The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
"The Scarlet Letter" is a classic tale of sin, punishment,
and revenge. It was written in 1850 by the famous American
author Nathaniel Hawthorne. It documents the lives of three
tragic characters, each of whom suffer greatly because of
his or her sins
The story begins with Hester Prynne, a resident of a small
Puritan community, being led from the town jailhouse to a
public scaffold where she must stand for three hours as
punishment for adultery. She must also wear a scarlet A on
her dress for the rest of her life as part of her
punishment. As she is led to the scaffold, many of the
women in the crowd complain that her sentence is too
lenient and some even suggest she should be executed. We
learn from the narrator that Hester arrived at the colony
nearly two years earlier. She had been sent there ahead of
her husband, while he remained in Amsterdam to finish up
some business. Hester never heard from him again, and it
was assumed that he had died at sea. Because of this, and
the fact that Hester was very beautiful, and thus must have
suffered great temptation, the judges decided to be lenient
on her sentence.
As Hester is standing on the platform with her illegitimate
child, Pearl, in her arms, she sees her long lost husband
in the crowd. Her husband, now known as Chillingworth, asks
one of the townspeople why she is up there on the scaffold.
The townsperson tells him of Hester's adultery and that the
identity of her lover is unknown. Chillingworth vows that
he will someday find out the unknown lover's identity.
After Hester is returned to the prison, she is found to be
in a state of nervous frenzy. The jailer brings in
Chillingworth, who is a physician, to administer sedatives
to her. While he is talking with Hester, Chillingworth
admits that it was wrong of him to marry her, when he knew
that she could never love him. When Chillingworth asks
Hester the identity of her lover, she refuses to answer.
Because of this, Chillingworth makes her promise never to
reveal that he is her husband.
After Hester is released from prison, she goes to live in a
small cottage at the edge of town. After a few years,
people begin to notice that her daughter, Pearl, behaves
very strangely, and they threaten to take her away from
Hester. Hester takes Pearl to Governor Bellingham's mansion
planning to plead for the right to keep her daughter. At
the mansion she is met by the governor and his three
guests, Reverend Wilson, Reverend Dimmesdale, and Roger
Chillingworth. Reverend Dimmesdale convinces the governor
to allow Hester to keep Pearl.
Chillingworth, who has been living with Reverend Dimmesdale
since his arrival in town, begins to suspect that Reverend
Dimmesdale is the father of Pearl. One evening while
Dimmesdale is sleeping, Chillingworth examines Dimmesdale's
chest and finds something which confirms his suspicion.
From this moment on, Chillingworth devotes himself to
One night, Dimmesdale is so tormented by his conscience
that he goes and stands on the scaffold that Hester had
stood on seven years earlier. As he is standing there, he
sees Hester and Pearl walk by and he calls them onto the
scaffold with him. After he acknowledges his guilt to them,
a giant red A forms in the sky and Chillingworth appears.
After that night, Dimmesdale's condition continues to
deteriorate and Hester becomes worried. She goes to
Chillingworth and tells him that she is going to tell
Dimmesdale that he is her husband. Chillingworth says that
he cannot forgive Dimmesdale and tells her to do what she
A few days later Hester and Pearl meet Dimmesdale in the
forest. Hester tells him that Chillingworth is her husband
and convinces him to sail away to Europe with her. Hester
then removes her scarlet A, but is forced to replace it at
On Election Day, Hester and Pearl stand in the town square
waiting for a parade to begin. The captain of the ship upon
which Hester had arranged passage informs her that
Chillingworth will also be riding.
After Dimmesdale gives his sermon, he approaches Hester and
Pearl at the foot of the scaffold and asks them to help him
ascend it. Once he has the attention of the crowd, he
confesses his guilt and tears off his ministerial band
revealing a scarlet A. He then dies in Hester's arms.
Soon after Dimmesdale's death, Chillingworth, no longer
having an object of revenge, withers away and dies. Hester
becomes an important figure in the community, and when she
dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale.
From the very begging of the book, Hester Prynne is
presented as a woman with indefatigable pride. When she
first leaves the prison to bear her punishment upon the
scaffold, it is said that "never had Hester Prynne appeared
more lady-like." Her sin is that she committed adultery
with Reverend Dimmesdale and bore a child by him. Because
of this she wears the scarlet A on her dress her entire
life, even after it is no longer required of her. This is
another example of her pride.
Even though Hester's sin is the most overt of the three
main characters, it is actually the least serious. This is
because her sin is a sin of passion instead of intellect.
Hester also suffers the least, because she publicly
acknowledges her sins while the others keep theirs secret.
Often, Hawthorne presents Hester as a victim, either of
fate or the actions of others. He tells of how she was
forced to marry someone she didn't love, and then left in a
foreign land with no word from him. He tells of how
Chillingworth refuses to acknowledge that she is his wife
once he arrives, and later, how she is continually
tormented by her unruly child. But despite all of her
suffering, she manages to find salvation in the truth. And
because of this, she later becomes a very respected member
of the community.
Dimmesdale is presented as a young quiet Puritan minister
with a tragic flaw. His flaw is that he is unable to
publicly admit that he committed adultery with Hester. In
many of his sermons he preaches about the importance of
admitting sin, yet he finds himself unable to. He
rationalizes his secrecy by claiming that it would ruin his
reputation as a minister and he would no longer be able to
carry out the work of God. "It may be that they are kept
silent by the very constitution of their nature. Or-can we
not suppose it-guilty as they may be, retaining,
nevertheless, a zeal for God's glory and man's welfare,
they shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in
the view of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be
achieved by them."
At times he realizes his hypocrisy and comes to the verge
of confession, only to retreat into vague proclamations of
guilt. This inability to confess causes Dimmesdale great
anguish and self-hatred. At one point he lashes himself
with a whip, and at the end of the book we find that he has
inscribed the letter "A" into his own chest.
After seven years of suffering in denial of his guilt, he
finally triumphs over his weakness. On Election Day, after
delivering a moving sermon, he ascends the scaffold and
admits that he committed adultery with Hester and that
Pearl is his daughter. His confession marks the climax of
the novel. After it is done, he dies in Hester's arms,
freed from the debilitating burden of his secret.
Like the two other main characters, Chillingworth is both a
victim and a sinner. He is a victim, first of all, of his
own physical appearance and self-isolation. He is small,
thin, and slightly deformed, with one shoulder being higher
than the other. This, coupled with the fact that he has
devoted himself almost entirely to his studies, serves to
cut him off from the rest of humanity.
He is also a victim of the events that transpire before his
arrival to the colony. First he is captured by Indians.
Then, while he is held captive and presumed dead, his wife
has a child by another man.
Before the end of the book, however, we see that
Chillingworth's sins are far greater than either those of
Hester or Dimmesdale. His first sin was when he married
Hester. He knew that she would never love him, and yet he
made her marry him anyway. He admits this to her while they
are talking in the jail cell. "Mine was the first wrong,
when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and
unnatural relation with my decay."
His second sin is allowing himself to become obsessed with
vengeance against Dimmesdale. Once Chillingworth discovers
that Dimmesdale was Hester's lover, he devotes himself
completely to trying to destroy Dimmesdale's sanity. This
obsession turns him from a peaceful scholar into a demon.
He tries to blame Dimmesdale for his destruction, but
ultimately Chillingworth must take responsibility for his
own transgression of sympathy.
The main theme of The Scarlet Letter is that hidden guilt
causes more suffering than open guilt. This theme is
demonstrated through the lives of the three main
characters. In the book, Hester experiences open guilt
through being publicly punished for her adultery. She is
ridiculed and ostracized by the community, but later, is
forgiven and even respected by those that punished her.
Dimmesdale, however, refuses to admit that he committed
adultery and thereby suffers hidden guilt. His guilt is
compounded both by the fact that Hester is taking all the
blame for him, and that he is acting as a hypocrite by not
confessing. His guilt causes him to become paranoid and
stressed. He tries to punish himself, but he knows that he
can never be free from guilt until he publicly acknowledges
his sin. His guilt causes him to mentally and physically
deteriorate until he eventually dies giving his confession.
Another theme of The Scarlet Letter is don't let your
passions override your intellect. Chillingworth, by
subordinating his intellect to his desire for revenge,
ultimately destroys himself. Everything about him gradually
changes into evil. Even his facial expressions become
noticeably different. "A large number-and many of these
were person's of such sober sense and practical
observation, that their opinions would have been valuable,
in other matters-affirmed that Roger Chillingworth's aspect
had undergone a remarkable change while he had dwelt in
town, and especially since his abode with Mr. Dimmesdale.
At first, his expression had been calm, meditative,
scholar-like. Now, there was something ugly and evil in his
face, which they had not previously noticed, and which grew
still the more obvious to sight the oftener they looked
The Scarlet Letter is pervaded with symbolism. The most
pervasive symbol is the scarlet A from which the book gets
it's title. It first appears embroidered on Hester's dress.
Here it stands for adultery (and later able) and is a
condition of her punishment. When Hester is at the
Governor's mansion, Pearl sees the letter magnified in an
armor breastplate and it seems to be the most prominent
feature of Hester's appearance. This is symbolic of how the
Scarlet Letter has taken prominence in Hester's life. The
symbol is seen later by Dimmesdale as a sign in the night
sky during his vigil on the scaffold. We also find out that
the sign seen on Dimmesdale's chest by Chillingworth was a
scarlet A, apparently inscribed there by Dimmesdale
himself. The last time that the symbol is used in the book
is at the very end, where a reference is made to the
scarlet A on Hester and Dimmesdale's tombstone.
The other prominent symbol of the book is Hester's
daughter, Pearl. Pearl serves as a representation of
Hester's relationship with Dimmesdale. Initially Pearl
symbolizes the shame of Hester's public punishment for
adultery. Then as Pearl grows older, she symbolizes the
punishment itself by continuing to torment Hester about the
scarlet A embroidered on her dress. But above all, Pearl
represents Hester's passion. "Hester could only account for
the child's character-and even then the most vaguely and
imperfectly-by recalling what she herself had been, during
that momentous period while Pearl was imbibing her soul
from the spiritual world, and her bodily frame from its
material of earth. The mother's impassioned state had been
the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn
infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and
clear originally, they had taken the deep strains of
crimson and gold, the fiery luster, the black shadow, and
the untempered light of the intervening substance."
The style of The Scarlet Letter is precise, descriptive,
and formal. In some parts of the book, tedious descriptions
of environments or events dominate the text, as when the
interior of the Governor's mansion is described in chapter
seven. Other parts consist mainly of dialog, as when Hester
talks with Chillingworth by his herb garden in chapter
Hawthorne uses formal diction and syntax throughout the
book, even in the dialog. Each word is carefully chosen for
precise meaning. Hawthorne avoids using any ungrammatical
or colloquial expressions.
The Scarlet Letter is of the romantic genre. This is shown
by Hawthorne's selective use of symbols to perpetuate the
desired ideas and emotions. One example of this is the
scarlet A that appears in the sky. This is not something
that would realistically happen, but has been included to
add meaning to the events that had transpired.
Another element of Hawthorne's style is his combining of
historical characters with fictional characters. Many of
the characters he uses in the book were actual people that
lived during that time period. These include Governor
Winthrop, Governor Bellingham, and Reverend Mr. Wilson. He
also makes references to several other historical figures
including Anne Hutchenson and John Eliot.
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