The Scarlet Letter
Comprehensive Summary and Review of Chapters 1-4
The first two chapters set the opening scene: 17th-century America, one
June morning, Boston, a city in the Massachusetts Bay Colony where religion
is the foundation for both law and society. The first chapter ends on the
image of a rosebush and the writer suggests one of its blooms can "symbolize
some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the
darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow."
Into this setting steps Hester Prynne, an attractive looking
young woman. She is being led out of the prison door, holding a baby in
her arms. Her attire is dark in color and simple in appearance. In contrast
to this somber look, a large letter "A" in a crimson red color
with gold stitching, is embroidered on her chest to symbolize her acts of
She is heading towards the town's square where a scaffold
has been erected. Crowds of people are lined up on either side of the walk
and as she passes, the women shout insulting words at her. The people have
gathered to watch her being placed upon the pillory where she has to stay
for three hours so that all can see her shame.
As she walks, she recalls her past: born to a house of "antique
gentility" in Europe, married to a physically "misshapen"
scholar, taken first by her husband to Amsterdam and then sent to America.
She cannot believe that she is really suffering such shame. She never imagined
that she would be the mother of an illegitimate child, made to wear a public
token of her sin, and subject to the town's humiliation.
While she is on the platform, she looks around at the people
who are standing in front of her. To her surprise, she sees the figure of
a deformed man and realizes that it is her husband. He too seems to recognize
her and gestures to her not to say anything.
The reader also meets some of the other important characters
of the novel; the town fathers who sit in judgment on Hester, Governor Bellingham,
Reverend Wilson, and Reverend Dimmesdale, the town's favorite preacher.
In Chapter IV, Hester has the opportunity to speak with her
husband when he is called to the prison in the capacity of a doctor. When
Hester meets him, she is fearful that he intends to poison her, but he reassures
her that he wants to seek revenge. He tells her that he is using the name
of Roger Chillingworth and makes her promise that she will not reveal his
true identity to anyone.
The strictness of the Puritanical society becomes evident
when the reader witnesses the scaffolding scene and the scarlet letter A.
There is foreshadowing of events to come when Chillingsworth says, "Thou
wilt not reveal his name? ....I shall read it on his heart."
The motives behind Chillingsworth's behavior are not explained,
however one can assume that he is acting out of jealousy and bitterness.
It is obvious that his marriage with Hester was an unhappy one and that
he was unable to father a child with her.