is also shunned by the local children because of Hester’s reputation. She often experiences fits of rage when around other children. Her only real playmate is Hester, so she creates imaginary playmates. Despite being completely innocent, Pearl is punished in the same severe manner as her mother.
Chapter 7- The Governor’s Hall
Hester delivers a pair of embroidered gloves to Governor Bellingham’s mansion for his wife. She brings Pearl with her because she has heard that the elders may want to take Pearl away from her. She wants them to see that Pearl is a happy and healthy child. Children try to throw mud at them as they walk into town, but Pearl’s temper scares them away
Pearl is fascinated by the splendor of the mansion. She begins to cry because she wants a red rose, and Hester tries to calm her. Hester does not want the Governor to think Pearl is possessed by evil spirits. Pearl starts screaming, but stops once she sees the Governor.
Chapter 8- The Elf-Child and the Minister
The Governor is accompanied by Mr. Wilson, Roger Chillingworth, and Reverend Dimmesdale. They tell Hester they are concerned that she is not a proper role model for her daughter. They believe Pearl may be better off being raised by another family.
Mr. Wilson asks Pearl who made her, and Pearl replies she had been plucked from the rose bush that grows by the prison door. The men are horrified.
Hester begs to keep her child and asks her former minister, Dimmesdale, to help. He convinces the other men to allow Hester to keep Pearl, but Dimmesdale will teach catechism to Pearl.
Chapter 9- The Leech
Hester’s husband, now using the identity of Roger Chillingworth, becomes a prominent physician in the community. He also becomes active in religious life.
Dimmesdale’s health begins to fail, and Chillingworth offers to treat him. He becomes close to Dimmesdale and the two men move in together.
Chillingworth conducts experiments in his laboratory, which concerns the community. Some believe he is involved in the black arts. People begin to believe Dimmesdale is either haunted by Satan or is under the influence of Satan’s emissary, Chillingworth.
Chapter 10- The Leech and His Patient
Chillingworth continues to investigate Dimmesdale, but he is unaware of Chillingworth’s agenda. He trusts Chillingworth is his friend.
Dimmesdale alludes to a personal secret, but does not reveal his secret, despite Chillingworth’s prompting. Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Hester and Pearl.
After the Prynnes walk away, the men discuss Hester and the belief evil can manifest itself as a sickness. Chillingworth decides to pursue this conversation in the future.
Chapter 11- The Interior of a Heart
The relationship between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale changes after their last conversation. Chillingworth now knows how to focus his revenge. Dimmesdale senses something evil is watching over him, but he does not suspect it is his trusted confidante.
Dimmesdale is tortured by his secret and the image of Pearl pointing at Hester’s scarlet letter, and then pointing at him.
Chapter 12- The Minister’s Vigil
Dimmesdale walks to the scaffold where Hester once stood. He shrieks, but no one takes notice. Hester and Pearl encounter Dimmesdale, and he asks them to stand on the platform with him. Pearl asks him to stand with them on the platform tomorrow at noon. He says he will stand with them on Judgment Day.
Dimmesdale sees a streak of light in the sky shaped like the letter “A”. Chillingworth is watching and offers to walk Dimmesdale home.
Chapter 13- Another View of Hester
Over the years, Hester becomes more accepted by the community. She also becomes a sought after seamstress by the privileged in the community and is known for her generosity to the poor. In fact, many in the community now say the scarlet “A” now means able.
Because of her isolation, Hester is free to her own thoughts. This causes her to sometimes doubt her decision to raise Pearl rather than send her to heaven. She also contemplates suicide sometimes.
She recognizes that Dimmesdale is tortured by his guilt. She decides to meet with Chillingworth to talk to him about ending his revenge scheme.
Chapter 14- Hester and the Physician
Hester approaches Chillingworth to talk about Dimmesdale. She notices his appearance has changed; he now has a sinister appearance. She accuses him of causing Dimmesdale to suffer a daily living death.
Hester tells him she must reveal his identity before he destroys Dimmesdale. She begs him to forgive both of them and says his hatred has turned him into a fiend. Chillingworth refuses to stop seeking revenge.
Chapter 15- Hester and Pearl
Hester declares her hatred for Chillingworth and regrets marrying him.
Pearl fashions an “A” out of seaweed while playing and shows it to her mother. Hester is disturbed by this, but realizes that Pearl is not trying to hurt her. She asks Hester why she wears the scarlet letter and why the minister keeps his hand over his heart. Hester evades the questions, but Pearl brings them back up the next day. Hester threatens to punish her.
Chapter 16- A Forest Walk
Hester walks with Pearl in the woods with the intention of revealing Chillingworth’s identity to Dimmesdale. She knows that he often walks by himself in the woods, and plans to meet him when he is by himself.
Though Pearl is bathed in sunlight, it leaves as soon as Hester approaches. Pearl asks Hester if she has ever met the evil spirit in the woods. Hester tells her she has, and the evil spirit gave her the scarlet letter.
Hester meets Dimmesdale in the woods.
Chapter 17- The Pastor and His Parishioner
Dimmesdale tells Hester she is lucky she can openly address her sin by wearing the scarlet letter. He is being tortured by his sin.
Hester tells Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is his enemy and her former husband. He forgives Hester for keeping the secret for 7 years.
Hester advises Dimmesdale to return to Europe, but he refuses to leave. He is afraid to be alone, but Hester says she will go with him.
Chapter 18- A Flood of Sunshine
Hester removes the scarlet letter, throws it into the woods, and feels all her burdens melt away. She and Dimmesdale decide to start a new life together someplace new. They will raise Pearl together.
Chapter 19- The Child at the Brookside
Dimmesdale worries that Pearl will not respond to him, but Hester tells him Pearl will grow to love him.
Pearl approaches Hester and Dimmesdale, but she refuses to cross the brook to join them. She points to where Hester used to wear the scarlet letter.
Hester tells Pearl to pick up the scarlet letter and bring it to her. Pearl tells Hester to pick it up and feels a sense of doom once she picks up the letter. Pearl then crosses the brook.
Dimmesdale kisses Pearl on the forehead, and she immediately washes her face in the brook.
Chapter 20- The Minister in the Maze
Dimmesdale leaves first so that no one will see him with Hester and Pearl. Before he leaves, they devise a plan to leave for Europe in 3 days with Hester and Pearl on a ship.
As he returns to town, Dimmesdale is welcomed home by Chillingworth. He tells Chillingworth he will no longer require his medical services. He also tells Chillingworth he is now free to live on his own, and he does not need to live with him anymore.
Chapter 21- The New England Holiday
Hester and Pearl join the rest of the town for Election Day festivities.
Pearl asks if Dimmesdale will talk to them like he did the other day at the brook. Hester tells her he will not be able to speak with them today, and she should not try to get his attention.
Hester sees Chillingworth talking with the commander of the ship they plan to sail on back to Europe. He tells her Chillingworth told him he will be traveling with them in order to provide his medical services to Dimmesdale. Hester begins to worry that Chillingworth stand in the way of their pending happiness.
Chapter 22- The Procession
The procession begins. After the officials file into the square, Dimmesdale delivers what is to be his final sermon before he leaves with Hester and Pearl.
Hester watches Dimmesdale intently, but Pearl is more interested with the people in the crowd. Pearl delivers a message from the ship’s commander to her mother. He says he spoke to Chillingworth, who told him that he plans to personally escort Dimmesdale to the ship. Hester worries that they may never escape.
Chapter 23- The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter
Dimmesdale ends his speech and the procession heads to the market place.
The procession is interrupted by a horrifying shout. All eyes are on Dimmesdale, who appears to be ill. He asks Hester and Pearl to stand with him on the scaffold. Chillingworth tries to stop Dimmesdale, but he holds hands with Hester and Pearl on the scaffold
Dimmesdale reveals he is Pearl’s father and Hester’s secret lover. He then collapses and dies in Hester’s arms.
Chapter 24- Conclusion
Several days later, some spectators claim they saw a scarlet letter on Dimmesdale’s chest.
Chillingworth turns into a shriveled, unhappy shell of a man after he cannot focus his energy on revenge. He dies that year and leaves a substantial estate solely to Pearl.
Pearl is now the richest heiress in the New World. She and Hester disappear.
Years later, Hester Prynne returns to Boston without Pearl, who appears to be living in England. Hester becomes a trusted woman in the community until she dies after living a long life.