This chapter briefly introduces seventeenth-century Boston, where a group of
Puritans stand in front of a somber prison or a black flower of civilized
society, which seems older that its age. The area around the prison is gray and
gloomy. Decay and ugliness are apparent in the author's descriptions, the only
exception is a lovely wild rosebush, whose origin is uncertain, blooming by the
The chapter opens as the Puritans are discussing Hester Prynne and her
sin. With almost no exceptions, the ridged townswomen are unhappy with the
mildness of her punishment. Hester comes out of the prison and walks to the
scaffold wearing an elaborately embroidered scarlet letter A on her breast, and
carrying a small infant in her arms. As she is standing alone on the scaffold
she attempts to escape her shame by dreaming of her past life in England.
While standing on the platform, Hester recognizes a man in the crowd who
is accompanied by an Indian. This man inquires about her and why she is there.
This is where we learn that she has committed adultery (the scarlet letter A is
for adultery). The man seems very concerned that the other guilty party should
also be on the scaffold. Hawthorne hints that the stranger is her lost husband.
Once she is back in her cell, she is frenzied and a physician is brought
in. He is the stranger in the crowd that Hester recognized, and was alarmed by.
He gives Hester and her child a sedative, which calms them down and gives them
time to talk. We find that he is her husband who was left behind in England. He
does not want revenge, he only wants to know who it was that violated his
marriage. He then asks that if she will not reveal the name of her lover that
she will also keep his identity a secret. Roger Chillingworth, her husband, is
determined to make a home in Boston, and find the man who is the father of
Hester punishes herself more than anyone else could. Once out of prison
she has the choice to move anywhere, and leave her past behind, yet she stays
near Boston and lives with the torture of always being an example of sin. She
works as a seamstress, saving just enough for herself and her daughter, giving
the rest to the poor, who are openly hateful. Daily people stare and talk about
her, which takes a toll on her attitude, dress, and behavior. She thinks of all
of her past pleasures as sins, and enjoys nothing. She is always conscious of
her letter, and is alarmed by the idea that the letter on her breast allows her
to recognize sins in others.
This chapter describes Pearl as an impish and uncontrollable child. Pearl
is a very beautiful child, and her mother dresses her very lavishly. Her first
awareness as a child is Hester's scarlet letter, and the letter continues to be
a center of Pearl's attention. Pearl makes imaginary playmates into enemies, not
friends. Hester is worried when she seems to see an evil, fiend-like face in
Pearl's eyes. Pearl does not believe her mother's words that she was sent her by
the Heavenly Father.
Hester is concerned about rumors that Pearl is going to be taken away from
her. She goes to the Governor's house to question him, under the pretence of
delivering gloves. Pearl is dressed in an elaborate gown with golden threads
which manages to look just like Hester's scarlet "A". Pearl and her
mother are waiting in the hall when they look at their reflections in a coat of
armor and Hester's image appears to be distorted so that the "A" is
larger than Hester is. When they move out into the garden, Pearl is fascinated
with a red rose and screams for her mother to give it to her.
Hester meets Chillingworth, Dimmesdale, Wilson, and Gov. Bellingham in the
garden. She is struck by the changes in Chillingworth and Dimmesdale.
Chillingworth has gotten much uglier and Dimmesdale's health has suffered lately
from his self-sacrificing labors as a pastor. Billingham tells Wilson to speak
with Pearl to decide if she has been raised a good Puritan and can remain with
Hester. Wilson is appalled when he asks Pearl about her origins, and she says
she was picked from the wild rose bush by the prison. What Wilson takes for
ignorance was simply Pearl's contrariness. Wilson wants her removed from
Hester's care. Hester desperately appeals to Dimmesdale, who speaks so
eloquently on her behalf that Hester is allowed to keep Pearl. Chillingworth
suspects Dimmesdale and brings up searching for Pearl's father again to which
Wilson replies that every Christian man should show a father's kindness towards
Chillingworth sets himself up as a doctor and completely abandons his
former identity. As Dimmesdale's health declines rumors spread, and it is
believed that Chillingworth was sent from Providence to help Dimmesdale. Finally
Dimmesdale allowes Chillingworth to become his physician and friend.
Chillingworth strives to learn everything about him in order to understand his
ailments. He even belives that they should lodge in the same house. Even while
most citizens continue to believe Chillingworth was a good friend to Dimmesdale,
a growing number are beginning to see Chillingworth in a much uglier light, even
as an agent of Satan or himself, coming to test Dimmesdale.
Chillingworth was always, in the past, an honorable man, but in his
pursuit of finding the father of Hester's child he has become a more evil, and
ugly man. He is determined to find something undesirable in Dimmesdale. As they
are collecting plants in the graveyard, they discuss man's nature and the merits
of confessing their sins and guilt. Dimmesdale asks Chillingworth his opinion on
his ailments, and Chillingworth replies that he can not help because Dimmesdale
will not share with him. Dimmesdale then replies that if it were a spiritual
problem, he would not ask for Chillingworth's opinion. They catch a glimpse of
Hester and Pearl in the graveyard below. They discus Pearl until she hears them
and warns her mother to come away from the "black man" before he gets
a hold of her as he has gotten a hold of Dimmesdasle. At the end of the chapter
Chilligworth enters the room while Dimmesdale is in a deep sleep and he looks
under his robe at his bosom, and looks away with a look of wonder, joy, and
horror at what he sees there.
Now that Chillingworth knows Dimmesdale's worst secret he wants Dimmesdale
to confess to him, since he has no forgiveness in mind. He uses his knowledge
unmercifully against Dimmesdale, who had no clue of his motives. Dimmesdale
however begins to sense strong evil in Chillingworth, but blames the evil on his
own guilt. Because of his sorrows, Dimmesdale becomes very popular with his
congregation, who sees him as more like them than other clergy. Dimmesdale is
haunted by their adoration and feels he does not deserve it. He fights
constantly with the desire to expose his guilt to them. The more he tortures
himself the more they admire him. Dimmesdale begins to punish himself physically
and mentally and because of his dishonesty, he becomes even frailer than before.
Dimmesdale leaves his room at night to go to the scaffold where seven
years before Hester had stood. He was torn between his remorse of what he had
done and his cowardliness for not exposing himself. He feels an even greater
pain than usual over his heart and screams out loud. A short time later Rev. Mr.
Wilson passes by with his lantern, on his way home from Gov. Wilthrop's
deathbed. Once again Dimmesdale is offered an opportunity to save himself, and
speak to Wilson, but he dosen't. Hester and Pearl also pass after visiting the
Governor's house to measure for his funeral robe. Dimmesdale calls them onto the
scaffold with him and is filled with a new energy when he grasps Pearl's hand.
Pearl asks if he will stand with them again the next day at noon, but he
declines in fear and says that they will stand together again on Judgement Day.
As he is saying this a strange light in the sky illuminates the scaffold as a
meteor passes, but instead Dimmesdale sees a huge scarlet "A". At this
instant Chillingworth appears, though at first Dimmesdale doesn't recognize the
man, but recognizes his hatred for him. However he allows himself to be led home
by him. After his sermon the following day the sexton gives him his glove, which
was found on the scaffold, left presumably by the devil. The sexton advises him
to fight the devil (Chillingworth) with out his gloves on. The sexton also tells
him of a great "A" seen in the sky last night which was said to
represent angel, for the dead governor. Dimmesdale claims to know nothing of it.
Hester has become accepted by the public that once shunned her, even the
leaders of the community have a different opinion of her. Hester's appearance
has changed dramatically and she is no longer beautiful. Because she has been on
the outside of society for so long, she has the freedom of thinking about her
life in a non-traditional way. With Dimmesdale's plea for help from the scaffold
Hester now has something that is worth her effort. She recognizes that only a
portion of his misery was due to guilt, but that Chillingworth has cruelly
placed a much larger part there. She feels responsible and decides to do
everything possible to help Dimmesdale. She knows that she has grown stronger in
the past years and Chillingworth has grown weaker, because of his efforts of
revenge. She is determined to speak with Chillingworth as soon as possible.
Hester talks to Chillingworth, and he congratulates her because he has
heard that they may remove her letter, but she disagrees. Chillingworth, in the
past seven years, has changed. It was as if his soul was on fire and had been
transformed into the devil. Chillingworth is very aware of what he has become,
and does not like it. Whatever happens now is their fate, as Chillingworth says,
" Let the black flower blossom as it may." Their conversation turns to
Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth admits to torturing him. Hester feeling guilty
asks to be freed of her promise of concealing his identity, and he says she may
do as she wishes. As Hester leaves Chillingworth she wonders that he doesn't
ruin every plant he touches. Even though she knows it is a sin, she admits to
herself that she truly hates him.
During the conversation, Pearl, with the aid of her imagination was
playing games along the seashore. She arranged an "A" in seaweed on
her own bosom, and Hester asks if she knows the meaning of the "A".
Pearl replies that it is for the same reason that Dimmesdale keeps his hand over
his heart, then asks what it is really for. Hester fights the urge of telling
her daughter the truth but decides not to and instead tells her that it is for
the gold thread, but Pearl is not satisfied with the answer her mother has given
her. Hester sees the possibility that Pearl might truly understand her and
become a friend instead of the illusive child that she has always seemed.
Hester decides she must tell Dimmesdale Chillingworth's true identity.
Hester and Pearl go for a walk in the woods. Pearl plays in the sunlight and
tells Hester that it runs from her because of the scarlet "A". Pearl
asks Hester if her scarlet letter is from the "black man". Hester
tells her that she met him once and that is why she has the "A". As
they talk they sit by a babbling brook and Pearl comments that it is so sad. As
they are talking Dimmesdale walks up and Pearl asks her mother if he holds his
hand over his chest because of the "black man" also, but Hester shoos
her off so she can talk with Dimmesdale.
Hester tells Dimmesdale about the true identity of Chillingworth. At first
Dimmesdale can not forgive Hester, but then forgives her and says that
Chillingworth's sin is much greater than both of theirs. Dimmesdale feels he
might as well die since he has no strength left. Hester decides to be his
strength and tells him so. She tries to convince him to leave and take on a new
identity, which he says he hasn't the strength to do. Hester tells him that she
will be with him so he wouldn't be alone.
When Hester thought of leaving Boston it was easy because she had not been part
of it's society or laws for seven years. For Dimmesdale the decision was harder,
but once he makes it he feels free and closer to Hester than he has in a very
long time. Hester removes her letter "A" and throws it into the woods.
Now that they had both decided to go the whole woods seemed sunnier, and more
welcoming. Hester decides that Dimmesdale must get to know Pearl and love her.
She calls her from the woods where she had been wandering at peace with the
flowers and plants.
Both Hester and Dimmesdale watch Pearl approach. She is very lovely with
her decorations of flowers and leaves. Dimmesdale was afraid that she would not
like him, since other children were never very comfortable around him. Pearl
however refuses to come when Hester calls her, and Hester realizes that she is
unfamiliar to Pearl with her hair down and her letter gone. Pearl tells Hester
to look down and find her letter. She then makes Hester go and get it. Once the
letter is safely back on, her hair is in place, and she has the sad look on her
face Pearl comes to them and kisses her mother and the letter. When Hester tells
Pearl that Dimmesdalewill now be a part of their lives, Pearl asks if Dimmesdale
will walk back to town with them, all holding hands. Hester tells her that he
will not. at least not yet. Pearl would not warm towards Dimmesdale and when
he kisses her forehead, she runs to the stream to wash it off.
Dimmesdale heads back to town with a new energy. Hester will make the
arrangements with a ship that will leave in a couple of days for their return to
England. Dimmesdale is pleased that they will not be leaving before his Election
Sermon. He sees everything around him differently on his return than it was two
days ago when he left. The town had not really changed, but Dimmesdale certainly
had. He feels a strange urge to do and say inappropriate and wicked things. He
wonders if he hasn't made a deal with the devil. When he returns to his room he
meets Chillingworth, but refuses his medicine. Chillingworth suspects that he
now knows the truth, but neither of them admits it. Dimmesdale then burns his
old Election Sermon and spends the night writing a new sermon.
Hester and Pearl are in the square for the Election Sermon and ceremonies.
Hester is as usual dressed in all gray. She looks the same on the outside, but
was anxious to finally be gone and her emotions seem to be transmitted into
Pearl's behavior. Pearl asks what is going on in the square and whether the
minister will greet them today, and Hester tells her not yet. The crowd of
Puritans were as happy as their beliefs allowed, but even so were very drab and
somber compared to their English ancestors on such occasions. The only colorful
spots to the day were various groups of Indians. The sailors, who were on land
from their ship, were very different from anyone else present. Their behavior
would never have been tolerated if they were Puritans, but they were allowed to
do almost anything and not be looked on badly. The captain of the ship
approached Hester and told her that Chillingworth would be traveling with them.
Hester didn't have time to think of the effects of Chillingworth's plan
before the procession started. Dimmesdale appears in very good shape, with more
energy and purpose than he has seen in a while. Dimmesdale seemed very remote to
Hester. Pearl and Mistress Hibbens are aware that he seems a different man from
the one they have known. Dimmesdale's sermon is full of feelings of sorrow and
suffering. While Dimmesdale is speaking, Pearl is dancing around the square and
the shipmaster gives her a gold chain and a message for her mother that the
doctor will be bringing Dimmesdale so she needn't worry about him. The strangers
in town were very fascinated with Hester and her scarlet letter, and even the
townspeople who are used to it seem interested again. The letter causes Hester
more pain on that day, when she is so close to removing it forever, than it has
since the first day she was made to wear it.
The crowd at the end of Dimmesdale's sermon is very moved. They feel
Dimmesdale has never been so good. It was also felt that the sorrow that they
felt in his speech was because he would be dying soon. Even Dimmesdale realized
his sermon was the best he ever had or ever would deliver. In the procession
after the speech Dimmesdale is exhausted and hardly able to walk, when he comes
to the scaffold he pauses and calls Hester and Pearl to him. Dimmesdale ignores
Chillingworth and mounts the scaffold with Hester and Pearl. Then he tells the
crowd of his guilt by showing them his chest. They are stunned. He asks Pearl
for a kiss. When Hester asks about their future he tells her he cannot hope for
much, but leave it to God. Chillingworth cries that by confessing he has escaped
him. As he dies the crowd is filled with emotion.
After Dimmesdale's death many different accounts of the event were
presented, some even that Dimmesdale was not involved at all with Hester.
Chillingworth became old and shriveled, virtually disappearing. He died within a
year and left a large amount of property to Pearl, which would have made her an
acceptable bride to any Puritan. Hester and Pearl disappear, but years later,
Hester returned still with the scarlet letter, to her cottage. Pearl never
reappeared, but there was evidence she was married to a European man of great
importance. Hester was often sent luxurious items and was seen sewing a garment
for a baby. Hester remained in the cottage and never removed her scarlet
"A" that was no longer a stigma, but was looked at with sorrow, awe
and reverence. Women came t o her with their sorrows and sought her council.
Eventually Hester died and was buried beside a sunken grave (Dimmesdale's). A
very simple stone marked her grave with the legend "On a Field, Sable, the
Letter A, Gules."