Nathaniel Hawthorne Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne The
Scarlet Letter Summary
Hester Prynne has shocked the Puritans of Boston by committing adultery. Two years
before the opening of the story, she was sent to America alone by her husband to await his
coming. As far as the world knows, Hester's husband, Dr. Prynne (an elderly scientist),
has disappeared. All of Boston is anxious for Hester to tell the name of her secret lover,
the father of her child named Pearl. Hester leaves the prison and walks to the market
place where she mounts the steps of a scaffold. The magistrates have been merciful to
her-she has not been condemned to death for her crime against society. However, she is to
stand on the scaffold for several hours so that the townspeople may see her, the tiny,
three-months old baby, and the cloth scarlet letter "A" which she wears on her
bosom. Governor Bellingham, the Reverend John Wilson, and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale
try to get Hester to name her lover. She refuses, much to the relief of Dimmesdale. While
Hester is trying to forget the horror of the present (by remembering the past,) she sees a
familiar figure on the edge of the crowd. This "stranger" is her husband, Dr.
Prynne, who cautions her (by placing a finger to his lips) against recognizing him
publicly. Later, in the prison, Dr. Prynne (under the newly assumed name of Roger
Chillingworth) comes to see Hester, and him in general terms about confession. He explains
why he believes demands to know the name of Hester's lover. She refuses to tell him. He
then forces her to take an oath that she will not admit to anyone that he is her husband.
Soon Hester leaves the prison and takes up residence in a small cottage by the seashore.
She earns her living by fine sewing and embroidering, especially on elaborate garments for
the magistrates (judges) to wear on special occasions. Hester's child, Pearl, grows into a
beautiful child, but she is a child who will not be managed easily. Sometimes, her mother
is upset at the "freakish, elfish" look that comes into Pearl's eyes. Hester
goes to Governor Bellingham's mansion to see him, for she understands that he, among
others, feels that Pearl should be taken from her. While they are waiting for the Governor
to appear, Pearl is highly amused to see her mother's scarlet letter "A"
reflected in the brightly polished metal surface of the breastplate of a suit of armor.
Governor Bellingham soon appears and, aided by Reverend Wilson, questions Pearl about her
religious education. The response is so unsatisfactory to the Governor that he feels sure
that Pearl should leave her mother. Then Hester appeals to Dimmesdale who is standing
nearby. He convinces Governor Bellingham that it would be best for all if Hester and Pearl
were to remain together. Roger Chillingworth, suspicious of Arthur Dimmesdale, becomes his
medical attendant and constant companion. Eventually, the two men live in the same house.
Chillingworth, in general terms, baits Dimmesdale, discussing the value of confession in
relieving the burden of a guilty soul. Dimmesdale answers him in general terms about
confession. He explains why he believes some people dare not confess: they are afraid that
they will lose their good reputations and will then have no further opportunity to serve
mankind. They part, almost in a quarrel. Later, Chillingworth walks into the chamber of
the sleeping Dimmesdale and lifts away the upper part of his garment to reveal a
horrifying sight on Dimmesdale's breast. Dimmesdale punishes himself by long night
watches, sometimes whipping himself, at other times fasting or praying for long hours.
Once in a while he studies his face reflected in a mirror. One night he feels that he can
stand this no longer. He goes out into the market place and mounts the steps of the
scaffold where Hester once stood in penance. He shrieks loud, but no one hears him but
Governor Bellingham and his sister, Mistress Hibbins, who peer out their windows and then
quickly go back to bed. Soon, Hester and Pearl walk by, on their way home from the bedside
of the dying Governor Winthrop. At Dimmesdale's request, the two join him on the scaffold,
and the three join hands there. Chillingworth soon appears and, after a meteor has lighted
up the landscape, leads Dimmesdale home. Hester is surprised at the weak state of health
in which she finds Dimmesdale. She knows that Chillingworth has been subtly torturing him,
so she resolves to seek out the old physician to see if she can aid the unhappy minister.
She talks with Chillingworth and ends up saying that she "must reveal the
secret," that is, explain that the old physician is her husband. Learning that
Dimmesdale has journeyed into the forest to see the Apostle Eliot "among his Indian
converts," Hester waits for the visiting minister in the forest. Pearl plays nearby
in the sunshine, which always disappears when Hester approaches. Dimmesdale arrives with
his hand over his heart - a familiar gesture of his. Hester tells Arthur Dimmesdale that
his "friend" Chillingworth is his enemy. He is disturbed at the news. Then he
and Hester make plans to escape the colony with Pearl. Hester removes her scarlet letter
and lets down her long hair from under a tight cap. They invite Pearl to join them, but
the child will not approach until Hester replaces the scarlet letter on her breast. The
plans for the escape are completed. They will leave on Monday, the day after Arthur
Dimmesdale delivers the Election Sermon (a great honor to any Boston minister). On the way
home from the forest, Dimmesdale (temporarily relieved from pangs of conscience and
remorse) meets, and is tempted to say evil words to, the following people: one of the
elderly deacons of his church; the oldest "female member" of his congregation;
the newest and youngest feminine member of his church; a group of little Puritan children;
a member of the "ship's crew from the Spanish Main"; and Mistress Hibbins. He
resists the temptation to shock or surprise them. He arrives home, eats a good meal, and
spends all night writing his Election Sermon. On the day of the New England Holiday set
aside to celebrate the annual election of the chief magistrate, there is a procession made
up of musicians, of soldiers, of the leading magistrates, and of the speaker of the day -
the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. The minister seems full of energy. He does not know that
the ship captain has just informed Hester that Chillingworth will be one of the traveling
party on board the ship bound for Bristol, England. Hester faintly hears Dimmesdale's
sermon as she stands near the scaffold. He thrills his audience with his expressive
Election Sermon. When the crowd is in the market-place, it loudly cheers him. As the
procession forms again and starts to leave the market-place, Dimmesdale is seen to be
weakly tottering. Refusing all help, he stops when his part of the procession nears the
scaffold. He calls Hester and Pearl to him, and with Hester's help he climbs the scaffold
steps. (Chillingworth tries to stop him.) Then Arthur Dimmesdale confesses that he is
Pearl's father, after which he reveals the "red stigma" (unhealed wound) on his
breast. After this, he dies on the scaffold. The story concludes with differing opinions
of what people believed they heard and saw in the market-place on the scaffold.
Chillingworth loses his purpose (of vengeance) in life, and he dies within the year,
leaving much property in England and. America to Pearl. Soon, Hester and Pearl leave
Boston and disappear. Later, Hester returns alone and again taking up her badge of shame -
the scarlet letter "A" - she lives alone in the same small cottage by the
seashore. It is thought that Pearl is happily married in Europe. After a long, full life
of giving advice to women who are troubled by affairs of the heart, Hester dies and is
buried beside Arthur Dimmesdale.
(c) 1995 Simon & Schuster Nathaniel Hawthorne Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 1 - 4
Chapter I: "The Prison-Door"
Hester Prynne has committed adultery. Two years ago her husband in Europe sent her on
ahead to America while he settled some business affairs. Alone in the small town of
Boston, Hester has shocked and angered her neighbors by secretly taking a lover and
bringing forth a girl child. The Puritans of Boston are shocked that she has done this
thing. They are angry because she will not reveal the name of the father of the child.
Although the usual penalty for adultery is death, the Puritan judges (called magistrates)
have decided to be merciful to her, declaring that Hester's punishment will be to stand
for several hours on the scaffold (a high platform near the market-place) in full view of
everyone. She will hold her infant in her arms and will be wearing on the breast of her
dress a piece of scarlet cloth formed into the letter "A." Part of her
punishment is that she will continue to wear this letter on her breast for the rest of her
As the story opens in the month of June, in 1642, a group of Puritan men and women
gather in front of the door of the prison waiting for Hester to make her appearance. The
early settlers felt it necessary to build a prison and to set aside a cemetery as stern
reminders of life and death. The gloomy building looks out on a grass plot covered with
"unsightly vegetation" except for one, wild rose-bush which blossoms near the
threshold of the prison. The "fragrance and fragile beauty" of this one simple
flower is a "token" (a symbol) that Nature may pity man, even though men may be
inhuman to other men. The author wonders about the origin of the rose-bush - as to whether
it has perhaps survived the wilderness in which it originally grew, or whether it had
"sprung up" in the footsteps of another rebellious woman, who, a few years
before, had entered the same prison-door. At the "Threshold" of the story the
author picks one of the roses and presents it to the reader "to symbolize" the
"moral blossom" (in other words - the happy ending) of this tale of human
weakness and sorrow.
The first sentence of the romance introduces a major character, that is, the community.
The predominant mood of the tale is established by the words "sad-colored" and
"grey." The word "hoods" suggests the secrecy and hyprocrisy of a
leading male character, Arthur Dimmesdale; in contrast, "bareheaded" represents
the open repentance of Hester, the main female character who wears the scarlet letter. The
setting is Puritan Boston, near the present site of King's Chapel on Tremont Street.
Following the literary principle of "associational psychology" (which connects
certain places and historic scenes with current problems and tensions of characters), the
introduction of the words "Boston," "Cornhill," "King's
Chapel," and "Anne Hutchinson " brings to the mind of the reader a picture
of historic Boston and early American Puritanism. The title, The Scarlet Letter, has a
symbolic word in it. Thus it is suitable that the first chapter should refer to a symbol
(a "token"), the red blossom of the "wild rose-bush." Whereas the
scarlet letter is the symbol of Hester's adultery (the reason why she is wearing the
letter "A" on her breast), the rose-bush is symbolic of the sympathetic heart of
nature, contrasted with the "unsightly vegetation" of the prison-yard, which
represents the hard-hearted Puritans about to stare at and denounce Hester. (She is to
stand on a high platform, called a scaffold, in full view of everyone, as a public penance
for committing adultery.) Near the end of the chapter, the mention of the name Anne
Hutchinson is very interesting, for she was an early feminist (a fighter for women's
rights). Hester Prynne, later on in the story, is in her own way a sort of feminist. There
is, in the same sentence mentioning Anne Hutchinson, a fine example of Hawthorne's use of
the indirect method. Using the word "whether" several times in a row, he
presents a number of possibilities as to what the answer to a question might be. He allows
the thinking reader to make up his own mind about the suitable answer to the question. The
theatrical technique of indicating that the reader is at the "threshold" of the
tale (in this instance, Hester's prison-door sill) is a typical Hawthorne device. (This
same idea is also used at the beginning of The House of the Seven Gables, the romance
which follows The Scarlet Letter.)
The opening chapter establishes the following important points about the story:
1. The tale begins in Puritan Boston, in June, 1642.
2. Hester Prynne has committed adultery. Wearing the scarlet letter, "A," she
is soon to leave the prison with her child. Then she will stand for a few hours on the
scaffold for all to see.
3. The Puritans are a very critical group, always ready to punish wrongdoing.
4. Nature, symbolized by a "token" rose-bush, is kind to man, in contrast to
man's inhumanity to man.
Chapter II: "The Market-Place"
Hester Prynne, wearing a scarlet piece of cloth formed into the letter "A,"
walks from the prison to the market-place. She carries in her arms a tiny, baby girl - the
result of her adultery. She is severely criticized by members of the crowd. When she is on
the scaffold platform, she tries to forget the present by remembering the past.
The scene begins in front of the jail in Prison Lane. The Puritans of Boston stare at
the door which Hester Prynne will come through. The author mentions the people who may
possibly come out of the prison-door on the way to punishment in the market-place. Perhaps
a "sluggish bond servant" or an "undutiful child" is to be whipped.
Perhaps one of another religious group (or even an Indian) is to be driven out of town.
Perhaps there is to be death at the gallows for a witch, like Mistress Hibbins, Governor
Bellingham's sister. Little sympathy is given anyone on the way to the town scaffold. The
watchers are very solemn, which is suitable for people for whom religion and law mean
practically the same thing. From a group of five women comes the first dialogue in the
story. One "hard-featured dame of fifty" feels that Hester Prynne's sentence is
much too slight. Another joins in to suggest that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Hester's
minister, is disturbed at the "scandal" in his congregation. A third adds that
she believes the magistrates (the judges) should brand Hester's forehead, for she suspects
the guilty woman capable of covering up the scarlet letter "A" on her breast
with a pin. A fourth woman, a young mother, gently remarks that Hester might cover up the
letter, but the pain of it will remain "always in her heart." The fifth and most
cruel of these self-appointed "judges" strongly declares that the laws of both
the Bible and the colony demand Hester's death for adultery. A nearby man finds fault with
the small group of women; he points out that the door of the prison is about to be opened.
First, there appears an official whose appearance suggests the "whole dismal severity
of the Puritan code of law." Then, he pulls along Hester Prynne, who bears in her
arms little Pearl, an infant about three months old. (Even at this moment when she comes
through the prison-door, Hester walks with "natural grace and force of
character." This emphasizes her independent spirit.) Blinking, the infant tries to
turn its face away from the strong sun. At first, Hester wants to cover her scarlet letter
by holding the baby close to her bosom. Deciding that "one token of her shame"
(the child) will "poorly hide another" (the scarlet letter "A"), she
places the child on her arm and looks around at the townspeople. For the first time, the
observers get a good look at Hester's symbol of adultery. It is the letter "A"
on "fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes
of gold-thread," attached to the bodice of her gown. Hester is a woman of large build
with an elegant figure. She has very glossy, "dark and abundant hair," a
beautiful face with regular features, a rich complexion, and distinct brows and dark eyes.
Her womanly qualities, emphasizing "state and dignity," shine even at the moment
when she leaves the jail. Her dress, made when she was in the prison, appears to express
the spirit and the "desperate recklessness of her mood." (She dares to express
her independence only in the matter of her clothing.) The scarlet token awes the
townspeople. Again, three of the women criticize Hester, this time pointing out her dress.
The third of the trio asks for charity toward the fallen woman. The official announces
that Hester is to show her letter on the scaffold in the market-place until one hour past
noon. Then he cries out a blessing that in the "righteous" Massachusetts Bay
Colony sin is "dragged out into the sunshine." Hester, followed by a crowd of
"stern-browed men," "unkindly visaged women," and "curious
school-boys," begins the walk from the jail to the market-place. Through her manner
seems proud, she is in agony, as if her heart were being tramped on by the accusing
Puritans. She finally arrives at a scaffold erected almost beneath the eaves of a church.
This scaffold is the platform of a pillory (a device used to hold tightly the neck and
wrists of a victii). Hester is not to be placed in this machine, but she is to stand for a
certain length of time on the platform (which is "about the height of a man's
shoulder above the street"), displaying two tokens of her adultery - the scarlet
letter and her child. A Papist (Roman Catholic) would perhaps be reminded of "the
image of Divine Maternity" (the Virgin Mary) by this picture of Hester and her
infant. However, the unhappy Puritan mother does not represent "the sacred image of
sinless motherhood." On a balcony of the meeting-house, overlooking the pillory
platform, are seen standing the most important personages of the colony: the Governor,
several of his counsellors, a judge, a general, and the ministers of the town. To lessen
her intense mental suffering, Hester's mind and memory turn back to her past in Europe, as
she pictures "scenes" and faces much contrasted with the rough town streets and
inhabitants of the Boston colony. She reviews happenings from her infancy, as well as from
her school days. Also, recollections of things of more recent years fly through her mind
like events in a "play." Because she tries to lose herself in memories of the
past, she is able to endure the humiliation of the moment. From the "point of
view" of the scaffold, Hester summarizes the important places and people in her life
since the days of her infancy. She visualizes her native village in Old England and her
parents' poor home. She thinks again of her father and mother, recalling their love and
concern for her welfare. She remembers her own youthful face. She examines a face,
"well stricken in years, a pale, thin scholar-like visage." Her reminiscence
stays with this elderly scholar: she recalls that his eyes, dim and weary from reading
books, once in a while would attempt to analyze the "human soul." She further
pictures his figure, "slightly deformed, with the left shoulder a trifle higher than
the right." Next, Hester's mind wanders to the scene of a continental European city
to which she went as the wife of this "misshapen scholar." She in her youth was
"like a tuft of green moss;" he in his old age resembled the "crumbling
wall" to which she in her poverty-stricken "green" youth had to cling.
Hester's mind then jumps ahead several years. She is rudely brought back to where she is
on the scaffold. In amazement, she clutches the child to her breast and looks down. Then,
having difficulty in believing that she is standing where she is, she places her finger on
the scarlet letter.
The Puritans believed in a theocratic state (a situation where the Church and State
share authority). This is based on the social order pictured in the Old Testament, and it
is explained by scholarly clergymen (such as John Wilson and Arthur Dimmesdale, English
university graduates). Emphasis is placed on the Biblical Covenant which promises
obedience to elected leaders ("magistrates" in the Puritan colony) who may
easily be replaced because of poor leadership. The Puritan theocracy, with the Church and
State having equal responsibility for keeping law and order in the colony, is always in
the background of the story, The Scarlet Letter. It helps explain the different
professions represented by the characters assembled on the balcony overlooking the
scaffold (the Governor, a military man, and the ministers). The Scriptures demand death
for adultery, and the Puritan laws closely follow the Biblical pattern. The Puritan
"fathers" stress fidelity in marriage and the sacredness of the family. Thus,
Hester's crime of adultery is punishable by death. Since her husband (Dr. Prynne) is
reported to be dead, the magistrates extend to her what they consider to be "great
mercy." Hester is a typical nineteenth-century woman of ill repute (as far as
literature goes), for she has dark hair, and is of a passionate nature. Hawthorne
describes many of the scenes as if they were seen by a spectator from a theatre seat: that
is, as if the setting, the characters, and the action were all viewed on the picture frame
stage of the movies or the Broadway theatre. The "dusky mirror" is the first of
Hawthorne's many shiny surfaces used for literary purposes in this story. In this case,
Hester is rapidly reviewing her past life in the gloomy "mirror" of
introspection, that is, she analyzes her own previous life before coming to Boston. (Most
of the other mirrors in this book have physical surfaces; they are not reflections of the
imagination. See later comments.) Hester remembers that the prying eyes of her husband,
Dr. Prynne, were once capable of analyzing people. This is a subtle foreshadowing (looking
ahead toward) the horrors to come later in the tale, when the scientist Chillingworth
(actually Dr. Prynne) attempts in revenge to examine the soul of the guilty and
In this chapter the following things happen:
1. Female spectators severely criticize Hester for her adultery. The harsh, Puritanical
point of view is noted in the unfriendly attitude of the townspeople toward Hester.
2. Hester leaves the jail with her child. She is unhappy, but she is not a broken
woman. She is very attractive. On the breast of her unusual dress, she wears a scarlet
3. The scaffold and the pillory are described. (It is important to have a good picture
in one's mind of this setting, for many of the key scenes of the tale take place on this
4. Members of the Boston Theocracy (the Governor, his staff, and the ministers) stand
on the balcony overlooking the scaffold.
5. Hester remembers places and people from her past in the "dusky mirror" of
Chapter III. "The Recognition"
Hester Prynne is observed on the scaffold by a man who recognizes her. The
"stranger" learns her story from a townsman. Reverend Wilson, Governor
Bellingham, and Reverend Dimmesdale all speak to Hester, each concerned that she should
tell the name of her lover. When Dimmesdale asks her and she refuses to tell, the minister
is greatly relieved.
Hester sees an Indian at the edge of the crowd watching her. Beside him is the
"figure" of a "white man, clad in a strange disarray of civilized and
savage costume." He is short, has a wrinkled face, and reveals "a remarkable
intelligence in his features." When she notes that one of his shoulders is higher
than the other, she instinctively presses the infant to her bosom. At first, "the
stranger" casually observes Hester. Suddenly, he recognizes her. Noting that Hester
is staring at him, also in recognition, he deliberately raises his finger to his lips in a
gesture of secrecy. Casually questioning a townsman in general terms as to Hester's
identity and the nature of her crime, he responds to this information with an account of
his own "grievous mishaps by sea and land," and of his being held in captivity
by Indians in the south. He has been brought to Boston to be ransomed. The
"stranger" is given a detailed description by the townsman of Hester Prynne's
husband (whom the reader suspects to be the questioner himself). He finds himself pictured
as a "learned man, English by birth," who, after living for a long time in
Amsterdam, had decided to come to the New World to join the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Remaining in Holland to settle some "necessary affairs," he had sent his wife
(Hester Prynne) ahead. Over a period of two years, nothing has been heard of him, and his
wife has brought forth a child. Smiling bitterly, "the stranger" asks the name
of the fanher of the child. He is told that "Madam Hester absolutely refuseth to
speak" and that "the guilty one" may be watching her at this very moment.
Because Hester is "youthful and fair," because she was probably "strongly
tempted to her fall," and also because "her husband may be at the bottom of the
sea," the magistrates have not given her the penalty of death. She has been sentenced
to stand for "three hours on the platform of the pillory" and then, for the rest
of her life, to wear on her bosom the scarlet letter "A," signifying adultery or
adultress. Considering this a "wise sentence," "the stranger" regrets
that the name is not known of the father of the child. Three times he says: ". . . he
will be known!" Then he leaves. Hester has been almost overwhelmed at the sight of
Roger Prynne and is glad to see him in the presence of the "thousand witnesses,"
rather than "to greet him, face to face, they two alone." She dreads the moment
when the two of them will be together alone. All at once, she hears a voice behind her,
coming from the balcony attached to the meeting-house. She looks up to see Governor
Bellingham, surrounded by four sergeants and some very dignified members of the Puritan
community. The speaker, "a man of kind and genial spirit," is the famous scholar
John Wilson, the oldest clergyman in Boston. Familiar with "the shaded light of his
study," he seems unsuitable to be one dealing "with a question of human guilt,
passion, and anguish." He tells Hester that his youthful fellow clergyman, her own
pastor (the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale), should force her to tell the name of the father
of the child. He explains Dimmesdale's point of view that it is "wronging the very
nature of woman to force her to lay open eer heart's secrets in such broad daylight, and
in presence of so great a multitude." At this point, Governor Bellingham declares
Dimmesdale responsible for obtaining Hester's "repentance" and
"confession." All eyes turn to observe the young minister. He has a "very
striking aspect," with a high forehead, large, brown eyes, and a
"tremulous" mouth. He has a "half-frightened look" and is evidently a
person who likes to be alone. Reverend Wilson pleads with him to speak. Dimmesdale begins
by looking steadily into her eyes and telling her that she must understand that he, as her
pastor, is accountable for her behavior. If she feels that for her "soul's
peace" she should confess the name of her "fellow-sinner and
fellow-sufferer," then she should "speak out the name." Her sin has been
revealed, and she will "work out an open triumph over the evil" within herself.
But, he continues, the father of the child may not have the "courage" to confess
and must therefore "add hypocrisy to sin." All of the listeners think the young
minister's touching speech will cause Hester to confess. Even the infant looks toward the
speaker. But, Hester will not speak the name. Reverend Wilson suggests that confession
would help remove the scarlet letter from her bosom. Hester refuses again, saying that she
wishes she might endure the "agony" of the father of the child. A cold and stern
voice from the crowd (Dr. Prynne's voice) demands she speak. Again she refuses. Arthur
Dimmesdale, in a dramatic aside, murmurs: "She will not speak!" Then, for over
an hour, Reverend Wilson speaks to the crowd about various kinds of sin, making many
references to the scarlet letter on Hester's breast. Exhausted, Hester stands on the
scaffold, occasionally and mechanically attempting to hush the wails and screams of the
infant in her arms. Finally, she is returned to the darkness of the prison.
Note that over and over again, both in the dialogue and in Hawthorne's descriptive
passages, the white man who stands on the edge of the crowd is called the
"stranger." This is Hawthorne's bow to a literary convention of his day, that
is, the introduction of an "unknown" character,, often called the
"stranger." (Both Hawthorne and his literary contemporary, James Fenimore
Cooper, borrow this artistic device from the English novelist, Sir Walter Scott.) Each of
Hawthorne's romances features an "unknown" character, as well as many of the
tales. It is ironical that the "stranger" (actually Dr. Prynne in disguise) must
hear his own story retold by a townsman, but this is a fine device for allowing the reader
to gain more knowledge of Hester's past. The placing of the clergy and the magistrates
together on the balcony points to the fact that in a theocracy (a state ruled by God) the
state is the arm of the church, charged with enforcing its edicts.) Reverend Wilson's
comments about his fellow clergyman, Dimmesdale, allows the reader to have a good picture
in his mind of the young minister before he speaks. (Compare the effect of this speech by
Dimmesdale with that of his Election Day Sermon in Chapter XXII, The Procession.")
Dimmesdale describes how he feels about his own involvement in Hester's sin, but the
members of the audience, of course, do not realize that he is telling of his own
suffering. When he urges Hester to speak and she still refuses, the young clergyman
murmurs an "aside": "Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart!
She will not speak!" An aside is made up of lines spoken privately by an actor and
supposed to be heard by the audience but not by the other actors.) This use of the
"aside" shows the influence of the theatre on Hawthorne, as well as his use of
melodramatic, Gothic writing techniques of his own day, emphasizing artificial, theatrical
In this chapter the following things happen:
1. Hester's husband, Dr. Prynne, appears on the edge of the crowd observing her. He
signals that she is not to publicly recognize him. Through a conversation between a
townsman and him (he is called the "stranger"), we learn that he has been
detained in the wilderness by the Indians, and we get his displeased reaction to the fact
that Hester will not name the father of her child.
2. The power of the Boston Puritan theocracy is emphasized, as Governor Bellingham, his
military aides, and the Reverends Wilson and Dimmesdale are seen sitting on the balcony
high above Hester's scaffold of penance.
3. One after another, Reverend Wilson, Governor Bellingham, and Reverend Dimmesdale
speak to Hester, urging her to name the father of her child. Dimmesdale's speech
mentioning her "fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer" is filled with irony (saying
one thing and meaning another). In speaking of Hester's lover, he is referring to himself
- but only Hester and he know this fact. (Hawthorne has not named him as the father of the
child, but the reader begins to suspect this to be so.) Hester establishes her love for
Arthur Dimmesdale when she says that she wishes she "might endure his agony" as
well as her own.
Chapter IV: "The Interview"
Hester and her baby, Pearl, both need medical attention, so a physician named Roger
Chillingworth is brought to them in the prison. He is the "stranger" (actually,
Dr. Prynne, her husband). After giving them medical care, Chillingworth discusses Hester's
situation, demanding to know the name of her lover. She refuses to tell him. Back in the
prison, Hester Prynne is found to be "in a state of nervous excitement," so much
so that the jailer, Master Brackett, thinks it best to bring in a doctor. The infant also
seems to be in deep distress. Master Brackett brings into Hester's cell "the
stranger" who earlier that day was so very much interested in her case. (For the
purpose of convenience, he is living in the prison until his ransom has been arranged with
the Indians.) The physician is introduced as Roger Chillingworth. He asks to see Hester
alone, claiming that he will cause her to be more ready to accept "just
authority" than she has been thus far. First, he cares for the child, by preparing
some simple remedy. Hester thinks he wishes to poison the baby, but he assures her that
the medicine will be good for it. Shortly, the infant sleeps. After looking intently for a
while at Hester, he mixes a drink to help calm her. She questions him as to whether or not
the medicine will kill her. He explains that he wishes for her to live, so that the
"burning shame" (the scarlet letter "A") will continue to
"blaze" upon her bosom. At this point, he touches the letter, and it seems to
"scorch into Hester's breast," as if it were "red-hot." She drinks the
medicine and seats herself on the bed, with him in a chair beside her. He begins to talk,
blaming himself for marrying a girl of her youth and beauty. He says that he should have
known from the beginning that she would someday be wearing a scarlet letter. Hester
quietly replies: "I was frank with you. I felt no love." He admits that she had
not deceived him in this respect. He remarks that his life had been lonely and
"cheerless" before he had married her. She had brought "warmth" into
his existence. At this time, Hester murmurs that she has "wronged" him. He
answers that they "have wronged each other" and that his was "the first
wrong" because he, an old man, should never have married a "budding youth."
Thus, Chillingworth says: "I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between
thee and me the scale hangs fairly balanced." Then, he demands to know the name of
Hester's lover. She replies: "Ask me not! That thou shalt never know!" He tells
her that few things remain "hidden from the man who devotes himself" to the
"solution of a mystery." All others may be deceived as to the man's name, but he
will not be. He declares: "I shall seek this man." He feels that he will find
him, for there will exist a certain bond of sympathy between the lover and himself when he
comes near him. Hester's lover will "tremble," and Chillingworth will
"shudder" in response. Then, Hester's husband cries out: "Sooner or later,
he must needs be mine!" Chillingworth realizes that Hester's lover will wear "no
letter of infamy wrought into his garment," but he claims he will be able to read the
letter on the guilty man's heart. He will not betray him to the law, threaten his life, or
even damage his reputation. Also, the unknown lover may even "hide himself in outward
honor." Chillingworth then asks Hester to do but one thing, and that is to keep
secret the fact that he, himself, is Dr. Prynne, her husband. Even though she is not to be
known as his wife, he still feels a closeness of connection with her and intends to stay
in the town where she, her child, and her lover live. Hester asks why he does not publicly
reveal her identity as his wife and cast her off. He explains that it might be that he
does not care to be known as the husband of a "faithless woman." Then Hester
swears an oath that as far as the rest of the world is concerned her husband (Dr. Prynne)
is dead. Above all, she is not to tell the secret of her husband's identity to her lover.
Chillingworth smiles as he leaves Hester. She asks if he is "like the Black Man that
haunts the forest." She wonders if he has led her into a "bond that will prove
the ruin "of her soul. He says: "Not the soul, no not thine!" Thus
Chillingworth's cold and devilish revenge begins.
Throughout the romance, Pearl is seen as a token, a living representation, of her
mother's sin of adultery. In this chapter the child's "convulsions of pain"
physically parallel the "moral agony" endured the day by the unhappy mother.
When the doctor, Roger Chillingworth, prepares to sooth the child by some medicine, Hester
is afraid that he wishes to kill her; but he has no such object in mind. When Hester asks
him whether he is giving her a poisonous drink, he explains to her that he does not desire
her death, for he wishes her to live, and seeks "no vengeance" against her. But
he establishes here the point that he does seek revenge on Hester's lover. Thus, one of
the main threads of the plot begins here: Chillingworth's search for, and revenge upon,
the father of Pearl. He indicates that he intends to "ruin" the soul of his
victim. Often, Hawthorne tells us about his characters through elaborate descriptions of
their actions and thoughts. Note that in this chapter the intimate conversation between
Hester and her husband reveals much about their past actions, and helps us anticipate
their future patterns of action.
The developments in this chapter are as follows:
1. Hester, alone except for her child, finally meets face to face her husband, Dr.
Prynne, when he comes to the jail to give them medical attention. He has adopted the
pseudonym, (fictitious name), Roger Chillingworth. At first, she fears that he wishes them
bodily harm, but he assures her that he wishes her to live - to live in shame. His object
is to have revenge on her lover, whose name he expects her to reveal to him. When she
refuses to tell him the identity of the father of the child, he explains that he will
persist until he eventually learns the man's name.
2. Hester promises not to make known to the Bost Nathaniel Hawthorne Introduction to
Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter Chapters 5 - 9
Chapter V: "Hester At Her Needle"
Hester leaves the prison and establishes herself and the child in a small cottage near
the seashore. She is alone most of the time. She earns her living by fine sewing and
embroidering. She gives much of her time to doing good works among the poor and the
unfortunate. Her sin causes her to be able to recognize hidden sin in others.
Hester leaves the prison alone, trying to accustom herself to the "daily
custom" of always being "the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist
might point." She knows that pure, young people will "be taught to look at her .
. . as the figure, the body, the reality of sin." She has nothing to look forward to
but an endless series of burdensome days, "each of its own trial." She is not
restricted by judgment handed down to her by the magistrates to stay in Boston. She may
leave and return to Europe; it would even be possible to disappear into the forest and
live among the Indians. But she seems compelled to stay in the place where a "great
and marked event has given . . . color" to her life. Her "sin" is the root
"she has struck into the soil." She is held by a "chain" made "of
iron links." It is possible that she stays in Boston because her former lover is near
her. She tells herself that "the scene of her guilt" has been here, and
"the torture of her daily shame" will eventually cleanse her soul. Hester
settles herself and her infant child on the edge of the town in a small, abandoned,
thatched cottage, not near any other settler's home. Her "lonesome dwelling" is
near the sea. People begin to look at her house with questioning eyes. Small children find
their way there and peep through the window to watch her sew. They might observe her
standing in the doorway of her house, working in her garden, or walking along the path
from town. Catching sight of the scarlet letter, they fearfully run away. Meanwhile,
Hester earns her living by sewing. The "curiously embroidered letter" on her
breast is a "specimen of her delicate and imaginative skill." Although most of
the Puritans are required to wear dark and simple clothing, public ceremonies (such as
"the installation of magistrates") are occasions when the officials wear
"ruffs, painfully wrought bands, and gorgeously embroidered gloves." At
funerals, both corpses and mourners are elaborately dressed. Baby-linen is also very
decorative. Hester's "handiwork" becomes "the fashion," for a variety
of reasons, such as pity or curiosity. Possibly she sews better than anyone else at the
time. At any rate, she is satisfactorily paid for as much sewing as she cares to do.
Prominent people in Boston choose to wear the garments she makes. She sews the ruffs of
the Governor, military men's scarfs, the minister's "band" (a high collar),
little caps for babies, and coffin clothes for the dead. The one thing she does not
embroider is "the white veil . . . of a bride." This shows that
"society" still frowns "upon her sin." For her labor, Hester asks in
payment only enough for the simple needs of life for herself and some extras for Pearl.
She dresses herself in dark, coarse material, which causes the scarlet letter to blaze out
at the world in contrast. Pearl's dresses are seen to be "fanciful," accenting
the "airy charm" of the child. The rest of her money Hester spends on charity,
which is not always appreciated. She spends much time "making coarse garments for the
poor." Hester's "taste for the gorgeously beautiful" finds expression in
"the delicate toil of the needle." She feels separated from society, even from
those for whom she sews. Criticized severely at times by women "of elevated
rank" and by the "poor" whom she often aids, Hester remains a patient
martyr. One thing she will not do: she will not pray for her enemies, for she is fearful
that "the words of the blessing" might "twist themselves into a
curse." Day after day, Hester suffers as a result of her sin. Ministers attract
crowds in the street by giving her words of moral advice, and choose her as the subject of
sermons. Children run after her condemning her with a fearful name. Strangers curiously
regard the letter. And yet, Hester never covers the token of her adultery with her hand,
as she is sorely tempted to do at times. Once in a while someone (very likely Dimmesdale)
looks at the letter, and for a moment she feels relief, "as if half of her
agony" is being shared. Being alone much of the time, Hester's
"imagination" is "somewhat affected." She begins to believe that the
scarlet letter has furnished her "with a new sense," that is, it gives her a
"sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts." Her instinct tells
her that "if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on
many a bosom beside Hester Prynne's." Sometimes, she senses an "evil thing . . .
at hand" when she passes a highly respected "minister or magistrate, the model
of piety and justice." She feels a bond of "sisterhood" as she catches the
"sanctified frown of some matron" of the highest reputation. At times, she is
aware that a "companion" in sin is near her; looking up, she notes the eyes of a
young maiden quickly withdrawn from the scarlet token of adultery. And yet, in the face of
all these instances, Hester continues "to believe that no fellow-mortal" is
"guilty like herself." Some idle gossips declare that the letter is not made of
scarlet cloth, but that it is "red-hot with infernal fire, lighting Hester Prynne's
path at night-time."
This chapter fills in necessary background to the romance, beginning with the time when
Hester comes from the prison for the first time to start life all over again, and
continues through the first years of young Pearl's existence. Deciding not to leave the
colony, Hester finds a small cottage, physically isolated from the other members of the
community, as she is spiritually separated from them. She earns her daily bread by expert
sewing and embroidering of magnificent garments for public ceremonies. Of course, public
prejudice does not allow her to make the white veil of a new bride. Note that Hester,
dressed in humble and somber clothes, must create for others beautiful clothing
representative of worldly pomp and splendor. Hester begins the first of her many and
continuing acts of charity toward others-some of whom only cruelly insult her, reminding
her of her past sin. (Compare this with the ending of Chapter XXIV,
"Conclusion," where her "A" becomes a symbol for "Angel"
because of her repeated good works.) Hester's experience with sin has made her able to
recognize sin in others in Boston.
The following points are made in this chapter:
1. The end of the first part of the romance is reached as Hester leaves the prison with
her infant child. She decides to stay in Boston, suffering daily penance as people stare
at her scarlet letter.
2. The unhappy mother settles down in a small isolated cottage, and time passes slowly
as her child begins to grow, and people - especially children - watch her daily
3. Sewing for her living, Hester is in great demand for her fine embroidery on garments
of state, for funeral clothing, and for baby-linen. She is not allowed to touch the pure
white veil of a new bride.
4. She dresses Pearl extravagantly in vivid colors, while she, herself, is clad in
somber garments, decorated only by the brilliant scarlet "A."
5. Her experience with sin has given her the power to recognize sin in others-even
those of high reputation in the community.
Chapter VI: "Pearl"
Pearl, a beautiful child dressed in bright colors, is difficult to manage. Her mother
must often allow her to have her own way. Hester's scarlet letter attracts the little
girl's attention. Once in a while, Hester is worried because a "fiend" appears
to peep out of Pearl's eyes.
The infant Pearl, "a lovely and immortal flower," has sprung from "a
guilty passion." As the child grows, the mother sees intelligence and beauty before
her. Hester has named her baby "Pearl" because she represents a purchase of
"great price." Man has given Hester a scarlet letter to remove her from
"human sympathy," whereas God has given her a "lovely child,' placed
"on that same dishonored bosom." Hester is apprehensive that her own sin will be
reflected in the child's nature by some "dark and wild peculiarity." Pearl has
"no physical defect," having "perfect shape," "vigor," and
easy use of all her limbs. Her "native grace" and beauty are beautifully dressed
by Hester in the "richest" cloth sold in Boston. The child's manner varies from
that of a "peasant-baby" to that of "an infant princess." And yet with
it all, she has her mother's passionate nature. She does not find it easy to obey rules.
Hester recognizes in Pearl her own "wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of
her temper," and the gloom which broods in her own heart. As to disciplining the
child, Hester is not oversevere with her. At first, she tries to have a "tender, but
strict control" over her, but eventually she finds out that both "smiles and
frowns" prove of little help. Hester allows "the child to be swayed by her own
impulses," according to the "caprice" of the moment. Sometimes the mother
wonders if instead of a "human child" Pearl might be "an airy sprite,"
a creature from another world. In her "wild, bright, deeply - black eyes," there
is a strange otherworldly look. Disturbed by the behavior of her unusual child, Hester
sometimes bursts into "passionate tears." Pearl responds by frowns and an
unsympathetic "look of discontent," or else she breaks out into "a rage of
grief" as she tells her mother how much she loves her. Hester's "only real
comfort" is when Pearl is asleep. Soon the child grows old enough to talk with
others, but she speaks to none but her mother, who is never without her on her walks about
the town. Pearl sees other children, but she will not answer their greetings. If they
group around her, she gathers up stones to throw at them and cries out in shrill tones.
The "little Puritans" are very "intolerant" of the mother and child
and often "scorn" them in their hearts and say unkind things to them. Both
Hester and Pearl stand "together in the same circle of seclusion from human
society." At home, the child makes companions of everyday objects. She talks with
ancient pine trees, imagining them to be "Puritan elders." She sees the
"ugliest weeds of the garden" as their children, and she steps on them or
uproots them. Her rapid, darting activity resembles the "play of the northern
lights." Among all of the varied "offspring of her own heart and mind," she
never once creates a friend. Always she recognizes and attacks a world which is against
her. Sometimes, Hester groans out: ". . . what is this being which I have brought
into the world!" Pearl only answers with a smile. The "first object" of
which Pearl seems to become aware is Hester's scarlet letter. When she is only an infant
in the cradle, she reaches up her little hand and grasps it, attracted by "the
glimmering of the gold embroidery about the letter." Gasping, Hester clutches the
"token" and Pearl looks into her mother's eyes and smiles. After this time,
Hester dreads when the child will look at the letter "with that peculiar smile"
and the "odd expression of the eyes." Once, Hester looks at herself in "the
small black mirror of Pearl's eyes," and she sees another face look out at her,
"a face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice." On another day, Pearl picks
"handfuls of wild-flowers" and throws them, one by one at her mother's bosom.
When she hits the scarlet letter, she excitedly dances up and down, much to the pain of
her mother. Having thrown all of the flowers, she stands still and gazes at Hester. The
mother imagines that a "little, laughing image of a fiend" is peeping out at
her. Hester tells the child that their "Heavenly Father" sent her to earth.
Pearl positively answers: "I have no Heavenly Father!" Hester then recalls
"the talk of the neighboring townspeople" which suggests that little Pearl is
the "offspring" of a devil.
Pearl represents to Hester great sorrow (her adultery) and great joy (her child).
Although the mother is not permitted to clothe herself in bright colors, she finds a sense
of relief in dressing her child in gleaming colors, imaginatively arranged. Even as
Hester's somber garments represent her restraint in dealing with the world around her, so,
too, do Pearl's clothes reflect the child's spirited attitude toward everything about her.
The unkind behavior of the Puritan children toward Pearl is parallel to the conduct of
their parents towards Hester. Pearl has an aggressive attitude toward her mother, as well
as her make-believe playmates and other children. She pains her mother by throwing flowers
at the scarlet letter. Then she further disturbs Hester by asking where she (Pearl) came
from. She rejects her mother's answer-her "Heavenly Father." This causes Hester
to remember the talk of the townspeople regarding a theory that Pearl is descended from
the devil. (This might be compared later on with Mistress Hibbins's attempts to connect
Hester and Dimmesdale with the "Black Man of the Forest.")
The following points are made in this chapter:
1. Man has marked Hester's sin by a scarlet letter, whereas God has given her a
2. Pearl is a beautifully dressed little girl who is not easy to govern by rules.
Seeming like an "airy sprite," she greatly troubles her mother.
3. By resenting and reacting against the Puritan children, Pearl joins her mother
"in the same circle of seclusion from human society."
4. Hester is frightened and made very thoughtful by seeing a "face, fiend-like,
full of smiling malice" shine out of the mirror of Pearl's eyes.
5. Pearl denies having a "Heavenly Father," causing Hester to remember
village gossip about Pearl being fathered by the devil.
Chapter VII: "The Governor's Hall"
Because townspeople speak of taking Pearl from her, Hester goes to Governor
Bellingham's mansion to ask him to help her. In the highly polished breastplate and
headpiece of a suit of armor, Pearl sees the reflection of her mother's scarlet letter
greatly exaggerated. Hester notes that the child's appearance (reflected in the unusual
mirror) is that of an "imp."
One day Hester goes to Governor Bellingham's mansion to deliver a pair of "fringed
and embroidered" gloves for him to wear on "some great occasion of state."
At the moment, Governor Bellingham is not the chief magistrate of the colony, yet he is
man influential position. Besides delivering the gloves, Hester has another more important
reason for her trip: some people of Boston suggest that, for the good of her soul, little
Pearl should be removed from her mother's care. Governor Bellingham, himself, is one of
the important people promoting this idea. Hester is accompanied on her way to the
governor's mansion by Pearl. Pearl is seen as a child of "rich and luxuriant
beauty" with deep glowing eyes and dark "glossy brown" hair. There is
"fire in her and throughout her." She is dressed in a crimson velvet gown highly
embroidered with gold thread. She seems a token of Hester's adultery, as much as the
scarlet letter which her mother is "doomed to wear upon her bosom." As they walk
along Puritan children observe them, and decide to throw mud at them. To their surprise
Pearl frowns, stamps her feet, shakes her hand in a threatening gesture and, screaming,
rushes at them. They flee. They soon arrive at Governor Bellingham's large wooden mansion
house. The outside is covered "with a kind of stucco, in which fragments of broken
glass, are intermixed." Pearl, pleased with the house, dances up and down in
admiration, demanding that the sunshine which reflects from the broken bits of glass be
"stripped off its front, and given her to play with." Her mother explains that
this is impossible. They are greeted at the door by one of the governor's bond-servants,
wearing the customary blue coat of serving-men of the period. They are told the governor
is busy with several ministers and a "leech" (doctor). Hester grandly says she
will enter. The servant, misinterpreting the "glittering symbol" on her bosom as
an elaborate status symbol, admits her. Hester and Pearl walk around the hall of the
mansion and inspect it. They see a wide and quite high room with hall windows at one end.
The chairs are large and elaborately carved according to the style of the Elizabethan age.
On a table stands a "large pewter tankard" with a tiny bit of ale left in it. A
row of portraits hang on the wall. The people represented in the pictures look like the
"ghosts, rather than the pictures" of actual people. Featured in the center of
the hall is a suit of mail of contemporary era. There is a particularly well-burnished
helmet and breastplate-so highly polished, in fact, that they "glow with white
radiance, and scatter an illumination everywhere about upon the floor." Pearl stands
admiring "the polished mirror of the breastplate." To Hester's surprise the
child says: "Mother, I see you here. Look! Look!" Hester sees that the shining
breastplate has formed a peculiarly effective "convex mirror" exaggerating
whatever is in the middle of the mirror. As she stands directly in front of the mirror the
scarlet letter becomes the most prominent feature of her appearance. She seems absolutely
hidden behind it. To increase her mother's discomfort, Pearl points upward "at a
similar picture in the head piece" which also exaggerates the scarlet letter.
Hester's agony is increased as she sees reflected in the mirror Pearl's "look of
naughty merriment." She draws Pearl aside to look at the garden. They see that
attempts to create a formal English garden have failed, for cabbages and pumpkins are
evident "in plain sight." They see rose-bushes and apple trees. Pearl begins to
cry for a red rose. Her mother hushes her as she hears the voices of the governor and his
guests approach them. Just before the governor appears, Pearl gives a childish scream-for
her curiosity is aroused by the coming of the gentlemen.
Much of this chapter is concerned with how the Puritans react to little Pearl, whose
"rich and luxuriant beauty," splendidly dressed by her mother, reminds everyone
of Hester's adultery. Actually, Hester has spent many hours building up this likeness
between Pearl and the scarlet letter. Even small Puritan children reject Pearl; who is
quite capable of frightening them by screaming and rushing at them. The Governor's
mansion, with the sunshine reflecting from the tiny fragments of glass stuck into the
stucco on the outside, is greatly admired by Pearl. Sunshine always appeals to Pearl. She
even considers it a plaything. (The sun always seems to disappear when Hester appears. As
the story unfolds, notice how the sun shines near Pearl and then is blotted out by a cloud
at any time that Hester comes on the scene.) The breastplate of the suit of armor is
convex (rounded outward, like the exterior of a globe). Any object reflected in the highly
polished surface of this mirror-like breastplate will be exaggerated in the middle; in
fact, the center part, being nearer to what is being reflected, will present a larger
picture than that seen on the edge of the "mirror." (This is what happens in
highly exaggerated carnival mirrors.) When Hester stands exactly in front of this
"convex mirror," the scarlet letter "A" is greatly exaggerated. The
unusual largeness of the "A" is what Pearl so very gleefully calls to her
mother's attention. (A literary term for the ridiculous increase in size of this letter is
"giantism.") There are double images in the headpiece of the suit of armor:
first, Hester's scarlet letter "A"; second, little Pearl's "look of naughty
merriment." Thus, the two main symbols of the romance come together here.
The high points of the action in this chapter are as follows:
1. Hester goes to Governor Bellingham's mansion to enlist his help against those
(including himself) who wish to remove Pearl from her care.
2. On the way to the Governor's house, Pearl attacks and scatters a group of little
Puritans who are planning to throw mud at the child and her mother.
3. Pearl is fascinated by the decorations on the outside of the mansion. The main hall
of the building is pictured in detail. Among the wall ornaments is a suit of mail (armor),
featuring a highly polished breastplate and helmet. Pearl sees her mother's scarlet letter
"A" grotesquely (horribly) exaggerated in the "convex mirror" formed
by the front of the breast plate. She also points to the same image reflected in the
helmet. Hester is especially disturbed, for she sees reflected in the same mirror the
"elfish" look on Pearl's face.
5. Mother and daughter explore Governor Bellingham's garden, where Pearl cries for a
Chapter VIII: "The Elf-Child And The Minister"
Governor Bellingham is surprised to see Pearl in his house. He examines the child
concerning her Christian upbringing. He is displeased with what she says. Hester then
makes a passionate plea to Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale to help her. The minister convinces
the Governor that Hester and the child should remain together.
Governor Bellingham appears, accompanied by three men-John Wilson, Arthur Dimmesdale,
and Roger Chillingworth. The Governor has been pointing out the beauties of his estate. He
looks more stern than he actually is. He is accustomed to living in luxury. Even such a
venerable minister as the Reverend John Wilson approves of "good and comfortable
things." But, of course, Reverend Wilson must disapprove "of such transgressions
as that of Hester Prynne." Arthur Dimmesdale appears ill. Arriving suddenly at the
door of his mansion, the Governor almost stumbles over little Pearl. She reminds him of
the "children of the Lord of Misrule," tiny, fantastically dressed children
participating in masques at the court of King James I. Pearl identifies herself and her
mother, and the Governor speaks in an uncomplimentary manner of Hester as a "scarlet
woman." At this point, Governor Bellingham assumes an official air and sternly
explains to Hester that Boston officials question whether or not Pearl should be left to
the "guidance" of one who has "stumbled and fallen." Frantically,
Hester replies that she is capable of teaching her child. She says that she has learned
from her experience. At this time, Reverend Wilson questions Pearl in religious matters.
Obstinately, Pearl closes her lips and opens them only to mumble odd assortments of words.
Finally, she announces that she has "been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild
roses that grow by the prison-door." The Governor is astonished and immediately
declares that Pearl is "in the dark as to her soul, its present depravity, and future
destiny." With great excitement Hester reacts, exclaiming that the child is her
"happiness" as well as her "torture." She cries out: "Pearl keeps
me here in life! Pearl punishes me too!" Reverend Wilson assures her that the child
will be "well cared for." Hester firmly declares, "I will not give her
up!" Impulsively, she turns to Reverend Dimmesdale, saying "speak for me. . . .
Look thou to it! I will not lose the child! Look to it!" Reverend Dimmesdale gently
begins to discuss what he calls the "awful sacredness in the relation between this
mother and this child." He points out that the child reminds our people of the
scarlet letter which "sears" Hester's bosom. He furthers his argument by
claiming that Hester needs Pearl as a reminder of her past sin in order to "preserve
her from blacker depths of sin into which Satan" might still plan to plunge her. The
Governor is satisfied. The child will remain with its mother. Dimmesdale quietly withdraws
to a nearby window. Pearl softly steals towards him and "taking his hand in the grasp
of both her own" leans her cheek against it. The minister responds by placing his
hand on the child's head, and then after a brief hesitation kisses her brow. Roger
Chillingworth, looking much uglier and even more misshapen than he was three years ago,
suggests that an observer might "analyze" Pearl's "nature" and
"give a shrewd guess" at her father. As Hester leaves the Governor's mansion,
his "bitter-tempered sister," Mistress Hibbins, invites Hester to join a
"merry company" which meets in the forest this very night under the guidance of
"the Black Man." Hester smilingly refuses, saying that if Pearl had been taken
from her, she would very likely have been in the party.
Dimmesdale seems to be suffering from poor health. One reason might be that he labors
long and hard at his religious duties, but another-more important-reason is probably that
he is plagued by his conscience, the knowledge of his hypocrisy. This is the first time in
the romance that he seems to have changed to any extent, or to have developed as a
character. Governor Bellingham's reference to the "court mask" of King James I's
time suggests that the Governor has known a more sophisticated life in the past than that
which Boston provides for him at the moment. (The masks-sometimes called
"masques" - of the English court were highly elaborate affairs, with symbolic
characters wearing fantastic costumes.) Pearl reminds the Governor of his past days when
he sees her bright dress. Hester sees that Chillingworth's features have changed. He seems
much more like a devil than before. He reacts to Dimmesdale's plea for Hester with the
words: "You speak, my friend, with a strange earnestness." Perhaps he is
beginning to suspect that Dimmesdale is the man he is seeking. Mistress Hibbins, who
speaks to Hester when she leaves the mansion, is a caricature character (one whose
personality, speech, and dress are extremely exaggerated, so as to produce an absurd
In this chapter, the plot moves forward, emphasizing the following points:
1. Governor Bellingham, accompanied by the Reverend John Wilson and Arthur Dimmesdale,
is surprised to discover the elaborately dressed Pearl in his hall.
2. The Governor sternly tells Hester that many people doubt that she should have the
care of little Pearl. Hester vigorously defends her position against both the Governor and
Reverend Wilson. The two men are disturbed at the child's lack of religious knowledge.
Then, Hester makes a direct appeal to Arthur Dimmesdale, demanding that he speak in her
behalf. Dimmesdale explains his point of view to the other two men. He says that Hester,
as a fallen woman, needs Pearl as a living symbol to help protect her from further sin.
They agree. Hester is to be allowed to keep the child.
3. Pearl tenderly caresses Dimmesdale's hand, and he kisses her brow.
4. Mistress Hibbins, Governor Bellingham's sister, makes her first appearance in the
romance, as she invites Hester to a festivity in the forest that night. Hester refuses the
invitation to join the Governor's sister when she goes to see the Black Man of the Forest.
Chapter IX: "The Leech"
Hester Prynne's husband, Dr. Prynne, is surprised to see his young bride on a scaffold
wearing the scarlet letter of an adultress. Deciding to practice medicine in the new
world, he chooses to settle in Boston under the assumed name of Roger Chillingworth. His
plan is to find out the name of his wife's lover. He suspects the guilty man to be the
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Becoming a constant companion to the young minister, he
eventually moves into the same house with him.
Roger Chillingworth (the name we shall give to him from now on) came out of the
wilderness as an elderly, travel-worn man. When he found his wife on the scaffold, he
decided he wanted no public connection with her. He further decided that his life had
taken on a "new purpose." He was determined to name his wife's lover. He finds
that establishing himself as a doctor (sometimes called a "leech") is an easy
thing to do since Boston has no trained physician at the moment. People are delighted to
have him become a member of the colony, not only because of their need for him, but
because their beloved Mr. Dimmesdale is beginning to show signs of failing health. The
young minister, himself, claims that Providence might see fit to remove him "because
of his . . . unworthiness." As he says this, he places his hand over his heart, first
growing red and then white, as if he were in pain. (This is the first time that Dimmesdale
is noticed placing his hand over his heart. This action takes place many times as the
story unfolds.) Chillingworth wanders about the edges of the settlement gathering herbs,
blossoms of wild flowers, roots, and tree twigs. In captivity to the Indians he had
learned how to use these simple objects of nature for medical purposes. Chillingworth
expresses great concern over Dimmesdale's health. No longer does Dimmesdale put his hand
over his heart as an occasional, "casual gesture," but rather this gesture has
become a "constant habit." Finally, the young minister agrees to consult with
Chillingworth. The two men take long walks while Dimmesdale unburdens his mind to the
physician, but at no time does he mention what might be troubling his heart. Chillingworth
attempts to probe. A great intimacy grows up between the two men, but still their
companionship is based on their discussions of philosophy, of religion-of those things
they both see in the world about them. Finally, Chillingworth moves into the house
occupied by Dimmesdale. The young minister's rooms are hung with tapestry. The
physician-scientist's rooms are arranged as a study and laboratory. Some people are
delighted that Dimmesdale has th Nathaniel Hawthorne Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 10 - 14
Chapter X: "The Leech And His Patient"
Roger Chillingworth, the physician, and Arthur Dimmesdale, the patient, have a long
talk in Roger's laboratory about Arthur's poor health. The doctor questions Arthur as to
whether or not everything has been told him about the case - whether or not Arthur has
omitted something of importance about himself. The minister grows angry and leaves.
Eventually the two become friends again.
This chapter is a continuation of the preceding chapter, with the exception that both
the minister and his physician engage in dialogue, whereas in the preceding chapter there
was almost no dialogue. Chillingworth digs into Dimmesdale's heart "like a miner
searching for gold." During the conversation between the two he learns of many things
concerning Dimmesdale's thoughts: his hopes for mankind; his love of souls; his pureness
of sentiment; and his natural holiness. And yet with all this, Chillingworth feels
intuitively that Dimmesdale is hiding something from him. It is strange that the minister
does not suspect his doctor of being more curious than he should be. One day, in
Chillingworth's laboratory, the two men fall into a casual conversation about some dark,
flabby herbs which Dimmesdale has recently gathered. Very pointedly the physician says
that the herbs were found growing on a grave-in fact, they probably have grown "out
of" the heart of a dead man, representing "some hideous secret that was buried
with him, and which he had done better to confess during his lifetime." (The
physician is casting out a strong hint, encouraging the minister to talk about himself.)
Dimmesdale replies that possibly the dead man desired "to confess," but he could
not do so. He continues by saying that at the Judgment Day the man will confess "with
a joy unutterable." Chillingworth says that the guilty one might achieve
"solace," or relief, now. Why should he wait? Dimmesdale agrees in theory with
the "leech," as he remembers watching "relief" on the faces of many
people who had confessed their sins to him before their deaths. He goes on to explain (in
one of the key passages of the book) that some sinners "shrink from displaying
themselves black and filthy in the view of man." He explains that confession of past
evil might make it impossible for them to continue serving "their
fellow-creatures." Thus, these unhappy sinners daily walk around "looking pure
as new-fallen snow while their hearts are all speckled and spotted" with sin.
Chillingworth vigorously answers that a "false show" cannot be better "than
God's own truth." Dimmesdale says that this is possibly very true, and then he
changes the subject to his own state of health. At this time the two men hear the
"clear, wild laughter" of a young child's voice, coming from the burial-ground
next door. They see Pearl dancing from one grave to another. In answer to her mother's
demand that she behave, Pearl takes some prickly burrs from a burdock and then arranges
them "along the lines of the scarlet letter" on her mother's bosom.
Chillingworth remarks that there is "no law ...... mixed up with that child's
composition." Dimmesdale thoughtfully answers that the child enjoys "the freedom
of a broken law." Overhearing the conversation, Pearl throws one of the prickly burrs
at Dimmesdale. He shrinks back. Pearl claps her hands in childish ecstasy. (This is a
dramatic moment, for the four main characters of the book look at each other in silence.
Seldom are all four characters on the scene at the same time.) Pearl breaks the spell by
urging her mother to come away, or else "yonder old Black Man" might catch her.
The child adds that the Black Man has "got hold of the minister already." (Note
how the intuition of the small child allows her to sense the true situation existing
between the two men.) The mother and child leave, as Chillingworth questions whether or
not Hester Prynne is "less miserable" because she wears the scarlet letter for
all to see. Speaking of himself, Chillingworth says that to show one's pain is better
"than to cover it all up in his heart." At this point Chillingworth bluntly asks
Dimmesdale if the sick minister has told his physician everything that might concern his
case. Dimmesdale says all has been told. Chillingworth declares that sometimes a
"bodily disease" may be only a "symptom" of a spiritual ailment. He
then asks if the minister cares to "lay open to him the wound or trouble" in his
soul. Dramatically Dimmesdale cries out: "No! - not to thee! - not to an earthly
physician!" He says he will assign himself to his God. Then he leaves, angry.
Chillingworth watches his friend leave, remarking to himself that Dimmesdale is capable of
sudden and unusual "passion." He then speculates that very likely the minister
has before this time "done a wild thing . . . in the passion of his heart."
Eventually, the two men become friends again. One day, Chillingworth walks quietly into
his friend's apartment. He finds Dimmesdale fast asleep. Advancing to his patient, the
doctor removes the "vestment" that covers the top of the sleeping man's chest.
Chillingworth stares and stares - then he turns away. The doctor's face reflects
"wonder, joy, and horror . . . rapture." He throws his arms into the air; he
stamps his feet on the floor. In his ecstasy, he resembles Satan.
Note that Chillingworth begins his search for Hester's lover with the feeling that he
only wants to reveal the "truth." Before he knows it, he is overcome by a
"terrible fascination," which forces him to probe and dig into the heart of his
suspected victim (Dimmesdale). Finally, he is a man seeking a devilish revenge. He wishes
the minister to suffer pangs of conscience, to be aware of his own (Dimmesdale's)
hypocrisy. This chapter contains much dialogue between the two men, as they fence with
each other-Chillingworth constantly attempting to corner Dimmesdale, and Dimmesdale always
offering vague and general explanations for the leech's probing, personal questions. Very
often in the dialogue, when the minister is speaking of the "relief" which comes
after the "outpouring" of confession, he shows how very much he would like to
have that same "relief" (that "joy unutterable") through confession of
his sins. In a key speech, Dimmesdale does explain why a sinner (of spotless reputation)
might not confess: it is because such a person would lose his "pure" reputation
and would no longer be able to serve others. He would be held in general contempt. (One
wonders how much of Dimmesdale's point of view is due to his wish for service, and how
much is determined by his unwillingness to be disgraced.) How very cleverly Hawthorne
breaks into the dialogue with the brief scene showing Pearl dancing in the graveyard. The
presence of Pearl (who is indirectly being discussed) adds to, or heightens, the dramatic
effect of the conversation. At the end of the chapter, Chillingworth looks at Dimmesdale's
chest and sees something there which brings him "ecstasy." At last, he has some
definite proof that the unhappy clergyman should be the victim of his revenge.
This chapter, filled with dialogue, contains the following points:
1. Chillingworth has been digging into Dimmesdale's heart through conversation, much as
a miner digs into the earth. He finds many wonderful thoughts, but he does not uncover
anything that positively states that the young minister is Hester's lover.
2. Chillingworth tries to get Dimmesdale to confess, by drawing a parallel with the
case of a man who did not confess his earthly sins and who had "ugly weeds' growing
from his heart "in remembrance" of his sins.
3. Dimmesdale discusses how wonderful confession is, for it relieves a sinner's
conscience. He adds that some men cannot confess their sins, for then they might lose
their chances for doing good for man in the future, because of their public disgrace.
4. Hester and Pearl walk in the neighboring graveyard. Pearl skips from grave to grave,
throws a prickly burdock burr at Dimmesdale, and tells her mother to come away from the
"Black Man" (Chillingworth), for she says her mother might be caught by
Chillingworth as the minister is already.
5. Chillingworth tells Dimmesdale to relieve his soul by telling him (the
"leech") of his inner troubles. The minister says "No!" Then he rushes
6. Chillingworth walks quietly into Dimmesdale's room when the minister is asleep in a
chair. The doctor pushes aside the covering of the sleeping minister's chest and feasts
his eyes on what might be a self-inflicted wound - a letter "A"!
Chapter XI: "The Interior Of A Heart"
Roger Chillingworth becomes the source of much torture to Arthur Dimmesdale, although
the sickly minister does not quite realize he is being persecuted by his companion.
Dimmesdale is very much aware of his hypocrisy, and he wishes (so he tells himself) to
confess his sin. He cannot do so. His congregation feels him to be the holiest of the
holies. Throughout long dark nights he tortures himself physically and mentally.
Chillingworth, now convinced that Dimmesdale is the guilty party, decides to have a
terrible revenge on the minister. His plan is to "make himself the one trusted
friend" of Dimmesdale, the one who will receive in confidence the minister's fears,
remorse, agony, and repentance. The physician gloats over the idea that he "the
Unforgiving" will listen to the cries of the "Pitiless." Yet one thing does
upset this plan a bit, and that is Dimmesdale's "shy and sensitive reserve." But
to overcome this, the watchful doctor chooses his time carefully to subtly suggest some
idea that will fill the minister with fear. For the most part Dimmesdale does not realize
that he is being manipulated by the "leech" much as a mouse is played with by a
cat. Once in a while his instinct tells him everything is not right, and for a moment he
looks with "horror" at the deformed Chillingworth. However, on the surface
seeing nothing wrong with the old man, Dimmesdale blames himself for not truly
appreciating his physician friend. The sense of hypocrisy in Dimmesdale has had an unusual
effect upon his preaching. His daily agony has made him sensitive to the needs, trials,
and distress of others. He becomes increasingly famed among the Boston clergy. Some of his
fellow ministers are greater scholars than he. Some have sturdier minds than his. Some
have a greater spiritual presence. But Dimmesdale surpasses them all in one way: he
possesses the "Tongue of Flame," for he is able to interpret humble,
commonplace, familiar things of the ordinary world is having spiritual significance.
Dimmesdale's congregation believe him to be "a miracle of holiness." The ground
on which he walks they believe to be "sanctified."
Young maidens of his church find him irresistible. The aged members of the congregation
greatly admire him. In the face of all this admiration Dimmesdale longs "to speak
out, from his own pulpit, at the full height of his voice," telling the people the
truth about himself: "I . . . am utterly a pollution and a lie!" Several times
Dimmesdale draws a long breath in his pulpit ready to tell his hearers that he is
"altogether vile." He does tell them that he is vile, but he never gets to the
place in the sermon when he explains why he is unworthy. (This is a form of hypocrisy, for
he realizes he has no true intention of telling the complete truth.) His conscience does
bother him, however, and he spends long nights in agony considering his sin. Sometimes he
takes from a secret closet a "bloody scourge" (a whip with sharp particles
attached to it). As he whips himself, he laughs bitterly. He fasts, going without food for
long periods of time. He sits alone in total darkness through long nights. He varies this
last activity by sometimes "viewing his own face in a looking-glass" with the
aid of a powerful light. This "constant introspection" (looking inwardly at
himself) tortures him but does not purify him. At times, his brain becomes weary and
"visions" flit across the surface of the looking-glass: sometimes he sees demons
who beckon to him; at other times he sees angels who look sorrowfully at him; and then he
views "dead friends of his youth," his father and this mother; finally, he sees
Hester Prynne leading little Pearl by the hand. Everything has a bitterness about it to
Dimmesdale. He realizes that he is an "untrue man," for as far as he is
concerned "the whole universe is false." One night when he is particularly
unhappy, Dimmesdale gets up from his chair and prepares himself to leave the house.
This is one of the key chapters of the entire book. We see Arthur Dimmesdale egged on
by Chillingworth. We are given the generalization that the guilty minister suffers many
tortures as the result of his hypocrisy. Then we are given the specific details concerning
his torment. He uses the "scourge" (whip) to satisfy himself that not only
Hester, but he, too, is suffering because of his sin with Hester. This active, physical
torture is followed by another type of agony, this time a slower sort of punishment - the
fast. He goes without eating until his body trembles with weakness. Keeping midnight
"vigils" (watches), he sometimes suffers in darkness. At other times, he studies
his face in a mirror with the help of a powerful light. This act, of carefully looking at
himself in a mirror, is parallel to what happens daily in his life: his conscience looks
at him and declares him a sinful hypocrite. Hester is able to externalize (put on the
outside) her sin (adultery) by openly wearing the scarlet letter. But he feels he must
always hide his guilt, and so he suffers from introspection (looking at and analyzing his
This chapter makes the following main points:
1. Chillingworth has come to the point where he is certain Dimmesdale is the guilty man
he has been searching for. By subtle means, he vengefully tortures the hypocritical
2. Dimmesdale's knowledge of sin has made him sympathetic to the sins of his fellow
men. His reputation grows as his sermons become more and more inspired. He tries to
confess his sin, but his unfinished confessions lead the members of his congregation to
believe that he is a "saint on earth." They say that if he is sinful, how much
more sinful they must be!
3. Dimmesdale punishes himself by the whip, by denying himself food, and by keeping
lonely watches through the night. At times, he studies his own face in a mirror.
Chapter XII: "The Minister's Vigil"
Dimmesdale stands on top of the scaffold and shrieks. He is joined on the scaffold by
Hester and little Pearl, and the three hold hands together. Chillingworth comes along and
finally conducts the weary Dimmesdale home.
Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold seven years after Hester had stood on it for penance. It
is Saturday, on a dark night in early May. It is about midnight. He is drawn to Hester's
scaffold of penance by "remorse." The fact that it is at night is representative
of his "cowardice." Suddenly he shrieks aloud. He thinks he will awaken the
whole town, but he does not do so. Only two people respond to his cry - the old
magistrate. Governor Bellingham, and his sour-faced sister, Mistress Hibbins. The two
people awakened by his cry finally go back to bed. Reverend Wilson is seen walking along
carrying a dim lantern. This worthy minister has just come from the
"death-chamber" of Governor Winthrop. Dimmesdale imagines that he speaks to the
Reverend John Wilson, but he does not, for his mind is now playing tricks on him. He
begins to think that he might not be able to leave the scaffold (because his limbs are
beginning to grow stiff with the cold), and he imagines many early risers finding him
crouched on the platform in the morning. He pictures elderly leaders of the community, as
well as Governor Bellingham and Mistress Hibbins, all staring at him on the platform. He
imagines "Father Wilson," the elders and deacons of his church, and Boston's
purest young maidens turning their amazed faces up towards him. Almost hysterically, he
laughs. His laugh is answered by a "light, airy, childish laugh," belonging to
Pearl. Hester and Pearl are just returning from Governor Winthrop's deathbed where Hester
has "taken his measure for a robe." At Dimmesdale's invitation the two newcomers
climb the steps of the platform. Quietly the minister takes one of Pearl's hands; Hester
takes the child's other hand. It is a still moment. Pearl inquires if the minister will
join them tomorrow noon in the same place. The minister says he cannot, but that he will
join hands with the two at "the great judgment." (Dimmesdale soothes his own
conscience by such a plan, that is, to confess his sins when all sins of the world are to
be accounted for, according to his Puritan doctrine.) All at once, a meteor flashes
through the sky, lighting all about them. To the guilty Dimmesdale the meteor has the
"appearance of an immense letter - the letter 'A.'" (Dimmesdale has adultery on
his mind and his "guilty imagination" makes him connect this sin with all those
around him.) Not only does this sudden flash of light reveal Pearl holding by each hand
one of her parents, but it also reveals (especially to Pearl) the figure of Roger
Chillingworth standing near the scaffold scowling at them like an "arch-fiend."
Instinctively, Dimmesdale gasps, "Who is that man, Hester?" A moment later, he
says, "I have nameless horror of the man!" He appeals to Hester to help him.
Pearl mumbles into the minister's ear some childish "gibberish," in an attempt
to identify Chillingworth. When Dimmesdale asks if she mocks him, she replies that he did
not promise to take her mother's hand and her own hand in the noonday sun in front of
other people. At this point, Chillingworth explains that he has spent the "better
part of the night" at the bedside of the dying Governor Winthrop. He then demands
that Dimmesdale accompany him home. The two leave together. On the next day, the Sabbath,
Dimmesdale preaches his finest sermon to date. As he leaves his pulpit, the church sexton
holds up to him his own black glove as he explains that it had been found on the scaffold
where it was probably dropped by Satan. The sexton also provides an interpretation of the
meteor. He believes the letter "A" stood for "Angel," because Governor
Winthrop became an angel when he died.
Driven by remorse and conscience, Dimmesdale goes to the market-place and climbs the
steps of the scaffold. He feels that he must stand in the very place where Hester
humiliated herself by being stared at and abused by the townspeople. Being here will
perhaps help relieve his pain-salve his conscience. Since he has dressed himself as he
dresses when he preaches, he might possibly have in the back of his mind that he will be
discovered by indignant members of his congregation who will publicly accuse him of sin
and end his torture. His cry into the night only awakens Governor Bellingham and his
sister, Mistress Hibbins. This attempt to draw attention to himself as a sinner is as
ineffective as his previous unsuccessful efforts have been when he has tried to confess in
the pulpit. In this key scene (that is, scene which is important in the development of the
plot and the characters), the four main characters are brought face to face in a dramatic
situation. Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale, when they hold hands on the scaffold, form a
dramatic tableau (a picture which has some special significance, appearing as if it were
posed, as people pose to have a picture taken). In this case the family relationship is
emphasized, as Pearl stands between her parents, holding a hand of each. Dimmesdale
refuses Pearl's request that on the following day in public he repeat this tableau (the
symbolic holding of hands). Chillingworth, the fourth important character, stands watching
them near the scaffold. By pointing her finger at the villain (Chillingworth), Pearl makes
him an important part of the scene. How dramatic the moment is when the meteor (perhaps a
shooting star) makes the night as bright as day to reveal four characters together!
History tells us that Governor Winthrop died in 1649. We know Pearl is seven years old at
this time. Thus, we can date the beginning of the story as 1642.
The following things happen in this important chapter:
1. Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold at midnight and cries out, hoping to relieve his
2. Hester and little Pearl join the saddened minister on the scaffold, where they clasp
3. Chillingworth watches the three of them, as a meteor streaks by in the sky lighting
up the landscape. The hypocritical minister thinks the meteor takes the shape of a letter
"A," which his guilty imagination imagines to stand for adultery. (The members
of his congregation, the next day, feel the "A" stands for "Angel,"
which they believe Governor Winthrop became the previous night when he died.)
Chapter XIII: "Another View Of Hester"
Upset at Dimmesdale's sad physical condition, Hester Prynne decides that she must help
him. Over the period of seven years of wearing the scarlet letter, she has become an
accepted, relatively respected, member of the community.
Hester realizes that there is a force damaging Dimmesdale's sense of peace other than
his conscience alone. She realizes that Chillingworth is that evil force. Over a period of
seven years her scarlet letter had become a "familiar object to the
townspeople." To her credit she had never fought the public-she has always submitted
"to its worst usage." For seven years her life has been "blameless."
She has given generously to the poor; she has nursed the sick. Many people begin to
consider her a "Sister of Mercy." The letter "A" begins to become the
symbol of her "helpfulness," meaning to some people not adultery, but
"Able." Hester never demands public approval. Where there is darkness, sickness
and poverty, there she is, too. Hers is not an existence filled with sunshine; hers is a
dark world. The magistrates (judges) gradually begin to recognize her helpfulness. One
sacrifice has been made by Hester through the wearing of the scarlet symbol-she has lost
much of her femininity. Her somber looks, her hair hidden under a cap, and her reserved
manner cause her to seem very stern. Of course, the fact that she once had allowed herself
to be tender and has suffered considerably because of that influences her behavior now.
She must not seem a loose woman in any way. If she were alone she might have difficulty in
keeping her solitary, stern position. But little Pearl has caused her to carefully
regulate her behavior. (If Hester were to live at a later period in history, she would
probably be known as a feminist, a champion of women's rights.) Although Hester presents a
submissive appearance to the great satisfaction of her fellow Puritans, inwardly she lives
in darkness and receives no comfort. Evidently, the scarlet letter represents a certain
form of public penance, but it has not truly purified. Her knowledge of sorrow helps her
understand the great sadness in Dimmesdale's heart. She decides to help him. She knows
that Chillingworth, Dimmesdale's "secret enemy," has falsely been pretending to
be a "friend and helper" to the unhappy minister. Until this time she has had
her lips sealed regarding her association with Chillingworth, for the vengeful old man had
demanded this of her when he visited her seven long years ago in the prison. Hester makes
up her mind to meet Chillingworth and talk the matter over with him. One afternoon, she
finds him as he is walking, gathering roots and herbs for medical supplies.
Over a period of seven years since the birth of Pearl, Hester's reputation in the
community has improved greatly. Her good deeds have caused many of the Puritans to change
their original interpretation of the scarlet letter "A" for adultery. Now some
speak of it as meaning "Able," representing her willingness to help others and
her strength. (The Puritans believed in faith in religion, emphasizing belief in the Bible
more than good works. Hester gets their admiration for her good works.) Since Hester is
not allowed to feel emotional about problems of the day, she spends her time thinking. She
thinks much about the suffering of Dimmesdale. She finally decides that she must try to
The following points are made in this chapter:
1. Hester's reputation in the community has improved remarkably. Many people now admire
her for her good deeds.
2. Hester covers up most of the softening signs of her feminine nature. She thinks
about the place of woman in the world.
3. She plans to help Dimmesdale in his sorrow.
Chapter XIV: "Hester And The Physician"
Hester speaks to Roger Chillingworth and tells him that she must tell Dimmesdale the
old man's true name.
First, Hester tells Pearl to run to the edge of the shore and play. The child stops at
a pool of water left by the "retiring tide," and peeps in at the water-mirror.
Pearl finds herself looking at an elfish playmate, mirrored back at her from the water.
She beckons to the playmate to join her, but the elfish maiden in the water beckons back
to Pearl. Chillingworth tells Hester that one of the magistrates has been discussing the
question of her removing the scarlet letter from her breast. Hester tells the old man that
it is not the place of the magistrates "to take off this badge." She also says
that if she were worthy of having it removed, "it would fall away of its own
nature." Hester is shocked to see how much Chillingworth has changed in several
years. Once he was quiet and studious; now his expression is "almost fierce,"
and he has a false smile. At times, a red light seems to gleam out of his eyes. He has
enjoyed his seven years of torturing Dimmesdale. Hester tells him that she feels a duty
towards Dimmesdale to tell him of Chillingworth's true identity - that he is her husband.
She further tells the old physician that he has caused Dimmesdale "to die daily a
living death." She adds that she "acted a false part" when she agreed to
hide Chillingworth's identity. The old man says: "What choice had you?"
Chillingworth tells of the great effort he has put forth in caring for the ill minister's
health. Then he gloats as he says that he has "grown to exist only by this perpetual
poison of the direst revenge!" Suddenly the old man realizes the depths of evil to
which he has sunk-it is as if he were truly seeing himself in a mirror for the first time.
Hester asks if Dimmesdale has not been punished enough. The physician cries out:
"No!" Gloomily he tells of his own happy days in the past when he worked
"faithfully for the advancement of human welfare." He says that he is a
"fiend." Hester remarks that she did this to him, and she wonders why he has not
revenged himself on her. He says to her: "I have left thee to the scarlet
letter." Hester then firmly tells Chillingworth that she intends to reveal his true
identity to the suffering Dimmesdale. She asks the physician if he would not like "to
pardon" the man who has wronged him-Dimmesdale. He answers that it is not in his
power to do this, explaining that it is his fate to hate and torture Dimmesdale.
Notice in the first paragraph another one of Hawthorne's mirrors - this time a
water-mirror. Pearl looks at a pool of water and sees her own "elf smile" peep
back at herself. At this point in the story, we see Chillingworth completely changed from
the kindly scholar pictured in Chapter II. An evil-faced man with a false smile, he
welcomes the opportunity to openly discuss Dimmesdale with Hester. He claims to have
preserved Dimmesdale's life by his medical attentions - all for the purpose of continuing
to have a victim for his (Chillingworth's) revenge. (Compare this with one of his comments
in Chapter IV, when he tells Hester that he wishes her to live so that she might still be
shamed by wearing the scarlet letter.) This chapter contains one of the turning points of
the book, for Hester makes the decision that she must tell Dimmesdale who his enemy is.
Then she informs the "enemy" (Chillingworth) of what she plans to do.
This chapter brings out the following important points:
1. Hester talks with Chillingworth. He tells her that some of the Puritans are
discussing the possibility of permitting her to remove the scarlet letter from her breast.
2. Hester notes how evil Chillingworth has grown to look. (His desire for revenge on
Dimmesdale has done this to him.) The "leech" admits he has become a
3. Because she feels she still has a "duty" toward Dimmesdale, Hester tells
Chillingworth that she must tell the unhappy minister that the physician is the one who is
torturing him, and why.
(c) 1995 Simon & Schuster Nathaniel Hawthorne Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 15 - 20
Chapter XV: "Hester And Pearl"
Hester declares that she hates Chillingworth, for he has done her more wrong than she
has done him. She calls Pearl to her, noting that Pearl has made a green letter
"A" very much like her mother's scarlet letter. For the rest of the day and part
of the following morning Hester is pestered by the questions of Pearl concerning the
meaning of the scarlet letter. The child also asks why the minister keeps his hand over
his heart. As Chillingworth leaves Hester at the edge of the sea, she has unhappy and evil
thoughts about him.
She wonders if a circle of shadow moves along around him as he gathers his herbs. She
says bitterly: "I hate the man!" She tries to stop herself from thinking further
about her dislike of Chillingworth. She remembers her life with him nine years ago in
Europe. Yet every memory that at one time might have been happy now seems to be ugly and
sad. She wonders how she could have been persuaded to marry him. Then she declares aloud:
"He betrayed me!" He has done me worse wrong that I did him!" She is
thinking of the fact that she, an innocent young woman, married an elderly scholar with
whom she had very little in common. Hester herself feels no sorrow for Chillingworth's
misery. All this time, little Pearl is keeping herself busy at the edge of the water. She
flirts with herself in the water-mirror. She makes boats out of birch bark. She captures
tiny sea creatures stranded on the shore. She throws up white foam into the air, chasing
after it as the breeze blows it here and there. Finally, she picks up tiny pebbles and
throws them at beach birds. She believes she has broken the wing of one of the creatures.
Then she settles down to gather seaweed to make herself look like a mermaid. Using
eel-grass she forms a bright green "A". Hester comes on the scene and sees her
child with a green "A" on her breast. She asks the child if she has any idea why
her mother is wearing the scarlet letter. Pearl replies: "It's for the same reason
that the minister keeps his hand over his heart!" She adds that the old man Hester
has been talking with (Chillingworth) will know why the minister does this. For a moment
Hester thinks she may be able to tell Pearl why she does wear the letter on her bosom, but
she finally decides she cannot inform the child. She says that she knows little of the
minister's heart and that she wears the scarlet letter "for the sake of its
gold-thread." This is the first time in seven years that Hester has suggested that
the scarlet letter does not represent adultery. As a part of her penance, she has accepted
freely the meaning given to the letter by the authorities. During the evening, and just
before Pearl goes to bed, Pearl questions her mother about the meaning of the scarlet
letter. In the morning she repeats the question - "Why does the minister keep his
hand over his heart?"
Notice that now Hester has very unpleasant memories of her past life with
Chillingworth. She blames him for marrying her. Pearl, the elf-like child, all this time
has been very much enjoying the sight of her own reflection in the pool of water. Then she
takes eel-grass and forms it into a green letter "A" on her childish breast.
Much of the conversation in this chapter between the mother and child takes place because
of this green letter. Pearl, for some unknown reason, connects her mother's scarlet letter
"A" with the minister's putting his hand over his heart. Hester wonders, at this
point, if she might make a confidant of Pearl. Perhaps she can tell her of some part of
her sorrow. Then she realizes that she cannot do this. When she says to the child that she
wears the symbol "for the sake of its gold-thread," it is the first time she has
ever denied the meaning of her scarlet letter. In the manner of a child, Pearl continues
to question her mother about the meaning of the letter and, also, of the minister's
keeping his hand over his heart. Hester brushes aside the questions.
The following things take place in this chapter:
1. Hester sees Chillingworth as an evil old man. She feels he has "betrayed"
2. Pearl flirts with her reflection in the water and then makes a green letter
"A" out of eel-grass and puts it on her own breast.
3. Hester and Pearl discuss the scarlet letter and where it came from. The child, for
no apparent reason, connects it with Dimmesdale's putting his hand over his heart. Hester
almost decides to share with Pearl some of her sorrow. Then she decides against telling
the little girl the truth about the letter. She answers Pearl's question by saying that
she wears it because of it's gold-thread.
Chapter XVI: "A Forest Walk"
Hester prepares to meet Dimmesdale. Accompanied by Pearl, she walks in the forest and
discusses with the child the Black Man. Pearl stays near the edge of a brook and plays in
the water, while Hester gazes at Dimmesdale walking along with his hand over his heart.
For a few days after her talk with Chillingworth Hester tries to meet Dimmesdale
accidentally on one of his solitary walks. Never do their paths seem to cross. Finally she
hears that he has gone to visit the Apostle Eliot, who is in the forest among the Indians
whom he had converted to Christianity. Hester takes this opportunity to meet him. She and
Pearl walk to the forest. The sunlight dances to and fro among the trees, once in a while
shining on little Pearl - but never shining on Hester. Pearl tells her mother that the
sunlight "will not flee" from her because she wears nothing on her bosom yet.
Hester tells her that she hopes the child will never wear such an ornament on her breast.
Innocently, Pearl asks if the letter will not "come of its own accord" when she
is a grown woman. Her mother answers her by sending her to play in the sunshine. Hester
approaches the child, and as she nears the circle of light the sunshine vanishes. Pearl
then asks her mother to tell her a story about the Black Man. She inquires whether or not
her mother had ever met the famous Black Man. Hester inquires how the child knows about
the Black Man. It seems that, when Hester was watching near a sickbed in a neighboring
house the previous evening, an old woman talked about the Black Man and mentioned that
many people had "written in his book." Mistress Hibbins was one of the persons
said to have written in the Black Man's evil volume. The old woman the previous night also
said (reports the child) that the scarlet letter is the Black Man's mark on Hester. The
child also reports that Hester is said to meet the evil one in the forest at night. Hester
denies having left the child alone and tells her that she had met the Black Man once in
her lifetime. She quietly says: "This scarlet letter is his mark!" All this time
the mother and child have been following the bank of a stream. Pearl speaks to the stream,
asking why its voice is so very sad. The mother tells Pearl she hears a footstep on the
path. She wishes Pearl to play in that place while she goes to speak with the new arrival.
Pearl again asks her mother about the Black Man and suggests that the evil one has placed
a mark on the minister's chest. She asks why the Reverend Dimmesdale does not wear
"his mark" on the outside (on his clothing), as Hester does. Pearl wanders along
listening to the babbling of the stream. Hester, remaining in the shadows cast by the
trees, watches Dimmesdale come toward her along the forest path. She notes his feeble
appearance. He looks aimless, as if he were truly ready to die and be finished with life.
He keeps his hand over his heart.
This brief chapter helps set the stage for Hester's interview with Dimmesdale (which is
the topic of the following two chapters). Hester has chosen the forest as a place where
she might best meet the minister, for they will be less disturbed in the freedom of the
forest than they might be in the town. Chillingworth's "interference" must be
avoided. The minister has been on a visit to the Apostle Eliot, who has spent much of his
life preaching to the Indians and making Christian converts. (John Eliot, Apostle to the
Indians, is an historical personage, described in Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi
Americana.) The use of the sun as a symbol is noted here: Pearl plays in the sunshine, for
she has not sinned; the sunlight disappears when Hester enters the scene, for she has
sinned. The little brook is not only a part of the forest setting; it is used as a
parallel to little Pearl and her life. For instance, the brook comes from a
"mysterious" well-spring and travels through "scenes" shadowed by the
gloomy forest. As for Pearl, her origin is partly mysterious (in so far as the identity of
her father is concerned), and her life with her mother has gloomy moments (when the
Puritan children and their parents are not pleasant toward them). At the end of the
chapter when Hester sees Dimmesdale approach through the forest, the minister looks as if
he were ready to die. Hester has decided to come to his rescue at the right time.
In this connecting chapter the following things happen:
1. Hester prepares to meet Arthur Dimmesdale in the forest, when he returns from seeing
his friend, the Apostle Eliot.
2. The sunshine is all around Pearl, but it disappears when Hester comes near it.
3. Hester and Pearl discuss the Black Man. The mother tells her daughter that the
scarlet letter is "his mark."
4. Pearl begins to connect the Black Man with Hester's scarlet letter, and with the
minister's placing his hand over his heart.
5. Dimmesdale comes down the forest path. He looks as if he would be very glad to die
at any moment. He keeps his hand over his heart.
Chapter XVII: "The Pastor And His Parishioner"
Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale meet in the forest and discuss some of the things
that have been bothering them for the last seven years. This is the first time in the book
that these main characters frankly discuss their situation. They decide to leave the
When Hester first speaks to Dimmesdale in the forest he is very surprised, for he is
not quite sure that a human being is talking to him. Hester's somber clothing and the
heavy foliage cause her to be seen with difficulty. The two lovers address each other
wonderingly - almost as if each doubted that the other lived. In one way, each seems to be
a "ghost" to the other. As one looks into the face of the other, he sees
mirrored some of his own sorrow. Arthur touches Hester's hand. This, at least, makes them
feel they are living creatures in the same world. They sit on a heap of moss and talk in
general terms about the weather and each other's health. Gradually, they approach the
topic on the mind of each, that is, the effect of their sin on their present happiness. He
tells her that he has no peace-he has "nothing but despair." He explains that if
he were a man without conscience, filled with "coarse and brutal instincts," he
would have peace at the moment. He summarizes his position by pitifully saying:
"Hester, I am most miserable!" Hester points out to him that the people
"reverence" him and that he does much good among the members of his
congregation. He answers that he looks inward at himself and sees the "black
reality" which the people are admiring. He says there is great "contrast"
between what he seems and what he is. Hester tells him that his "good works"
have helped prove his repentance - that he should have peace because of them. He says this
is not so. He tells Hester that she wears the scarlet letter "openly" upon her
bosom. His letter "burns in secret" He admits that he is greatly relieved to be
able to look into the eyes of a person (Hester) who sees him for what he is. He wishes he
had one friend (or one enemy) to whom he could daily reveal himself as a sinner. Hester
tells him she could be the friend: then, she tells him that he has an enemy who lives
under the same roof as he. The minister clutches at his heart and is speechless for
awhile. Now Hester realizes how much harm she is responsible for, because she has not told
him of the constant presence of his enemy. She suddenly realizes that Chillingworth's
prodding could very easily push the suffering minister toward insanity. Hester realizes
that she still loves Arthur. The truth dawns upon her. The loss of Dimmesdale's reputation
- even death itself - would be better than the living torment that the unhappy minister is
in at the moment. She tells him that she has been truthful about all things, except for
revealing Chillingworth's identity to him. Then she says: "That old man - the
physician . . . he was my husband!" Dimmesdale throws Hester a black, fierce frown.
Then he sinks to the ground and buries his face in his hands. He says that he should have
known this, for he has found the sight of Chillingworth distasteful. He says:: "Woman
. . . I cannot forgive thee!" Hester cries: "Thou shalt forgive me!" Then
tenderly she throws her arms about him and caresses him. Finally, he says that he forgives
her. Dimmesdale then says that there is one sin worse than his sin (of hypocrisy). That
sin is the vengefulness of Chillingworth. Then the unhappy minister explains why
Chillingworth is a very great sinner. It is because "he has violated, in cold blood,
the sanctity of a human heart." He refers to the old physician's probing into his own
heart. The two sit side by side, hand in hand, gazing at each other. All at once a thought
crosses his mind. He realizes that Chillingworth knows Hester's "purpose to
reveal" his real identity. (Chillingworth will know that Dimmesdale distrusts him.)
The minister wonders if the fiendish old man will keep this a secret. Hester says that she
thinks he will but that he will find other means of annoying Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is
completely frustrated and just about decides to give up hope completely. He asks Hester to
help him. Hester tells him that he does not need to stay in Boston. He can go into the
wilderness, or he can go back to England-or perhaps some other part of Europe. Dimmesdale
says that he is "powerless to go." Hester says he must "begin all
anew!" She even suggests that he might change his name and build a proud reputation
under some other name. He answers that he has "not the strength of courage left"
to go into the "wide, strange, difficult world, alone." She whispers "Thou
shalt not go alone."
This is the first time that Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale have been together
since the midnight watch on the scaffold. At that time they had been observed by Pearl and
Chillingworth. Now they are alone, for Pearl is playing at some distance in the forest. It
is a relief for Dimmesdale to admit to Hester that he is a hypocrite. She comforts him.
But then she startles him by informing him that his friend Chillingworth is his enemy. He
is angry with her for not telling him sooner. Finally, he forgives her. He begins to feel
sad, for he has the idea that there is no hope for him in the future. Hester again
comforts him, explaining that he need not flee alone. The whole chapter is a series of
emotional shifts for Dimmesdale. He is sad; he is angered; he is depressed. In each case,
he is given comfort by Hester. They both agree Chillingworth's sin of vengeance is worse
than any of their sins.
The following things happen in this chapter:
1. Hester and Arthur meet in the forest. He reveals to her that he is filled with
despair. He recognizes that she has had some relief by wearing her scarlet letter on her
bosom. He has hidden his sin and suffers the pangs of conscience alone.
2. Hester tells Arthur that Chillingworth is his enemy and that the old physician is
her husband (Dr. Prynne). Dimmesdale is crushed and angry. Finally, he forgives her.
3. Arthur is too weak to leave Boston alone. They start to plan to leave the colony
Chapter XVIII: "A Flood Of Sunshine"
Hester convinces Arthur that they should leave Boston together. Pearl is called over to
meet the minister.
Hester for seven long years had been looking at life around her from the point of view
of a spectator. Dimmesdale, as a leading clergyman of Boston, looks at the same life that
Hester views, but he is forced by the prejudices of the church to evaluate situations
according to standard patterns of behavior. Hester, in a way, has freed herself by being
solitary. On the other hand, Dimmesdale has become a prisoner of society. At first,
Dimmesdale feels he should not go away from Boston, but finally he changes his mind and
decides that he might enjoy a "better life" with Hester somewhere else. To his
own surprise he feels a sudden joy. He wonders why this decision has not been arrived at
sooner. Hester tells him not to look back. Then she undoes the clasp fastening the scarlet
letter to her bosom, and throws the symbol of shame on top of a pile of withered leaves.
The letter almost falls into a small stream. Just as Dimmesdale immediately found
happiness when he made the decision to go away with Hester, so does Hester find great
relief by removing from her bosom the symbol of adultery. Impulsively, she takes off her
cap and lets her long, dark hair fall around her shoulders. She smiles tenderly. Her
beauty reappears. Then, the sunshine starts to fill the forest around the two happy
people. It would seem as if these two have the sympathy and approval of nature. At this
point, Hester is reminded of little Pearl and tells Arthur that he must see her now with
his new outlook. The minister is afraid that she will shrink away from him. Hester calls
to Pearl who is standing some distance away in the forest. The child starts slowly toward
the mother. The little creatures of the forest do not seem to fear her. A partridge, a
pigeon, a squirrel, a fox - and even a wolf: all look at her and show no fear. Possibly
these wild creatures recognize a "wildness in the human child" very much like
their own. Pearl has gathered flowers. She walks very slowly towards her mother, for she
sees Arthur Dimmesdale.
How Hester changes when she throws aside her scarlet letter! She frees her long hair
from under her close cap. She smiles. She looks tender and womanly. The sun, which always
before stayed away from her, now shines all about her. She is eager to have Pearl and
Arthur meet and love each other. On the other hand, Pearl is not anxious to join her
mother and the minister, for she is not altogether comfortable in the minister's presence.
Also, her mother somehow seems changed. This chapter is a logical introduction to the
following one because it ends as Hester and Arthur discuss Pearl. The next chapter
pictures the three people together.
The following things happen in this chapter:
1. Hester shows that she is a woman of strong character. She persuades Dimmesdale that
he can still be happy, if he will leave Boston with Pearl and her. He is filled with hope
and joy at this idea.
2. Hester removes the scarlet letter from her bosom. Then she lets her hair go free
from under her cap. She smiles and is very feminine - a great contrast to her previous
drab look. Nature is sympathetic to her, for the sunshine suddenly surrounds her.
3. The mother calls Pearl to join them. As she walks slowly toward the waiting pair,
the little girl is casually noticed by several wild animals in the woods. She decorates
herself with wild flowers.
Chapter XIX: "The Child At The Brook-Side"
Hester calls to Pearl, telling the child to join the minister and her. Pearl hesitates
for a long time, staring curiously at her mother. Finally, Hester realizes that Pearl is
upset because the scarlet letter has been removed from her mother's bosom. The child grows
angry, Hester replaces the scarlet letter, and the child joins her parents.
As Hester and Arthur watch Pearl while she is approaching, Hester mentions the fact
that Pearl has inherited from Dimmesdale his "brow." Dimmesdale claims that he
sees his own features in her face-in fact, he has been afraid that "the world might
see them." Hester and Dimmesdale are united in Pearl. She is a "symbol" of
their love. The mother asks the father not to excite the child when he greets her. Hester
feels that finally the child will love its father. Dimmesdale reminds Hester that he is
not at his best with children. He does remember, however, Pearl's caressing his hand in
Governor Bellingham's hall. Pearl stands at the edge of a brook, silently gazing at the
waiting pair, and her reflection in the water is a thing of beauty. In some ways, Hester
feels herself separated from the child. The mother encourages the child to come to her,
but the child does not respond to her. All at once, Dimmesdale places his hand over his
heart. Then, Pearl stretches out her hand and points with her small forefinger at her
mother's breast. (The water-mirror exactly reproduces this scene - a young child,
decorated by flowers, standing in a ray of sunlight and pointing her forefinger toward
some distant object.) Hester again invites the child to come nearer. Pearl points. She
frowns. She stamps her foot. She screams. All this time, Pearl's reflection is seen in the
brook. (It is almost as if there were two children excited about something.) Then, Hester
realizes what is the matter. She says: "Pearl misses something which she has always
seen me wear." Upset, the minister asks Hester to do something to quiet the child. He
adds, "if thou lovest me." (Seldom has Dimmesdale allowed himself to be so
affectionate in speech.) Hester tells the child to bring the scarlet letter to her. The
child refuses. Then Hester takes up the letter and fastens it again to her bosom. She
follows this by confining all of her hair beneath her cap. All at once her feminine
warmness disappears. She is again the same somber Hester that she was earlier in the day.
Then, the child comes to her mother, kisses her and even kisses the scarlet letter. The
mother and child discuss the minister. Pearl wonders if Dimmesdale will return with them
to the town, "hand in hand." Hester says he will not at this time but eventually
the three of them will have a "home and fireside" of their own. Pearl asks the
inevitable question: "And will he always keep his hand over his heart?" Mother
and daughter join the clergyman. He kisses Pearl on the brow. The child runs to the brook
and scrubs the kiss from her forehead. Then, she stays apart from them while they make
arrangements for their future.
How very deep must be Dimmesdale's sense of guilt and hypocrisy if he thinks that
people might recognize his features in little Pearl's face! The minister is almost afraid
of Pearl (as he is of most children), but he does remember her moment of gentleness when
she caressed his hand in Governor Bellingham's hall. Pearl lingers at the edge of a brook
where her reflection is mirrored in a small pool. The child looks almost like another
being, as she hesitates in the sun at the edge of the pool. With childish directness she
points toward what is causing her to be so slow in approaching her mother: it is the
absence of the scarlet letter on Hester's breast. All of this scene is mirrored in the
brook as Pearl has a tantrum-screaming, shrieking, pointing, and stamping. The mirroring
of the scene makes it seem even twice as disturbing as it is. When Hester picks up the
letter and pins it again on her dress, Pearl's anger disappears. But the happiness which
has briefly been Hester's (with the removal of the scarlet letter) is also ended-Hester is
once again a captive to shame and the scorn that society has prescribed for her. (Notice
the pattern of emotional rhythm in this story. Whenever one character is happy, it is more
than likely that there is someone near (or involved with him) who is unhappy. Hawthorne
often writes of contrasts in emotions.)
Notice the following points in this chapter:
1. Hester and Arthur discuss little Pearl's strong affections. The minister is
uncertain how the child will respond to him.
2. Pearl will not approach her mother and Dimmesdale, because Hester has removed the
scarlet letter from her bosom. The child goes into a tantrum, all of which is mirrored in
a pool at the edge of a brook.
3. Hester replaces the letter on her bosom and Pearl rejoins her mother for a while.
Then, the child retreats to a distance while her mother and the minister plan their escape
Chapter XX: "The Minister In A Maze"
Hester and Dimmesdale plan to leave the colony on the fourth day following their
conversation in the forest. When Dimmesdale returns to the town after talking with Hester,
he meets five people (one at a time) and one group of people. He is tempted to say
shocking things to them. When he arrives at his dwelling, he chats with Chillingworth,
informing him that he will need no more of his medicine. Then, he spends the entire night
writing an inspired Election Day Sermon.
At first, when Dimmesdale leaves Hester and Pearl in the forest, he cannot be sure that
what has recently happened is really true. He thinks that perhaps he has been dreaming,
but the sight of Hester and Pearl reminds him that he can take hope for the future. Arthur
and Hester plan to go to the Old World. They plan to set sail on a vessel which has
recently arrived from the Spanish Main. Their first destination will be Bristol, England.
Through her nursing Hester has come to know the captain and some of the crew. Dimmesdale
is happy that they will leave on the fourth day, for on the third day he is "to
preach the Election Sermon." Excited, and filled with energy, Dimmesdale hurries back
to town. Everything he sees looks different to him now, after his talk with Hester. This
is because he himself has changed. Suddenly he has impulses to do strange or wicked
things. First, he meets one of the oldest deacons of his own church. He has to restrain
himself from saying some vile things about the Communion Supper (the taking of the bread
and the wine, one of the most sacred parts of the Puritan church services). Second, as he
walks along he catches up with the "Eldest female member of his church." He
finds that he must stop himself from breathing into her ear an "unanswerable argument
against the immortality of the human soul." He mumbles something to her and she
throws him a look of "divine gratitude and ecstasy." Third, he meets the
youngest female member of his congregation. He is tempted to whisper to her some evil
thought that might eventually mislead her. He acts as if he does not recognize her, and he
hurries onward. Fourth, Dimmesdale meets a group of "little Puritan children."
He is tempted to stop and teach the little ones "wicked words." He restrains
himself. Fifth, he meets a "drunken seaman" from the ship in the harbor. He
wants to shake hands with the sailor and to throw a few oaths back and forth with him. He
again succeeds in restraining himself. Sixth and finally, he meets Mistress Hibbins who
looks very grand, being richly decked out in a gown of velvet. The old woman speaks to him
with great familiarity, suggesting that he has been in the forest to talk with the
"Black Man." Dimmesdale tells her he has been to see his friend, the Apostle
Eliot, who has been converting the Indians to Christianity. Mistress Hibbins does not
believe him. When Dimmesdale reaches his apartment, he looks around the walls. All at once
he realizes that his customary surroundings look strange to him. Again he knows that he is
a different man from the one who left this chamber earlier. A knock comes at the door and
Roger Chillingworth enters. The physician asks about Dimmesdale's health. The minister
then tells him that there will be no more need for Chillingworth's drugs. (He adds
ironically to this the words: "good though they be, and administered by a friendly
hand.") There is something is his tone that tells the old man that the young minister
no longer considers him a "trusted friend," but that he now thinks of the
physician as "his bitterest enemy." However, nothing is said on the surface of
the conversation to indicate that the men are enemies. Chillingworth asks if he might use
his medical powers to help make Dimmesdale "strong and vigorous" in preparation
for the delivery of the Election Sermon on the next day. He adds that the people are
afraid that with the arrival of another year they may find their minister gone. With
double meaning again the minister says, "yea, to another world." (Chillingworth
does not realize at this time that Dimmesdale plans to go to "another world" -
the Old World.) After Chillingworth leaves, Dimmesdale eats a hearty meal. Then he flings
into the fire the Election Sermon he had already begun. With great "thought and
emotion," he composes an inspired sermon. When dawn arrives, he is still writing.
Arthur Dimmesdale has suffered from so many unhappy dreams and visions that it seems
quite natural when he doubts at first that he has just talked with Hester and Pearl in the
forest. He is very pleased that he will be able to deliver the Election Sermon on the day
before they expect to leave for Europe. To be chosen to give this sermon is the highest
honor any minister can have in 17th century Boston. He convinces himself that he is glad
to be able to fulfill his public duty by preaching on this very special occasion.
Actually, he is very proud of himself and is overcome by false humility. (He resembles men
who want to run for high political office, but who tell people that they campaign because
their friends insist on it.) Note how changed everything looks to Dimmesdale when he
returns from the forest, all excited with his plans to l Nathaniel Hawthorne Introduction
to Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter Chapters 21 - 24
Chapter XXI: "The New England Holiday"
The people of Boston have elected a new governor for the coming year. Each year when
the new official is to take office, there is a public holiday. Everyone gathers in his
best clothing in the market-place, and there are games played in the midst of a carnival
atmosphere. The high point of the day is the Election Sermon, to be delivered this year by
Arthur Dimmesdale. Hester and Pearl are the objects of the curiosity of the townspeople,
Indians, and the crew of a vessel which has recently put into port.
Hester and Pearl arrive in the market-place on the day of the holiday. Everywhere
people are walking about. Even the settlers who live on the outskirts of the town have
come to participate in the festivities. Hester is dressed quietly in coarse grey cloth.
Her face is "like a mask." A keen observer might notice a small light in her
face. Inside, she can whisper, "look your last on the scarlet letter and its
wearer!" Hester thinks of herself as being on the high seas in a few hours, leaving
Boston forever. Pearl is brightly dressed. She moves about "with a bird-like
movement." Sometimes she bursts into wild shouts. She comments on all the workmen she
sees in their best clothes. She wonders why Master Brackett, the old jailer, nods and
smiles at her. Her mother tells her the old man remembers her as a child. Pearl notices
the Indians and the sailors, and she wonders why they are there in the market-place. Her
mother explains to her that all of these people are waiting to see the procession pass by.
Pearl wonders if the minister will hold out his hands to her. Her mother tells her that he
will not do this today. Almost to herself, the child comments that the minister is a
"strange, sad man . . . with his hand always over his heart!" Everybody seems to
be filled with joy. The men are participating in sports. Some are wrestling; some are in
friendly matches with the quarter-staff; some are opponents with swords. A party of
Indians and some of the crew of the vessel stand watching the Puritans. The sailors are
rough-looking men, dressed in colorful costumes. The captain of the vessel soon enters the
market-place in conversation with Roger Chillingworth, the physician. The captain is
dressed in a suit covered with ribbons. He has gold lace on his hat, which is also
encircled by a gold chain. The captain sees Hester Prynne, and, recognizing her, speaks to
her. Hester is near no one at the time, for people generally stand away from her. The
commander of the vessel explains to her that one more passenger is to take ship with them.
He feels that he is very fortunate that a doctor will be traveling with them. Hester is
started. The captain continues his conversation, saying that Chillingworth will take ship
with them. (Evidently Chillingworth has suggested that he is a close friend of Dimmesdale,
and so the captain thinks everything will be all right if the physician accompanies his
"friend.") Hester looks up, to see Roger Chillingworth smiling at her from a
distant part of the market-place. His smile fills her with fear.
This chapter contrasts in several ways with the few before it. For instance, the last
chapters have been concerned with the feelings, thoughts, and actions of small groups of
people - often only one or two at a time, such as Hester and Arthur. This chapter is
filled with people - not only members of the Puritan community, but also Indians from the
forest and sailors from the distant seas. By introducing outside elements, such as the
sailors, one is more aware of the world outside Boston; therefore, Hester's "A"
seems a bit less significant. Her trouble seems more like one happening among all the many
happenings in a big world. (Before this, most of the dialogue and action have centered
around Hester's symbol of adultery.) The seamen are described as being lawless in every
way, and Hester's sin seems somewhat mild compared to acts the sailors might daily commit.
This chapter portrays a picture of Puritan times, and it shows how settlers in the New
World enjoy some of the same physical activities as their relatives in the Old. For
example, the people relax by participating in (or watching) sports, such as wrestling,
duels with the quarter staff (long, heavy, iron-tipped poles), and exhibitions with the
sword. After all the varied activity in the market-place is pictured, the action simmers
down again at the end of the chapter, when Hester is horrified to learn that Chillingworth
knows of the planned escape by Arthur, Pearl, and herself. She is visibly distraught at
the idea that he will sail with them.
This chapter contains the following important points:
1. Hester and Pearl come into the market-place where many people have gathered to
celebrate the election of the new governor. There are many people there, including the
townspeople, Indians, and sailors from a vessel in the harbor. All are waiting to see the
procession pass. Hester is quietly dressed; Pearl is brightly clothed.
2. The Puritans enjoy their holiday by watching or playing at sports. They look forward
to the parade of the important members of the community and the soldiers - all of whom
(dressed in their best) will be marching to music.
3. The sailors from the Spanish Main (probably the Caribbean Sea) are pictured in their
bright costumes, as they wander around smoking and drinking. The captain of the vessel is
elaborately dressed, with much decoration.
4. Hester is horrified to learn from the commander of the ship that Chillingworth is to
set sail on the same vessel which she and her two loved ones plan to use to escape from
Chapter XXII: "The Procession"
This important chapter is concerned with a description of the procession; a
conversation between Hester and Pearl about the minister; a series of unpleasant remarks
about Dimmesdale by Mistress Hibbins; and the appreciation by Hester and the other members
of the congregation of Dimmesdale's Election Sermon.
Before Hester can gather her wits about her (after being shocked by the news that
Chillingworth will accompany them on the ship), the procession is heard approaching. First
comes the music, played by the drum and some light woodwind instruments. Pearl is thrilled
at the sound. Next in the procession come the soldiers, most of whom are gentlemen dressed
in soldiers' uniforms. (They resemble the modern National Guard.) They, too, are
brilliantly dressed. Then are seen the magistrates (rulers) of the colony: Bradstreet,
Endicott, Dudley, and Bellingham. The magistrates are followed by the minister who is to
deliver the Election Sermon - Arthur Dimmesdale. He is a different Dimmesdale. His steps
are not feeble; his body is not bent; his hand does not rest upon his heart. There is a
spiritual look upon his face. He looks deep in thought. Hester watches him closely. She
remembers some of their past moments together. He does not seem to be the same man that
she has been encouraging with the thought of escaping Boston. Even little Pearl does not
quite recognize him. She says that, if she had been sure who he was, she would have run to
him and kissed him before all the people. Another observer of the procession is Mistress
Hibbins, who is magnificently dressed with three ruffs around her neck, a gown of costly
velvet, and a gold-headed cane. Mistress Hibbins whispers confidentially, to Hester. She
declares to Hester that Dimmesdale has been a part of the Black Man's group in the forest.
Mistress Hibbins says that Hester wears her token of sin openly. She further declares that
the minister hides his sin "with his hand always over his heart." With a shrill
laugh the old gentlewoman leaves. Hester does not enter the church. She stands near the
scaffold, within listening distance of Dimmesdale who is delivering the sermon in the
church. Although she cannot catch every word Dimmesdale speaks, Hester is aware of the
general tone and spirit of what the minister is saying. She recognizes that a human heart
is trying to reveal its secret, without specifically explaining all the details. While
Hester listens. Pearl wanders about. The ship's master takes from his hat the gold chain
that is twisted about it and throws it to the child. The captain sends a message to Hester
by the child Pearl. It is that Chillingworth says he will bring Dimmesdale on board the
ship with him, and that Hester only need be concerned with Pearl and herself. Hester is
surrounded by people from the country roundabout who had heard about the scarlet letter,
but who had never seen it. These spectators are joined by the sailors and the Indians and
even some of the townspeople. The chapter ends as two of the most important people of the
romance are both being observed-Hester by curious people who are staring at her scarlet
letter, and Dimmesdale by an audience which has been greatly, emotionally effected by his
The procession is one of Hawthorne's ways of bringing many of his characters together.
The procession organized for the festivities before the Election Sermon is of this type.
The music comes first, followed by soldiers (who maintain law and order). The group of
Governors and magistrates then makes its way along. In an honored position follows the
representative of the church (in this case, Arthur Dimmesdale). Hester has helped give
Arthur new courage. He has used this new courage to become more spiritual than ever
before. Thus, he does not see Hester (his inspiration and hope) as he marches in the
procession. One sympathizes with Hester when she faintly resents his not noticing her. Yet
Hester defends Dimmesdale when Mistress Hibbins criticizes him. The old "witch"
has noted the same thing that has often been on little Pearl's mind, that is, the minister
keeps putting his hand over his heart. Dimmesdale's sermon is not summarized for us, but
the general import of it is known as Hester reacts to what she faintly hears. She is aware
of the agony in the minister's voice. The pain in Dimmesdale's heart and soul is evident
in his tones. The minister's anguish is matched by Hester when the ship captain sends a
message to her through Pearl. Chillingworth plans to help Dimmesdale to board the ship.
There seems to be little hope for Hester and Dimmesdale. They are to be followed by the
fiend-Chillingworth. There seems to be no escape.
This dramatic chapter emphasizes the following points:
1. To celebrate the annual holiday for the election of a new governor, there is a
procession of the most important people in Boston. The parade begins with music, which is
followed by soldiers in shining metal uniforms. Next come the political leaders of the
colony (the governor and chief magistrates). At the end of the parade-in the place of
honor-is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, who is to preach the Election Sermon.
2. Hester notices that Arthur seems to have changed in appearance, since their talk in
the forest. He has energy and seems to be concentrating his thoughts on something. He
looks like a man filled with a purpose. Even Pearl sees that he has changed in some way.
Mistress Hibbins talks to Hester and disparages Dimmesdale's sincerity. The old woman is
convinced that the minister puts on a pious front for the public - but that, in reality,
he is a follower of the Black Man in the forest.
3. Dimmesdale delivers the sermon in the meeting-house. Hester leans on the scaffold
and listens to his tones and accents as they faintly come to her muffled by the walls of
the church. Although she cannot clearly hear the words, she recognizes a great depth of
sorrow in the gushing of Dimmesdale's voice.
4. While Hester stands listening, Pearl darts around the market-place. The captain of
the ship in the harbor sends a message to Hester through the child. The message is that
Chillingworth assures the captain that he (Chillingworth) will see that his
"friend" (Dimmesdale) gets on the vessel and that Hester need have no concern
for him. She is horrified.
5. The chapter ends as Hester is surrounded by an unsympathetic circle of curious
people inspecting her scarlet letter. At the same time, Dimmesdale is viewed by an
audience whom he has just fascinated and thrilled with a magnificent Election Sermon.
(What a contrast there is in the ways people are looking at the two people involved in the
Chapter XXIII: "The Revelation Of The Scarlet Letter"
In this dramatic chapter, the procession of officials is seen leaving the
meeting-house. Dimmesdale, no longer charged with energy, shuffles along. As the
procession passes the scaffold, Dimmesdale calls to Hester and Pearl. Although
Chillingworth tries to stop the determined minister, Arthur Dimmesdale climbs to the
platform of the scaffold with Hester and her child. And, in a very straightforward manner,
he confesses to the crowd that he is Pearl's father. Then, he tears away the upper part of
his ministerial garment, revealing a "red stigma." Exhausted and crushed, he
dies, The crowd murmurs in wonder - the revelation (true meaning of) of the scarlet letter
has stunned them.
As the chapter opens. Dimmesdale has just brought his sermon to a close. The audience
is still. Then, it pours out into the market-place. In the open air the excited listeners
begin to explain to each other how wonderful this Election Sermon has been. The subject of
the sermon was the relationship between God and man, with special reference to mankind in
New England. At the end of the sermon Dimmesdale prophesied a glorious future for the
people of the Boston colony. The whole sermon had an undertone of sadness - almost as if
their beloved minister were bidding good - by to them before starting out on a journey.
(This journey might well be death.) At this time, Arthur Dimmesdale stands at the most
triumphant moment of his existence. This is the high point of his career as a minister. He
bows his head on the cushions of the pulpit, as the members of his congregation look at
him idolatrously. (Meanwhile, Hester Prynne is outside the meeting-house, and is circled
by a curious group of spectators staring at the scarlet letter.) Now the music begins
again, and the "military escort" falls into place. The procession has started.
The magistrates and the governor, as well as the Boston ministers, are on their way to the
town-hall, where they will enjoy a "solemn banquet" to round out the ceremonies
of the day. In the middle of the market-place the parade is greeted by a loud roar of
approval. The man who is being cheered most enthusiastically by the townspeople is Arthur
Dimmesdale. All eyes turn toward him. The shouting dies into a murmur. He has changed
within the last few minutes. His energy seems gone. His cheeks are pale. He walks as if he
might fall at any moment. Reverend John Wilson offers to help him, but Dimmesdale refuse
said. Now he is opposite the scaffold. Dimmesdale pauses. The music being played for the
procession urges him to continue "onward to the festival." But he stops.
Governor Bellingham, upset, leaves his place in the procession, in order to offer aid to
Dimmesdale. The minister gives the magistrate a look that causes him to return to his
original position among the other magistrates. Then Arthur Dimmesdale turns toward the
scaffold, stretches forth his arms and says: "Hester, come hither! Come, come, my
little Pearl!" He gives them a look full of terderness. Pearl runs to him and clasps
her arms about his knees. Hester draws near him, but pauses before she reaches him.
Suddenly, Roger Chillingworth pushes through the crowd and catches Dimmesdale by the arm,
whispering: "Madman, hold! What is your purpose? Wave back that woman! Cast off this
child! All shall be well!" Dimmensdale says: "Thou art too late!" He
continues: "With God's help I shall escape thee now!" Then Dimmesdale calls on
Hester to give him her "strength." He wants not only her spiritual strength, but
he wishes her physical strength, so that she might help him climb to the platform of the
scaffold. The crowd goes wild. They do not want to recognize the solution to this puzzle:
they cannot allow themselves to believe that Dimmesdale has a close relationship to Hester
and Pearl. There are four people now standing on the scaffold-Hester, Arthur, Pearl and
Roger Chillingworth. (Chillingworth finds he must be with the people he has been so
closely associated with.) Dimmesdale tells Hester that he is about to die. He wishes to
share her "shame." Then, he passionately denounces himself to the spectators, as
he reveals that he is Pearl's father. He explains that he has his own "red
stigma" very much like Hester's scarlet letter. With a violent motion he tears away
the "ministerial band" at the top of his garment. The audience is shocked.
(Evidently, Dimmesdale has been punishing himself by mutilating the flesh of his breast,
sketching out a letter very much like Hester's scarlet letter "A.") Dimmesdale
sinks to the platform of the scaffold. Hester helps prevent him from falling.
Chillingworth kneels beside him, saying, "Thou hast escaped me!" Dimmesdale asks
God's forgiveness for the physician, adding that Chillingworth has also "deeply
sinned." (This, of course, is a reference to Chillingworth's desire for revenge.)
Dimmesdale invites Pearl to kiss him. She does. Then the child cries, the tears flowing
"upon her father's cheek." Hester wonders if she and Arthur will meet again in
another life. Dimmesdale fears that they may not. He is grateful that God has been
merciful to him by giving him the "burning torture to bear" upon his breast, by
sending Chillingworth to torment him, and by encouraging him to confess on the scaffold.
Then Arthur Dimmesdale dies.
This is probably the most dramatic chapter of the entire book. It is filled with high
points. Dimmesdale finishes his sermon, and the people are almost stunned into silence
with admiration at his brilliant, inspired thoughts. Then, they outdo each other, loudly
declaring that never before has man spoken so well. The procession of prominent people
threads its way through the excited people. The townspeople cheer. Suddenly, in great
contrast, is seen the changed figure of the minister. He no longer is strong and hearty.
He almost staggers. How he has changed from what he was a few minutes ago - at the end of
his triumphant sermon. He totters on his feet. Evidently, he is gathering his courage to
do the thing which has represented horror and disgrace to him: he is about to confess. How
dramatic is his beckoning to Hester and Pearl to join him! Even more dramatic is Roger
Chillingworth's attempt to stop Dimmesdale from confessing. When the feeble minister calls
upon Hester to help him climb the steps of the scaffold, the crowd is very curious.
Chillingworth instinctively follows them up the stairs to the platform of the scaffold,
for he has been one of the "actors" in this "drama of guilt and
sorrow." Dimmesdale refers to his "own red stigma," and then he pushes
aside his clerical neckpiece and reveals it to the "horror-stricken multitude."
(One never knows exactly what Dimmesdale's "stigma" is, but it might resemble
the marke of a branding iron formed into the letter "A." The minister refers to
it as being the "type" of what has "seared" his own heart.) Arthur
Dimmesdale has thus gained a strange sort of humility. He has faced up to the situation -
that is, he has freely admitted his part in Hester's sin. He believes that he and Hester
may never meet in a life after death. He is even grateful for the torture he has been
through, for he feels that he has been saved (and forgiven, through his torment. Thus, he
dies, believing he has paid the price for his sin through his suffering.
This chapter contains the following dramatic happenings:
1. Dimmesdale concludes his Election Sermon which is cheered by the townspeople in the
2. The procession starts to leave for the town-hall where a banquet is to close the
ceremonies of the day. People suddenly notice that Dimmesdale no longer is filled with
great energy; he seems weak and tottering.
3. Dimmesdale stops opposite the scaffold and calls Hester and Pearl to his side.
Chillingworth tries to stop him, but he pays no attention to the old physician. Then they
all mount the steps of the scaffold, Hester helping Arthur (who has Pearl's hand clasped
in his), with Chillingworth irresistibly drawn along behind them. Dimmesdale informs the
amazed townspeople that he is Pearl's father. He stuns them by tearing away the clerical
cloth around his neck and revealing his "red stigma" (an unhealed wound probably
formed in the shape of the letter "A"). Then, solemnly saying farewell, Arthur
Chapter XXIV: "Conclusion"
The story is brought to a close as Hawthorne explains different points of view about
what happened on the scaffold after the Election Sermon. Chillingworth dies, leaving a
great deal of property to Pearl. Hester and Pearl leave Boston. Later Hester returns
alone. She lives in the same house in which she had lived previously. Unhappy women in
Boston come to her for advice. It is believed that Pearl has been married in Europe.
Hester dies and is buried beside Dimmesdale.
Most of the spectators who watch and listen to Dimmesdale on the scaffold later agree
that they had seen a scarlet letter on his breast. There is a variety of opinion as to how
the letter came to be there. Some people believe Dimmesdale inflicted it on himself, as he
daily endured torture with the knife. Others feel that the avenger, Chillingworth, had
caused the letter to appear through the use of magic and drugs. Still others feel that
remorse, "gnawing" from Dimmesdale's heart outward, finally appeared on the
surface of his breast in the form of a scarlet letter. A few people insist that Dimmesdale
had no mark on his breast and that he spoke with Hester on the scaffold, to point out to
the spectators that he humbly considered himself a sinner. The moral of the story is taken
from Dimmesdale's experience. It is: "Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your
worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!" After Dimmesdale's death
Chillingworth loses his sense of direction. He has concentrated on revenge, and now that
there can be no more revenge he loses his purpose in life. He has nothing to do. Within
the year he dies, leaving Pearl a large amount of property both in America and in England.
Pearl becomes "the richest heiress of her day in the New World." (Hawthorne
suggests that now the child might marry into any devout Puritan family, for her money
makes her very attractive.) Hester and Pearl soon leave the colony and are not heard of
for a number of years. Finally, Hester reappears in Boston and takes up residence in the
same little cottage she had occupied before. She even wears a scarlet letter on her
breast. Pearl is not with her. People are not sure if she is alive or not, but gifts and
letters come from Europe for Hester, indicating that someone of wealth has affection for
her. Hester occupies a respected position in the Boston community. People bring their
problems to her, particularly women unhappy in love. Hester soothes them. After many years
Hester Prynne dies and is placed beside Arthur Dimmesdale in the burial-ground. One
tombstone serves both the lovers. How very suitable it is that the inscription (concerning
a scarlet letter on a black background) should at last bring the two lovers together.
And so Hawthorne draws the threads of his story together, making sure that most of the
reader's questions are answered. The spectators who witnessed Dimmesdale's confession on
the scaffold do not all later agree as to what they have seen. Most of them agree that
there was on Dimmesdale's breast a scarlet letter very much like Hester Prynne's. However,
his was "imprinted in the flesh." Since people often only see what they want to
see - and also believe only what they want to believe - there are different versions of
this part of the tale. Some clearly saw; others definitely did not. Among those who saw,
opinion is divided as to how the "red stigma" happened to appear on the
minister's breast. Chillingworth has fed his whole soul on revenge. When Dimmesdale passes
away, there is no longer anyone to have revenge on, so he dies within the year. He has
much wealth (in property) which he wills to Pearl. Hester and Pearl disappear from Boston.
In later years, Hester returns alone to her small cottage by the seashore where she again
wears her scarlet letter "A" and does many good deeds and gives good advice,
especially to the women who suffer in love affairs-or for lack of them. Letters and fine
gifts from Europe indicate that someone there cares for Hester. On Hester's death, she is
buried near Dimmesdale. The same tombstone serves both lovers.
The following points are made in this concluding chapter:
1. Opinions vary as to what happened on the scaffold. Most people later agree there was
some sort of a scarlet letter imprinted in Dimmesdale's flesh. People have different ideas
as to how the letter arrived there. Some insist that Dimmesdale inflicted the wound upon
himself. Others believe that Chillingworth "caused it to appear," by the use of
magic and poisonous drugs. Still others feel that the "tooth of remorse" gnawed
from Dimmesdale's guilty heart outward until it could be seen on the minister's breast.
Then there are others who (due to a certain sense of loyalty toward Dimmesdale) deny
"that there was any mark whatever on his breast." This group also refuses to
admit that the minister had any connection with Hester Prynne's scarlet letter. (They
explain that his calling Hester and Pearl to the scaffold with him was due to his great
humility; he wished to point out to people that "we are sinners all alike.")
2. Hawthorne indicates that the moral of the story is based upon Arthur Dimmesdale's
experience with sin and hypocrisy. The point of it is that one should be truthful about
oneself and show the world at least some typical part of his sin.
3. When Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth loses his purpose in life-revenge. Within the
year, he dies, leaving much property in America and Europe to Pearl.
4. Hester and Pearl shortly disappear from the colony. Years later, Hester returns to
Boston to live alone in her small cottage by the seashore. She always wears the scarlet
letter "A." It is thought that Pearl has married in Europe. Hester often
receives costly gifts from abroad. Hester becomes a gentle comforter to women who come to
her for help, especially for advice about unhappy love affairs. Finally, Hester Prynne
dies and is buried beside Arthur Dimmesdale in the burial-ground near King's Chapel. Their
tombstone reads: "On a field, black, the letter A, red."
(c) 1995 Simon & Schuster Nathaniel Hawthorne Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter Character Analyses
Hester Prynne, Boston adultress, is first seen (in Chapter II) as she comes from
prison. The picture we have of her is almost as if it were in the words of one of the
spectators who explains what he saw to someone who had to stay at home. The reporting
spectator might say: "The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on
a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine
with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and
richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black
eyes. She was lady-like, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility . . .
characterized by a certain state and dignity . . . And never had Hester Prynne appeared
more lady-like . . . than as she issued from the prison . . . her beauty shone out. . .
." The reporter continues about her clothing, saying that it "seemed to express
the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild . . .
peculiarity. But the point which drew all eyes...was that Scarlet Letter, so fantastically
embroidered . . . upon her bosom." The excited spectator finishes off his report by
explaining that Hester Prynne seemed separated from everyone by the scarlet letter
"A" on her bosom. She is separated from mankind. She appears dignified - almost
pridefully so - but her spirit inside droops, and her heart is filled with agony. Finding
no relief from the outside world, Hester has to seek help from the inside world - the
world of her memories and her imagination. Thus, depending on her thoughts, she bears up
under the public indignation at her adultery.
Throughout the story, Hester generally remains silent, accepting the abuse of Puritan
parent and child alike. Only when public criticism threatens her two loved ones (Pearl and
Dimmesdale) does she speak up to the Boston townspeople. She defends her capability to
care for Pearl when she talks with Governor Bellingham, one of the people planning to take
the child from her. She speaks strongly to Chillingworth about his torturing Dimmesdale.
She encourages Dimmesdale to flee the colony. She is well-known for her submissiveness,
for she never complains. She nurses and aids the poor; in return, they say bitter things
to her; yet she accepts it all. She sews gorgeous garments for the Boston magistrates, and
she wears very plain, coarse clothing. She submits to everything-on the outside. But
inside, she is a different person. She feels that she is paying for her sin of adultery by
accepting the unpleasant criticism of the townspeople, as well as by wearing the scarlet
letter "A" on her breast. She submits every day; but inwardly, she is not truly
sorry for her sin. She is isolated from her fellow human beings; she has little left to do
but to think. Think, she does. She speculates about woman's place in the world. If she
were not a sinner (having lost her good name through adultery), she would very likely be a
leading fighter for women's rights (feminism). She has few fears, for she has reached the
bottom of the social ladder. Her one proud possession is her daughter, little Pearl, whom
she dresses in brilliant colors representing her own spirit of inward resistance, although
the child is the living symbol of her adultery. Since Hester is open to criticism from
anyone in town, she finds she must appear unemotional. She wears her hair under a
tight-fitting cap. Her natural womanly manner is completely covered. Only when she is with
Pearl does she seem impulsive and warm. Otherwise, the public views her as a cold,
bloodless statue. Since Hester speaks relatively little, her few remarks are well chosen
and well phrased. She speaks with calm detachment when she discusses Arthur Dimmesdale
with Roger Chillingworth. After the physician has left her, she does break out with one
bitter remark: "I hate the man!" When Hester feels the freedom of the forest,
she relaxes to some extent. Prying eyes do not observe her there. As she removes her
scarlet letter "A" and lets down her long, dark hair from under her cap, she is
immediately changed. Her feminine qualities, her youth, her beauty - all return to her.
Then, at last, the sunshine pours down upon Hester. (The sun has always lingered around
little Pearl, but it always has disappeared with the approach of Hester and her scarlet
letter.) The story has a fitting ending, as one pictures Hester Prynne living to a ripe
old age, always being helpful to those less fortunate than she, always consoling women
whose hearts are filled with grief from unhappy love affairs - and always wearing her
symbol (for "adultress" turned to "able"): the scarlet letter.
Hester Prynne's guilty partner in sin, Arthur Dimmesdale, does not make his appearance
in the story until well into Chapter III. He is first seen through the eyes of the crowd
viewing Hester Prynne's penance on the scaffold. He is pictured as if he were being
described by one of the spectators for the benefit of a watcher of short stature - one who
is not tall enough to be able to see easily the impressive young minister. The running
account goes something like this: The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is a "young
clergyman . . . from one of the great English universities, bringing all of the learning
of the age into our wild forest-land. . . . A person of very striking aspect, with a
while, lofty . . . brow, large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth . . . expressing . . .
a vast power of self-restraint. . . . An air about this young minister - an apprehensive,
a startled, a half-frightened look - as of a being . . . quite astray and at a loss in the
pathway of human existence . . . only . . . at ease in some seclusion of his own. Arthur
Dimmesdale often speaks in a voice which is "sweet, rich, deep, and broken." His
message comes out through the sound of his voice, rather than through his voice. As the
story progresses, Dimmesdale is very often found holding his hand over his heart. (It is
very likely that he has a physical pain in the region of his heart, for in Chapter XXIII
he reveals to the audience a red stigma - an unhealed wound in the form of a scarlet
letter-over his heart). Gradually he becomes more careworn, and his eyes have "a
world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depths." In a conversation in
Chillingworth's laboratory, Dimmesdale explains (in a veiled manner) why he cannot confess
his part in Hester's sin. It is because he cannot reveal his sinfulness and then be
allowed to keep on doing good works for men. People would be repulsed by him; they would
have no more to do with him. (This explanation is made, of course, as a reason why men -
in general - do not confess their sins. Chillingworth suspects that the minister is the
man he is looking for; but it is only later in the same chapter that he knows for sure,
when he examines the wounded breast of the sleeping Dimmesdale.) Arthur Dimmesdale begins
to feel distrustful of Roger Chillingworth, although he can find no definite reason for
this feeling. Dimmesdale is very popular as a minister. One strong reason for this is his
sympathy for mankind. His own sinful act had made him aware of the state of mind of the
ordinary sinner. He communicates this sense of deep sympathy so that people begin to
idolize him. Over and over again, he starts to confess his sin as he faces his Sunday
congregation. In general terms, he speaks of his own great sin - but he always takes the
coward's way out at the end of the sermon; and thus he finishes without really confessing
anything. Members of his parish return home from church declaring to each other how great
their own sins must be - if their sainted Reverend Dimmesdale considers himself a sinner.
Dimmesdale, the hyprocrite, eases his conscience by his midnight watches, alone in his
chamber. Sometimes he scourges himself; sometimes he goes without food; and sometimes he
closely examines his face in a well-lighted mirror. Since he knows himself to be a
hypocrite, he is often quietly suspicious of the motives of people about him. Unable to
endure his solitary guilt, in the middle of one May night he climbs the scaffold (where
Hester stood in penance) and shrieks aloud-almost hoping he might be heard and discovered,
and thus end his misery. He does make some progress toward his later confession, however,
for he and Hester together hold little Pearl's hands, and he feels closer to the two than
he has felt for some time. Later in the forest, Arthur tells Hester of his great suffering
- of his remorse and the pangs of conscience which torment him. When Hester informs him
that Chillingworth is his enemy, he rouses himself enough to be angry at her for not
telling him sooner. Using her womanly tenderness, she gains his forgiveness. Then, the
weak Dimmesdale begins to depend on the strong Hester for moral support. She persuades him
that he and she (and Pearl) can flee the colony. He takes heart. Here Dimmesdale begins to
make some rapid changes in his point of view. On his way home from the forest, he is
tempted to speak shocking words to Puritan men, women, and children as well as to the
sailors of the vessel he plans to sail on. His experience with Hester has started to free
him. He is actually exhilarated. After eating a hearty meal, he writes an
"inspirational sermon. Then a curious thing happens. He has received hope from
Hester. He transfers this hope for the future into religious terms. On the way to deliver
the Election Sermon he is so spiritually exalted that he does not even notice Hester as he
passes her. (He is an important part of the procession.) Hester knows that she has helped
place him in this inspirational mood. She somewhat resents his inability to acknowledge
her. On the day before his departure for the Old World and a new life, Dimmesdale arrives
at the high point of his religious career - the delivery of the Election Sermon. His pride
causes him to want this highest of honors accorded to Puritan ministers. Very likely, his
preparation for the sermon has so inspired him that he then finds the courage to confess
his share of hester Prynne's sin. After his confession he dies a happy man, in that he
feels he is now acceptable in God's eyes. His hypocrisy should be forgiven (according to
Puritan doctrines) because he has humbled himself and revealed his sin. Hester Prynne has
won her peace of mind by being forced to submit publicly to people's harsh criticism.
Dimmesdale wins his peace finally by a comparable revelation of his part in the sin.
The villian of the story, Roger Chillingworth, makes his first appearance in Chapter
III. He is seen by Hester Prynne when she is on the scaffold fulfilling her penance. He is
described as if she were talking to herself in a hurried manner. Fist, she notes a
"white man, clad in a strange disarray of civilized and savage costume,"
standing on the edge of the crowd. He is short and has a wrinkled brow. There is a
"remarkable intelligence in his features." One of his shoulders rises higher
than the other. He is not yet old enough to be termed "aged." For some time in
the story, he is called the "stranger." Later, he takes the name "Roger
Chillingworth," though he actually is Dr. Prynne (Hester's husband). In Europe he
studied alchemy; in the American wilderness he has experimented with herbs used by the
Indians. Thus, he is able to fit nicely into the Puritan community as a doctor. (He is
sometimes referred to as the "leech.") In the prison, he tries to force Hester
to tell him the name of her lover. This she will not do. He then promises vengeance on the
soul of the unknown man, the father of Pearl. He says he will not prosecute Hester-he will
let the scarlet letter "A" on her bosom do that for him. As time passes, Roger
Chillingworth's physical appearance changes for the worse. Hester sees him at Governor
Bellingham's mansion. His features have become "uglier"; his dark complexion has
become "duskier"; and his figure has become even more "misshapen."
After Dimmesdale offers his series of logical reasons why Pearl should not be removed from
Hester's care, Chillingworth throws out his first remark to the minister, which suggests
that the physician begins to suspect that the minister is the guilty man he is searching
for. He says that Dimmesdale speaks "with a strange earnestness." Chapter IX,
"The Leech," explains much about Chillingworth. He becomes the minister's
physician. The two men spend much time together walking and talking. Chillingworth moves
into the same house with Dimmesdale, and the "leech" sets up a laboratory.
In Chapter X, entitled "The Leech and His Patient," the two men are in
conversation about sin and the value of confession. Subtly, the physician points out to
Dimmesdale that a "false show" (hiding sin) must not be preferred to "God's
own truth" (confession). At this time, little Pearl sees Chillingworth and calls him
the "old Black Man." (This expression is often used for Chillingworth when Pearl
speaks of him later in the tale.) When the "leech" sees Dimmesdale's breast
(with the red, unhealed wound in the flesh), he resembles Satan in great joy looking at a
lost soul entering his kingdom of hell. This same look of the "arch-fiend" is
repeated when Chillingworth stands in the market-place in the middle of the night,
observing Pearl with her mother and father. The light of the meteor reveals
Chillingworth's expression-first with a smile, then with a scowl. The physician guesses at
the state of mind which sends Dimmesdale out into the night. Hypocritically, he cautions
Dimmesdale about studying too many books that trouble his brain-causing him to wander
about in the night. When Hester Prynne decides that she must talk with Chillingworth about
Dimmesdale, she goes to meet him by the seashore. She notes that in seven years he has
lost his "studious" appearance and has taken on an "eager, searching,
almost fierce, yet carefully guarded look." He covers this expression "with a
smile." Sometimes a "glare of red light" gleams out of his eyes. He has
changed himself "into a devil" by "devoting himself to the constant
analysis of a heart full of torture." He has enjoyed this analysis, gloating all the
while. Telling Hester how he feels about Dimmesdale, he describes himself as a
"fiend." He feels it is his "fate" to torment the minister. After he
leaves Hester, she looks after him and declares aloud how she hates him, for he has done
her "worse wrong" than she had done him. (She believes that he, an older man,
should never have married, her, a young woman.) Hester reveals to Arthur the identity of
his false "friend." Then, Dimmesdale makes a dramatic statement about the
fiendish Chillingworth: "That old man's revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has
violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart." (Most readers agree with the
minister that the sin of revenge, an act of intellectual pride, is worse than the sin of
hypocrisy.) Chillingworth is last seen when, at the edge of the scaffold, he tries to
prevent Dimmesdale from making a public confession. Dimmesdale calls him
"tempter," declaring that he will "escape" him. When the determined
minister mounts the steps of the scaffold, he is followed by Chillingworth who has been so
closely "connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow" that he seems
"entitled . . . to be present at its closing scene." After Dimmesdale confesses
and dies, Roger Chillingworth loses his purpose in life. Within the year, Chillingworth -
the avenger, the "fiend" - dies, leaving considerable property in Europe and
America to Pearl. Dimmesdale, dying on the scaffold, cries out that God has shown mercy
toward him, by sending Chillingworth, that "dark and terrible old man, to keep the
torture always at red-heat!"
Descriptions of little Pearl, Hester Prynne's child of sin, form a rich part of the
story. With rare exception, wherever the mother is found, the child is also there. (The
very first picture one has of Hester is in Chapter II, when the town official escorts her
from the prison so that the townspeople might see her. Pearl is there also - "a baby
of some three months old," winking and turning her little face from the bright sun.)
As Pearl grows older, her mother dresses her in "fanciful" clothing of bright
colors, adding to the strange charm the child already possesses. In Chapter VI, entitled
"Pearl," there is a full-length picture of young Pearl. She is described as a
"lovely . . . flower," having sprung from a "guilty passion." Little
Pearl has beauty; she has intelligence; she has physical gracefulness. Her mother has
named her Pearl, "as being of great price. . . her mother's only treasure!" If
she is crossed in any way, the child flies into a passion. She obeys no rules unless she
wishes to do so. Her moods change quickly. At one moment, she is wild, desperate, defiant,
and filled with bad temper and gloom; then, suddenly, she can change into the sunny, happy
child who wants to assure her mother of her love by kissing and caressing her. Pearl seems
to have no set standard to govern her own behavior - she reacts according to her
particular feeling of the moment. She has a "certain peculiar look" on her face
which sometimes causes Hester to question whether or not Pearl is a "human
child" or a being from another world (like a "little elf"). Her eyes are
"wild, bright, deeply-black." She is described as an "imp of evil, emblem
and product of sin." The Puritan children flee in fear when resentful Pearl chases
after them, flinging stones and shrill words at them. (She is in as much social isolation
as that in which her mother finds herself.) Once, Hester is frightened when she looks into
the "mirror of Pearl's eyes." She sees a "freakish, elfish" look
there; then, she believes she sees a "face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice,"
peeping out at her. In the headpiece of the armor in Governor Bellingham's hall, Hester is
disturbed to see Pearl's expression, as it is reflected in the metal mirror. The child has
an "elfish" look of "naughty merriment," as if an "imp" were
"seeking to mould itself into Pearl's shape." Attracted by the brightness of her
mother's scarlet letter, the three-year-old Pearl plays games, flinging wildflowers at her
mother's symbol of sin. When Pearl playfully declares that she has "no Heavenly
Father," Hester remembers that some of the townspeople regard Pearl as an offspring
of the devil. When Pearl is seven years old, she joins hands with her mother and father on
the scaffold in the middle of the night. At this time, she asks the minister if he will
join hands with her mother and her in the daylight of the next day. It is Pearl who points
her finger toward Roger Chillingworth, making him a part of the dramatic scene, when the
meteor reveals his presence nearby. (She often acts as a linking character, connecting
different combinations of people through her childlike, penetrating comments-such as her
comment that her mother wears the scarlet letter for the same reason that the
"minister keeps his hand over his heart.") Consider Pearl as an influence on her
mother's conduct; for example, Hester without a helpless child to protect and guide might
not accept her punishment quite so passively as she seems to. Sometimes Pearl is fanciful
to the point that she is almost amusing. For instance, while her mother talks with Roger
Chillingworth near the seashore, the imaginative child makes herself a mermaid's costume
out of seaweed. Then, as a crowning touch, she gathers some eel-grass and makes for
herself a green letter "A," imitating as closely as possible her mother's
scarlet letter. Pearl often plays in the sunshine; whereas, in contrast to this, the
sunshine will not shine directly on Hester, The child is so close to nature that the
little animals (in the forest scene), such as partridges, pigeons, and squirrels, almost
completely ignore her when she is passing by them. They recognize a "wildness in the
human child" comparable to their own. During the interview in the forest between
Hester and Arthur, the mother calls Pearl to her side. The child refuses to come near her
mother, because she misses the sight of the scarlet letter which Hester has cast off.
Hester replaces the letter and the child joins her. (How interesting this scene is, for
the child and the letter parallel each other; both represent the mother's sin - the child
being a physical representation and the scarlet letter being a symbol.) During the
festivities of the New England Holiday, it is Pearl who describes Dimmesdale. She remarks
that in the dark nighttime and in the forest he is one type of person (friendly and
loving); in the "sunny day," he is a different sort of man, for he does not know
them. She remarks: "A strange, sad man is he, with his hand always over his
heart!" (Pearl is a very sympathetic person in that she does sense unusual aspects of
situations, such as Dimmesdale's different behavior in different places.) As the story
nears its conclusion, there is little dialogue from Pearl who senses situations through
intuition (that is, knowledge without reasoning). At the end of the tale, most of the
threads of the plot are unraveled (Dimmesdale learns Chillingworth's true identity; Hester
plans to escape with her lover and her child; Dimmesdale confesses his sin). Pearl, by
instinct, has supposed some things to be true which are true. At the end of the story, the
duties of Pearl, Hester's "messenger of anguish," seem to be at an end.
Chillingworth has left Pearl a considerable amount of property in England and in America.
She is wealthy. The close of the tale finds Pearl far from Boston (no longer with her
mother), very likely happily married with a child of her own.
All of Hawthorne's works of long fiction feature four main characters - two men and two
women. Although the reader often has the feeling that the story involves many people, when
a list of characters is made there are found to be very few characters except the main
four. (Hawthorne gives the impression of large numbers by including people in crowd
scenes, such as in processions and groups of town people.) Mistress Hibbins is perhaps one
of the most interesting of the minor characters in The Scarlet Letter. She is Governor
Bellingham's "bitter-tempered sister," who a few years after the main action of
the story is "executed as a witch." The "witch-lady," Mistress
Hibbins, often talks of a "merry company in the forest" which meets at night
with the "Black Man." Mistress Hibbins is a very specialized type of character,
for she is a caricature type. (A caricature is a picture or description in which physical
features, personality, or dress are so exaggerated that an absurd effect is produced.) In
the matter of physical appearance, Governor Bellingham's sister looks like many other
people. It is in the matter of her dress and personality (revealed through her actions)
that she differs. Whenever she meets Hester Prynne, she feels called upon to invite Hester
to join the Black Man and his company in the forest. Her repeated invitation forms sort of
a "tag line," that is, a speech that the reader begins to associate with her.
(Compare this with "tag lines" used by theatre and television actors, who
identify themselves for an audience by having their own special catch-words or phrases.)
Each character in the story views what he sees or hears, in the light of his own
experience. In Chapter XII, when Mistress Hibbins hears Dimmesdale's cry in the night
(from the scaffold), she thinks she is hearing the cries of "fiends and
night-hags," with whom she is said to associate during her midnight excursions into
the forest. One of the most dramatic scenes, in which the "sour and
discontented" Mistress Hibbins takes part, occurs at the time when Dimmesdale returns
from his forest interview with Hester (in Chapter XX). She accuses the minister of
returning from a meeting with the Black Man of the forest. He explains that he has been
visiting his pious friend, John Eliot (which is, to some extent, true). She answers to the
effect that he lies very well. Mistress Hibbins sees Dimmesdale in the procession and
confides to Hester that the pious minister in the procession is very much of a contrast
with the Arthur Dimmesdale she knows who dances during the forest festivities of the Black
Man. The Governor's sister points out to Hester that she (Hester) wears her scarlet letter
"openly," but that Dimmesdale "seeks to hide" something, "with
his hand over his heart." Another aspect of Mistress Hibbins as a caricature
character is the matter of her dress-her choice of clothing. She lives among Puritan folk
who by law are required to wear somber clothing. (Even the magistrates wear their rich
garments only at important ceremonial occasions.) At least twice, Mistress Hibbins is seen
gorgeously dressed. First, she is seen by Dimmesdale on his return from the forest. She
makes a "very grand appearance; having on a high head-dress, a rich gown of velvet,
and a ruff done up with . . . yellow starch." During the New England Holiday
festivities, she is seen "arrayed in great magnificence, with a triple ruff, a
broidered stomacher, a gown of rich velvet, and a gold-headed cane." (A
"ruff" is a wheel-shaped stiff collar, worn by men and women in Puritan times; a
"stomacher" is the heavily embroidered or jeweled front part of a garment worn
by elaborately-dressed women of Mistress Hibbins' day.) Both through her actions and her
speech, Governor Bellingham's sister, Mistress Hibbins, is a caricature. She adds variety
and color to the story; because her comments do not necessarily need to be logical in
their content, she is allowed to react instinctively (and sometimes correctly) to the
Governor Bellingham is a minor character who represents the law. A chief magistrate, he
is seen first when Hester is brought to the scaffold for her penance. He is on the
balcony, surrounded by representatives of the state and church. He wears a "dark
feather in his hat, a border of embroidery on his cloak, and a black velvet tunic
beneath." He is a man "advanced in years, with . . . hard experience written in
his wrinkles" - a man well suited to be the "head and representative" of
the Boston community. (Because he is the Governor, and because he represents the authority
of the community on special occasions, he is particularly elaborately dressed.) The
Governor's mansion, which Hester and Pearl visit, is a spacious, stucco-covered building.
The furnishings in the main hall resemble those found in houses of wealthy gentlemen in
England. The suit of armor on the wall was made for Governor Bellingham the same year that
he left London to come to New England. He is proud of his garden and takes pleasure in
showing it off to visitors, as he does when the Reverends John Wilson and Arthur
Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth visit him. The Governor is very interested in
religious matters and feels it his duty to instruct Reverend Wilson to question Pearl
closely regarding her home training in religion. When Pearl refuses to answer his
questions, the Governor is greatly disturbed; he is finally satisfied when Reverend
Dimmesdale explains to him that the child will be a great help in saving Hester from more
sin. At the end of the story, Governor Bellingham is seen in the procession with the other
magistrates. He and his fellow magistrates are described as being men of good size,
physically, as well as men of "self-reliance." Governor Bellingham is a
relatively kindly man of authority who represents the authority of the state, as compared
with Reverends Dimmesdale and Wilson who represent the authority of the church.
The Reverend John Wilson is the oldest of the group of ministers in Boston. He is a
"great scholar" and a "man of kind and genial spirit." Beneath the
edge of his skull-cap peeps out a "border of grizzled locks." An intelligent
man, he is more used to the "shaded light of his study" than the bright sunshine
of the day. His fame as a scholar has not prepared him for the problems connected with
"human guilt, passion, and anguish." Reverend Wilson persuades Dimmesdale to
speak to Hester on the scaffold, to see if she will reveal the name of her lover. The next
time Reverend Wilson is seen is when Hester goes to Governor Bellingham's mansion to
protest the possibility of Pearl being taken from her. Mr. Wilson is being shown the
Governor's garden along with Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. When Pearl resists the
Governor's attempts to question her, Wilson tries. He is a "grandfatherly" sort
of person, being "usually a vast favorite with children." But Pearl does not
respond to him. Dimmesdale saves the day (at Hester's urgent request), when he explains
the role that Pearl might play in helping Hester keep free from more sin. In Chapter XII,
there is a brief picture of Wilson as he walks alone in the middle of the night, lighting
himself home by the rays from a "glimmering lantern." He is returning from
Governor Winthrop's death bed. The last view of John Wilson is after the Election Sermon,
when he offers his arm to Dimmesdale as the procession is on its way from the
meeting-house to the townhall. Dimmesdale repels the "old man's arm" and totters
on alone. This last action of the "venerable" pastor is typical of him. He has
always been essentially kindly and often has put out his hand to help people. In contrast
to the meanness, severity, and hypocrisy of many of the Puritans, the Reverend John Wilson
is a man of great mercy and kindness.
(c) 1995 Simon & Schuster Nathaniel Hawthorne Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter Critical Commentary
Since most literary critics agree that The Scarlet Letter is Hawthorne's finest and
most important work, any major criticism of Hawthorne necessarily must have reference to
his famous tale of Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter "A." The first part of
this summary of criticism deals with important references to Hawthorne and his entire work
which should help one toward a better understanding of The Scarlet Letter. The second part
is concerned especially with detailed studies of this particular work of fiction.
Important general criticism: Concerning biography, Nathaniel Hawthorne's son, Julian,
has written two helpful works: Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife: A Biography, 2 vols.
(1884), and Hawthorne and His Circle (1903). An early important work which discusses
Hawthorne as an unworldly writer, constantly using his own New England Puritan background,
is the Henry James contribution, Hawthorne, English Men of Letters Series (1879). A very
fine study of Hawthorne is in G.E. Woodberry, Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Men of Letters
Series (1902). Scarlet Letter themes are emphasized, such as the "recurring idea of
isolation, the sense of secrecy in men's bosom's." Hawthorne's "inheritance from
Puritanism" includes his "absorption in the moral sphere." Newton Arvin's
Hawthorne (1929) discusses the romancer's great concern with guilt from the point of view
of modern psychology. Arvin suggests that this idea comes from Hawthorne's own struggles
during his life time, rather than from the Puritans. Randall Stewart's important Nathaniel
Hawthorne: A Biography (1948) offers a picture of a more well-rounded person than had been
seen in the older biographies. The following are two relatively recent books which are
quite light reading - and which offer much food for thought about Hawthorne's family
background, including Puritanism: Louise H. Tharp, The Peabody Sisters of Salem (1950),
and Vernon Loggins, The Hawthornes: The Story of Seven Generations of an American Family
Concerning Hawthorne's ideas, especially Puritanism and literary form, the following
three works should be helpful: Austin Warren's "Introduction" to his
contribution to the American Writers Series, Nathaniel Hawthorne: Representative
Selections (1934), discusses such aspects as "Theology," "The Problem of
Sin," and "Hawthorne as Artist." There are illuminating, analytical
comments on The Scarlet Letter (concerning literary form) in F. O. Matthiessen's American
Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941). Randall Stewart
has a fascinating introduction to his edition of Hawthorne's American journals, called The
American Notebooks (1932). One thoughtful section is "The Development of Character
Types in Hawthorne's Fiction."
Some discussions about Hawthorne's religious beliefs have emphasized his point of view
toward Puritanism. W. C. Brownell, "Hawthorne," in American Prose Masters
(1909), believes Hawthorne succeeds only when he is concerned with Puritan themes. He
calls The Scarlet Letter "the Puritan Faust." G. E. Woodberry's article.
"The Literary Age of Boston" (Harper's, 1903), analyzes Hawthorne, not as one
who believes in the doctrines of Puritanism, but one who has inherited the moral
atmosphere of his faith. This helps explain Hawthorne's repeated emphasis on the
pessimistic aspects of life. H. W. Schneider, in The Puritan Mind (1930), sees Hawthorne
as one who "understood" Puritanism. F. I. Carpenter, in "The Puritans
Preferred Blondes: The Heroines of Melville and Hawthorne" (New England Quarterly,
1936), discusses Hawthorne's attitude toward several Puritan points of view on freedom and
sin. Barriss Mills, in "Hawthorne and Puritanism" (New England Quarterly, 1948),
discusses some aspects of Puritanism of which Hawthorne approves, such a justice, courage,
Considering Hawthorne's social and political ideas, much has been written. N. F.
Doubleday, in "Hawthorne's Hester and Feminism" (Publications of the Modern
Language Association, 1939), reviews The Scarlet Letter and decides that Hawthorne is not
in accord with the middle-nineteenth-century point of view towards women's rights. It is
suggested that Hawthorne saw the feminist movement as not being truly aware of the actual
nature of woman and her role in the world. In regard to Hawthorne's literary theory, as it
applies to The Scarlet Letter, examine an article by Charles Foster, "Hawthorne's
literary Theory" (Publications of the Modern Language Association, 1942), especially
with reference to symbolism. Hawthorne's own theory of romance is somewhat explored in
"The Custom House," the introductory sketch for his 1850 romance. The
"Preface" to The House of the Seven Gables includes the famous passage
concerning the management of the "atmospherical medium." The "Preface"
to Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance mentions the romancer's choice of a suitable setting, as
being one somewhat separated from the ordinary pathway. Hawthorne's "Preface" to
The Marble Faun analyzes the necessary requirements for the proper setting of one of his
The sources of Hawthorne's works have stimulated numerous critics to write articles.
Randall Stewart's "Introduction" to The American Notebooks (1932) states that
Hawthorne used three sources for his writings: his own journals, his varied reading, and
his own fiction. Arlin Turner, in "Hawthorne's Methods of Using His Source
Material" (Studies for W.A. Reed, 1940), presents an examination of Hawthorne's
journals and some of the completed works based upon the journal entries. Turner states
that Hawthorne begins with a "central theme or basic idea" and then backs up
this "idea" by numerous examples as dramatized illustrations, sometimes in the
form of "catalogues" (listings of items) or "processions" (the
bringing together of numerous important key people, such as the procession during the
"New England Holiday" in The Scarlet Letter). J.E. Hart's "The Scarlet
Letter: One Hundred Years After" (New England Quarterly, 1950) suggests that
characters represent varied facets of Hawthorne's own character. A valuable study in
influence is presented by Elizabeth L. Chandler in Smith College Studies in Modern
Language, VII - A Study of the Sources of the Tales and Romances Written by Nathaniel
Hawthorne before 1853 (1926). A very fine long article (a monograph) with many specific
references in it to The Scarlet Letter has been written by Jane Lundblad, under the title,
"Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Tradition of Gothic Romance" (1946). (This is No. 4
of a series issued by the American Institute of the University of Uppsala, in Sweden,
under the general heading, Essays and Studies on American Language and Literature. For a
summary of the general content of this article, see Question 3 under "Essay Questions
and Answers for Review.") Other examples of the Gothic influence are seen in N. F.
Doubleday's "Hawthorne's Use of Three Gothic Patterns" (College English, 1946)
which investigates mysterious portraits, witchcraft, and the elixir of life (the fountain
of youth liquid). An unusual book, among the works on Hawthorne's sources, is W. B.
Stein's Hawthorne's Faust: A Study of the Devil Archetype (1953), which emphasizes the
role of evil in the works. (Check this for references to the "fiend"
Criticism with special reference to "The Scarlet Letter: Concerning specific
criticism of The Scarlet Letter, there has been much written. One prominent reviewer of
Hawthorne's own day, E. P. Whipple, reviewed it in Graham's Magazine, when it first
appeared in 1850. Whipple admired the Salemite's keenness of vision, his originality, his
powers of observation, and his character portrayals. G. P. Lathrop in A Study of Hawthorne
(1876) is sensitively alert to the relationships of characters to theme. Anthony Trollope,
in "The Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne" (North American Review, 1879), refers to
Hawthorne's "weird, mysterious, thrilling charm." Henry James' Hawthorne,
English Men of Letters Series (1879) contains a fine commentary on The Scarlet Letter.
James criticizes Hawthorne for what he calls the use of too many symbols. W. C. Brownell's
"Hawthorne" in his American Prose Masters (1909) is highly complimentary about
The Scarlet Letter (although he criticizes Hawthorne's other works for what he called the
poor use of allegory). Yvor Winters in Maule's Curse (1938) and In Defense of Reason
(1948) refers to The Scarlet Letter as a marvelous work, due to its use of allegory
concerning colonial New England. He feels, however, that Hawthorne's themes and characters
are not truly significant. F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance (1941) is very fine
for its perceptive interpretations of The Scarlet Letter. An unusual work of criticism is
Leland Schubert's Hawthorne, the Artist: Fine-Art Devices in Fiction (1944), for he deals
with the form of the works, not their contents. He selects artistic devices used by
painters and composers (such as color, sound, and rhythmic motifs) and locates devices
parallel to these in Hawthorne's fiction. He looks at The Scarlet Letter as a three-part
work, based on the three scaffold scenes. Another approach is the seven-part division,
determined by the characters and their activities in certain chapters. The "recurring
use of melodies and chords" of music is compared to "repeated . . . words and
phrases, or colors" in a novel. Mark Van Doren's Hawthorne, American Men of Letters
Series (1949) emphasizes the place of allegory in Hawthorne. R. H. Fogel's Hawthorne's
Fiction: The Light and the Dark points out the strong element of contrast of light (or
color) in The Scarlet Letter. John C. Gerber's "Form and Content in The Scarlet
Letter" (New England Quarterly, 1944) suggests that the novel is divided into four
parts with each part being individualized by a character who is either involved with or
responsible for the action of that part. The divisions are as follows: The community (and
the four major characters) in the first part (Chapters I-VIII); Chillingworth in the
second (IX-XII); Hester in the third (XIII-XX); Dimmesdale in the fourth (XXI-XXIV). A
very worthy work of recent criticism is the C. C. Walcott article, "The Scarlet
Letter and Its Modern Critics" (Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 1953). Walcutt surveys
the varied interpretations of the book under the headings of orthodox Puritan, romantic,
transcendental and relativist. He discusses why there is such variance, as he analyzes the
symbolism, the way in which Hawthorne views his sinful characters, the frequent
identification of readers with various characters, and Hawthorne's basic contradiction of
attitude concerning sin and Providence.
The number of writings on Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter is large. The following list is a
selected group of essays which might appeal to the reader of this classic: F. J.
Carpenter, "Scarlet A Minus" (College English, 1944); Rudolph Von Abele,
"The Scarlet Letter: A Reading" (Accent, 1951); Darrel Abel, "Hawthorne's
Hester" (College English, 1952); Darrel Abel, "The Devil in Boston"
(Philological Quarterly, 1953); Darrel Abel, "Hawthorne's Dimmesdale: Fugitive from
Wrath" (Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 1956); and E. C. Sampson, "Motivation in The
Scarlet Letter (American Literature, 1957).