Summary of the Novel
On a day in June 1642, the people of the Puritan colony of Boston await the public humiliation of a sinner among them. Hester Prynne is to stand on the scaffold in the village square for three hours. The red letter “A” which she has embroidered on her dress and the baby she holds in her arms brand her as an adulteress.
Hester refuses to name the father. Her husband, an old scholar, had sent her ahead two years earlier and is now in the crowd observing the scene. Under the guise of a medical doctor and the assumed name of Roger Chillingworth, Dr. Prynne demands unsuccessfully the name of the child’s father and vows revenge on him.
Hester takes up residence with her daughter Pearl at the edge of the village. Chillingworth remains as the town physician and moves in with the young Reverend Dimmesdale, whose physical health is deteriorating but whose sermons about sin are more powerful than ever. Chillingworth determines that Dimmesdale is indeed the father of Pearl and torments the minister with innuendo and debate while keeping him alive with medicines. During this period Hester successfully rebuffs efforts to remove Pearl from her keeping.
For seven years, Hester suffers her outcast state until the deterioration of the minister’s health forces her to confront him. Arthur Dimmesdale, her lover, and Hester meet in the forest where they renew their love and commitment and resolve to return to England together. However, the minister is unable to endure his spiritual agony and mounts the public scaffold in the dark of night, confessing his sin where no one can hear him. He is discovered by Hester and Pearl, and observed there by Chillingworth, who persuades him that his confession is a symptom of his illness.
The next morning, however, the minister leaves a public procession to mount the scaffold in the light of day. Joined by Hester and Pearl, and unsuccessfully restrained by Chillingworth, Dimmesdale confesses his guilt and dies. Chillingworth, now deprived of his life’s purpose, dies within a year, leaving his fortune to Pearl. Mother and daughter leave Boston, but many years later, Hester returns to take up quiet residence and resume wearing the scarlet letter and doing good works.
The years in which Nathaniel Hawthorne lived and wrote were turbulent ones for the young nation. The country did share a cultural harmony based on strong community values linking hard work and virtue to success. In addition, the majority of citizens shared the idea that the United States, under divine guidance, was destined for greatness. Among the negatives, however, was the sense that some of the original values of the Revolution were being lost. Political reform movements sprang up. Utopian experiments were tried. New religious sects, unhappy with old theologies, broke away from the established churches. Over the course of Hawthorne’s life, the United States was engaged in three wars, skirmishes with the Native American peoples, economic depressions, and problems with newly arriving immigrants. Looming large on the horizon and eventually leading to civil war was the conflict over slavery. Like that of many writers, Hawthorne’s work reflects the times in which he lived.
The idea of writing as a career was also evolving. Increased literacy was creating a market for mass-produced books. Fiction became increasingly popular with readers, and the young nation was looking for writers who might compete on the cultural level of the Europeans. Writing became a way to possible fame and fortune. To be financially successful, however, a writer had to be very good and productive at his craft. Most writers had to work at occupations other than writing to support their families.
The Scarlet Letter was well received when it was published in 1850. It is one of those rare works which, recognized as a “classic” immediately upon publication, has remained in print and impressed generations of readers. Despite the desire of the reading public in 1850 for a balance of humor and pathos in new works, the publisher was enthusiastic over what Hawthorne thought to be a defect— The Scarlet Letter stressed the dark and somber side of human affairs.
The critics were nearly unanimous in their proclaiming The Scarlet Letter a major American novel. History has proven these critics right; The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print in its century-and-a-half existence. While very religious critics found his topic—a couple enmeshed in adultery—to be immoral, and Hawthorne’s treatment of them too sympathetic, most commented on the novel’s stylistic perfection, its intensity of effect, and its insight into the human soul. Hawthorne was quickly elevated to the position of the nation’s foremost man of letters.
List of Characters
The narrator—Though he does not participate in the plot, the narrator is a storyteller who presents various versions of events and, from the vantage point of 1850, comments on the characters and their actions.
The people of Boston in the 1640s—Puritan colonists who set out to purify their lives and who live under strict moral codes. They punish the adulteress, Hester Prynne, by making her continually wear a scarlet letter “A” as she lives among them.
The town beadle—A town official who leads Hester to the scaffold, the place of public punishment, and reads out her sentence.
Hester Prynne—A young Englishwoman who has given birth to a child out of wedlock and is now forced to wear the scarlet letter “A,” publicly marking her as an adulteress. She refuses to make known the identity of the father.
Pearl—The daughter of Hester Prynne and her unknown lover; she brings both pleasure and pain to Hester.
Roger Chillingworth—The assumed name of Hester’s husband who sent her ahead to Boston and who arrives to witness her disgrace and his. He is determined to find the identity of her lover and to exact his revenge. He has lived among the native peoples and learned their herbal medicines.
The Reverend Mr. John Wilson—The eldest clergyman of Boston who thinks highly of the Reverend Dimmesdale. He is concerned that Pearl be properly raised.
Governor Bellingham—The royal appointee who oversees the political needs of the colony.
The Reverend Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale—A young clergyman, who agonizes for many years over his real or imagined sinfulness and unworthiness.
Master Brackett—The jailer who summons Chillingworth to calm Hester and her child after the scaffold ordeal.
Mistress Hibbins—A sister of the governor and a reputed witch. She taunts both Hester and Dimmesdale about their secret.
The sea captain—A man known to Hester through her charity work. He agrees to take Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale from Salem to Bristol, England.
Estimated Reading Time
Hawthorne prefaces his novel with an introductory essay entitled “The Custom-House” which an average reader could finish in an hour and ten minutes. If you are assigned the essay to read, Hawthorne’s style and vocabulary level will probably require that you read the essay in two or three sittings, taking notes as you read.
Reading The Scarlet Letter by itself will require about ten hours for the average reader. Read the novel in its entirety or in sections as presented in these Enotes. Keep notes as you read and compare them to the summaries and comprehension questions that follow to confirm your understanding of ideas and events.