The Scarlet Letter Summary

Overview

The Scarlet Letter

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.

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.

The Scarlet Letter Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Scarlet Letter was Hawthorne’s most commercially successful work and is still regarded as his masterpiece. The entire novel is built on the five simple words contained in one of the biblical Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The fact that Hawthorne was able to base such an enduring work on such a simple premise is an indication of genius.

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy did much the same thing in his novel Anna Karenina (1875-1877) some quarter of a century later, and no doubt he was influenced by Hawthorne’s example. Another prominent Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, in “The Lady with a Pet Dog” (1899), emulated Hawthorne’s very modern treatment of the psychological turmoil arising from adultery. Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1925) deals with a similar theme.

Most people in Hawthorne’s day had orthodox notions of religion, based on the Bible. They thought of God as a bearded super-patriarch living up above the clouds who was somehow able to see everything that was happening on Earth and was keeping a record of everyone’s sins with the intention of punishing them in the afterlife. Hawthorne and his intellectual contemporaries no longer believed in Heaven and Hell, or angels and devils, because modern science was rapidly undermining the authority of the Bible.

This did not by any means imply that Hawthorne rejected traditional morality. He realized that it was the basis of civilization and wanted to place morality on a foundation of reason. The Scarlet Letter shows people being punished for their sins in the here and now through the operation of natural cause and effect. The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is punished by his own feelings of guilt, remorse, and shame. Long before the time of Sigmund Freud, Hawthorne showed how mental problems create physical ailments. Dimmesdale eventually dies of guilt, although his mind is relieved by his public confession.

Hawthorne’s novel was a financial success. No doubt it was popular because it dealt with sexual matters, although in a heavily veiled manner. Much has been made of Hawthorne’s use of symbolism; however, it may be that he employed it mainly because he was not able to describe certain things more explicitly. For example, the sin of adultery means sexual intercourse between a married person and a partner other than the lawful spouse. It was utterly impossible for Hawthorne to depict this graphically in his day; his book would never even have been published if he had mentioned such an act.

His solution was ingenious: Hester Prynne gives birth to a little girl who is living proof of the sin. So Pearl, her daughter, is a symbol of the act of adultery. Hawthorne also calls Pearl “a living hieroglyphic,” which simply means that as she gets older it should be possible to “read” her father’s identity from studying her facial features. Thus she is not only a symbol of adultery and a symbol of guilt but also a symbol of Dimmesdale’s craven fear of exposure.

The scarlet letter “A,” which Hester is condemned to wear over her breast, is another symbol of unlawful sexual intercourse. In a sense it might be described as a fetish: an object that arouses sexual desire, or at least sexual thoughts. Modern readers accustomed to explicit descriptions of sexuality would hardly find Hawthorne’s novel titillating, but the mere suggestion of unsanctioned sexual intercourse—or, indeed, any sexual behavior at all—was daring for Hawthorne’s time.

Like the minister’s black veil in the story of that name, Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter has a dual nature. It is a continuing accusation directed at all the members of the community: It suggests that all of them should be wearing their own letters over their breasts, although not all of them would wear the same letter. The fact that Hester’s letter “A” is ornate, like the letters in a book from which a child learns the alphabet, and the fact that her little daughter is constantly touching it and trying to understand its meaning, suggest that there is a whole alphabet of sins that could be attached to the gowns and shirt fronts of the other citizens.

Dimmesdale deserves more than one letter: He could wear a “C” for cowardice, an “H” for hypocrisy, or an “L” for lying. The novel implicitly refers to the famous incident in the New Testament in which a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery was brought before Jesus. Jesus was asked if it was permissible to stone her to death as prescribed by Mosaic law. Jesus replied: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Everyone in the mob withdrew in silent admission of his or her own hidden guilt.

Hawthorne created the character of Roger Chillingworth because an antagonist was needed to move the plot along. One of Hawthorne’s weaknesses as a fiction writer was that he tended to lavish his attention on visual elements, such as descriptions of landscapes, and to avoid heated interactions between his characters. This weakness may be attributed to Hawthorne’s shy and passive character. Static plots with heavy emphasis on visual description might suffice for short works, but a full-length novel needs an ongoing conflict to retain reader interest. Chillingworth’s behavior is strange; why does he not kill Dimmesdale, for example, if he feels so outraged? He could certainly denounce him to the whole community, which might even be worse. It is only because of Chillingworth’s odd notion of revenge that the novel is able to move forward to its conclusion.

It is hard to see exactly what Chillingworth is trying to accomplish by his sadistic treatment of Dimmesdale; although he is indispensable to the plot, he is the least believable of all the characters. This seems like an artistic flaw in the novel, yet Hawthorne is masterful in demonstrating how human sins are not punished in some hypothetical afterlife but in the here and now through the suffering they bring. A sensitive man such as Dimmesdale must suffer for the suffering he causes others, and an insensitive man such as Chillingworth blinds himself to the harm he causes and is condemned to go through life as a blind man.

The Scarlet Letter Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Scarlet Letter, long considered Nathaniel Hawthorne’s greatest novel, is a complex investigation of the effects of secrecy and guilt. Set in seventeenth century Boston, the novel follows the life of Hester Prynne, a Puritan woman convicted of adultery and forced to wear a red patch, the letter A, as part of her punishment. Hawthorne’s sympathetic depiction of Hester’s struggle with this restrictive self-image is largely responsible for the book’s status as an American classic.

After her emergence from Boston prison at the book’s beginning, Hester faces a number of obstacles as she tries to reestablish herself in the restrictive Puritan community. The town has labeled her a sinner, so she must first find a way to challenge the community’s perception of her and her daughter, Pearl, the child and the proof of her “guilty passion.” Her talent for sewing and embroidery becomes her primary medium for self-expression. Not only does she decorate the letter she has been forced to wear, but also she dresses Pearl in beautiful, elaborate clothes in order to counteract the intended shame of the punishment.

Hester must also face the fact that Pearl’s father, the Reverend Mr. Dimmsdale, refuses to acknowledge his part in the affair. Despite pressure from the authorities, she keeps his secret, although it soon becomes clear that Dimmsdale’s guilt is consuming him from within. As with many of Hawthorne’s reclusive characters, Dimmsdale’s need for confession and forgiveness struggles against his desire to keep his inner identity hidden, and although he tries to confess from the pulpit, he proves too weak to set aside his ministerial façade. As the years pass, Hester’s initial crime is gradually forgotten. Her patient service as a member of the community and nurse to the sick slowly alters her image. Dimmsdale’s health eventually fails, in part because of the sinister questioning of Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, who has returned to take his revenge on the minister. Chillingworth forces Hester to keep his identity a secret so that he can slowly punish Dimmsdale under the pretense of serving as his doctor. As Dimmsdale deteriorates, it becomes clear that only public confession will enable him to escape his consuming guilt.

Throughout his career, Hawthorne consistently recognized the ironic nature of public and private identity. In the climactic scene of The Scarlet Letter, a dying Dimmsdale finally confesses, acknowledging Hester and Pearl. Many in the town refuse to believe him, however, preferring their own image of their spotless minister. In a similar irony, Hester herself continues to wear the letter even after Dimmsdale’s death, when the letter’s original meaning is all but forgotten. Despite her attempts to escape it, the letter has become an undeniable part of her life.

The Scarlet Letter Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel, The Scarlet Letter, is introduced by a long chapter entitled “The Custom House,” which chronicles the author’s recent politically motivated dismissal from his position at the Salem Custom House. In this introduction Hawthorne describes both his short-lived experiences as a political appointee as well as his recent re-emergence as a novelist. Hawthorne creates a historical and artistic connection to his own Puritan ancestors by presenting a fictionalized account of his discovery of an old cloth scarlet letter bound with ancient legal documents.

The novel proper opens with Hester Prynne, the protagonist, emerging from the depths of an ancient-looking prison, which the narrator calls the “black flower” of the Puritan community’s imagined utopia. As she mounts the scaffold for public display with her infant daughter Pearl in her arms and an elaborately embroidered scarlet letter A on her breast, scornful women call for worse, more violent punishments. From the beginning then, the stern law of the aged Puritan magistrates and the jeering townsfolk are juxtaposed with the reader’s own sense of compassion for the suffering woman and her newborn child. It is at this point, as well, that the reader is made aware of the complex structure of the character relations. While on the scaffold, Hester sees her estranged husband, Roger Chillingworth, who has been, for a time, learning medicinal arts from the Indians. The first few chapters of the novel after the initial scaffold scene establish the triangular relationship connecting Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth.

The central issue of the novel is how Hester’s punishment affects her relationships with others and how it changes her and Pearl. Hester, who takes up residence in a small cottage on the edge of town, is described as a living ghost, unable to find sympathy in the community in which she lives. She becomes an allegorical type in the Puritan symbolic imagination and is often reduced to a symbol within the sermons of church services. Hawthorne suggests that the scarlet letter, as a disciplinary measure, is ultimately a failure because Hester’s own elaborate artistic rendering of it—and the other meanings besides “Adultery” that can be assigned to it—makes it more an expression of individual resistance to the law than an enactment of the law’s force. Furthermore, the scarlet letter serves to isolate Hester and Pearl from the rest of the society. The narrator insists on numerous occasions that the real effect of the punishment is to drive both Hester and Pearl beyond the scope of the law and the bonds of sympathy. Shunned by society, Hester and Pearl become more metaphorically associated with the wilderness that surrounds them.

A second main issue that structures the novel is the consequence of Hester’s apparently ethical decision to conceal Dimmesdale’s identity as the father. By preserving her lover’s anonymity, Hester unwittingly assists in his destruction by both his own gnawing guilt and by the manipulative machinations of Chillingworth, who takes up residence as the Reverend Dimmesdale’s private doctor. Through his close proximity to the reverend, and as a consequence of their growing intimacy, Chillingworth is able to take advantage of the reverend’s increasing psychic vulnerability. The narrator observes that Chillingworth himself is transformed, through the obsessive probing into Dimmesdale’s symptoms, into a satanic figure for whom cruelty is elevated to an art form.

It is only with the revelation of Chillingworth’s identity that Dimmesdale is able to confront his own sin and take any sort of action. Perhaps the most memorable scene in the novel is the central one in which Dimmesdale’s guilt drives him to the scaffold at night, where he meets Hester and Pearl. It is here that Dimmesdale fails himself by refusing to honor Pearl’s wish that he hold her hand in the light of day. However, it is the forest meeting between Hester and Dimmesdale that transforms the latter and urges him to act. Under Hester’s “lawless” influence, Dimmesdale begins to contemplate and finally accepts the formerly unthinkable notion of leaving the Puritan settlement of which he is a spiritual leader. After the meeting with Hester in the forest, Dimmesdale is aflame with new hope for their future life together. However, as the narrator makes clear, Dimmesdale’s romantic conversion is a form of madness, a kind of lawlessness that has been chiefly represented, up to this point, by Hester and Pearl. It is this madness, the narrator says, that allows Dimmesdale to gain new insights into his condition of sin and accept the possibility of action. This transformation ultimately leads to the climax of the novel, the public revelation of his guilt. In the conclusion of the novel, the narrator states that while Hester would not be the prophetess of the new truth of the relation between the sexes, she would take up both her scarlet letter (which is no longer a stigma) and a place in the community, assuming a role as the counselor and friend to other women.

The Scarlet Letter Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

On a summer morning in Boston, in the early days of the Massachusetts Colony, a throng of curious people gather outside the jail in Prison Lane. They are there looking for Hester Prynne, who was found guilty of adultery by a court of stern Puritan judges. Condemned to wear on the breast of her gown the scarlet letter A, which stands for adulterer, she is to stand on the stocks before the meetinghouse for three hours so that her shame might be a warning and a reproach to all who see her. The crowd waits to see her ascend the scaffold with her child—the proof of the adultery, Hester’s husband being absent—in her arms.

At last, escorted by the town beadle, the woman appears. She moves serenely to the steps of the scaffold and stands quietly under the staring eyes that watch her public disgrace. It is whispered in the gathering that she is spared the penalty of death or of branding only through the intercession of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, into whose church she brought her scandalous sin.

While Hester stands on the scaffold, an elderly, almost deformed man appears out of the forest. When her agitation makes it plain that she recognizes him, he puts his finger to his lips as a sign of silence.

Hester’s story is well known in the community. She is the daughter of an old family of decayed fortune; when she was young, her family married her to a husband who had great repute as a scholar. For some years, they lived in Antwerp. Two years later, the husband sent his wife alone across the ocean to the Massachusetts Colony, intending to follow her as soon as he could put his affairs in order. News came of his departure, but his ship was never heard of again. The young, attractive widow lived quietly in Boston until the time of her disgrace.

The scaffold of the pillory on which Hester stands is situated next to the balcony of the church where all the dignitaries of the colony sit to watch her humiliation. The ministers of the town call on her to name the man who is equally guilty; the most eloquent of those who exhorts her is Dimmesdale, her pastor. Hester refuses to name the father of her child, and she is led back to the prison after her period of public shame ends.

On her return to prison, Hester is found to be in a state of great nervous excitement. When at last medical aid is called, a man is found who professes knowledge of medicine. His name is Roger Chillingworth, he tells the jailer, and he recently arrived in town after a year of residence among the Indians. He is the stranger who appeared so suddenly from the forest that afternoon while Hester stood on the scaffold, and Hester recognized him immediately as her husband, the scholar Prynne. His ship was wrecked on the coast, and he was a captive among the Indians for many months. When he comes to Hester, he, too, asks her to name the father of her child. When she refuses, he tells her he will remain in Boston to practice medicine and that he will devote the rest of his life to discovering the identity of the man who dishonored him. He commands Hester not to betray the relationship between them.

When Hester’s term of imprisonment is over, she finds a small house on the outskirts of town, far removed from other habitation. There, with her child, whom she names Pearl, she settles down to earn a living from needlework, an outcast from society. She still wears the scarlet emblem on the breast of her sober gowns, but she dresses her child in bright, highly ornamented costumes. As she grows up, Pearl proves to be a capricious, wayward child, hard to discipline. One day, Hester calls on Governor Bellingham to deliver a pair of embroidered gloves. She also wants to see him about the custody of Pearl, for there is a movement afoot among the strict church members to take the child away from her. In the garden of the governor’s mansion, Hester finds the governor, Dimmesdale, and old Chillingworth. When the perverse child refuses to repeat the catechism, the governor thinks it necessary that she be reared apart from her mother. Dimmesdale argues persuasively, however, and in the end Hester is allowed to keep Pearl, who seems to be strangely attracted to the minister.

Chillingworth became intimately acquainted with Dimmesdale as both his parishioner and his doctor, for the minister has been in ill health ever since the physician came to town. The two men lodge in the same house, and the physician comes to know Dimmesdale’s inmost thoughts and feelings. The minister is much plagued by his conscience and his feelings of guilt, but when he incorporates these ideas in generalities into his sermons, his congregation only thinks more highly of him. Slowly the conviction grows in Chillingworth that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father, and he conjures up for the sick man visions of agony, terror, and remorse.

One night, unable to sleep, Dimmesdale walks to the pillory where Hester stood in ignominy. He goes up the steps and stands for a long time in the same place. A little later Hester, who was watching at a deathbed, comes by with little Pearl. The minister calls them over, saying when they were there before he lacked the courage to stand beside them. As the three stand together, with Dimmesdale acknowledging himself as Pearl’s father and Hester’s partner in sin, Chillingworth watches them from the shadows.

Hester is so shocked by Dimmesdale’s feeble and unhealthy condition that she determines to see her former husband and plead with him to free the sick minister from his evil influence.

One day, she meets the old physician gathering herbs in the forest and begs him to be merciful to his victim. Chillingworth, however, is inexorable; he will not forgo his revenge on the man who wronged him. Hester thereupon says that she will tell Dimmesdale their secret and warn him against his physician. A short time later, Hester and Pearl intercept Dimmesdale in the forest as he is returning from a missionary journey to the Indians. Hester confesses her true relationship with Chillingworth and warns the minister against the physician’s evil influence. She and the clergyman decide to leave the colony together in secret, take passage on a ship then in the harbor, and return to the Old World. They plan to leave four days later, after Dimmesdale preaches the sermon on Election Day, when the new governor is to be installed.

Election Day is a holiday in Boston, and the port is lively with the unaccustomed presence of sailors from the ship in the harbor. In the crowd is the captain of the vessel, with whom Hester made arrangements for her own and Dimmesdale’s passage. That morning, the captain informs Hester that Chillingworth also arranged for passage on the ship. Filled with despair, Hester turns away and goes with Pearl to listen to Dimmesdale’s sermon.

Unable to find room within the church, she stands at the foot of the scaffold where at least she can hear the sound of his voice. As the procession leaves the church, everyone has words only of praise for the minister’s inspired address. Dimmesdale walks like a man in a dream, and once he totters and almost falls. When he sees Hester and Pearl at the foot of the scaffold, he steps out of the procession and calls them to him. Then, taking them by the hand, he again climbs the steps of the pillory. Almost fainting, but with a voice terrible and majestic, the minister admits his guilt to the watching people. With a sudden motion, he tears the ministerial band from across his breast and sinks, dying, to the platform. When he thus exposes his breast, witnesses say that the stigma of the scarlet letter A was seen imprinted on the flesh above his heart.

Chillingworth, no longer able to wreak his vengeance on Dimmesdale, dies within the year, bequeathing his considerable property to Pearl. For a time, Hester disappears from the colony, but she returns alone years later to live in her humble thatched cottage and to wear as before the scarlet emblem on her breast. The scarlet letter, once her badge of shame, becomes an emblem of her tenderness and mercy—an object of veneration and reverence to those whose sorrows she alleviates by her deeds of kindness. At her death, she directs that the only inscription on her tombstone should be the letter A.

The Scarlet Letter Summary

Part I
The Scarlet Letter opens with an expectant crowd standing in front of a Boston prison in the early 1640s....

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The Scarlet Letter Summary and Analysis

Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Our attention is focused on the door of Boston’s prison-house on a day in June 1642. The building, a concession to the fact that crime exists even among a people dedicated to perfecting themselves, is itself very ugly. The only hint of beauty is a rose bush blooming at one side of the door. The narrator suggests that it sprang from the footstep of Anne Hutchinson, a woman persecuted for her religious beliefs and held in this same prison. The narrator further suggests the moral of his story, like the solitary rose, may be the only bright spot in the forthcoming tale of human sorrow.

Discussion and Analysis
In this short opening chapter, Hawthorne dramatically sets...

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Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Women in the crowd: Puritan women who comment on Hester’s punishment

The town beadle: the official who publicly pronounces Hester’s punishment

Hester Prynne: a young Englishwoman who, although her husband has been absent for two years, has given birth to a daughter

Pearl: Hester’s infant daughter

Summary
After the narrator tells of earlier punishments carried out upon the scaffold, our attention is focused upon several Puritan women in the waiting crowd and their reactions to Hester’s punishment. One suggests that the women, if they had the power, would have given harsher judgments; another suggests a hot branding...

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Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Dr. Roger Chillingworth: Hester Prynne’s husband who had sent her ahead to Salem. He has been shipwrecked and held hostage by the Indians for nearly two years. Dr. Prynne assumes the name of Chillingworth when he sees his wife being punished for adultery.

Governor Bellingham: political leader of Salem

The Reverend Mister Wilson: eldest clergyman of Salem who wishes Hester to reveal the identity of the father

The Reverend Mister Dimmesdale: young minister who has had an affair with Hester Prynne

Summary
From the scaffold Hester recognizes someone on the edge of the crowd. Her husband, who has been held hostage by the...

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Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Master Brackett: the jailer

Summary
Hester and her child are visibly upset when they are returned to the prison, and Master Brackett decides they would benefit from a doctor’s care. Now living within the jail while the authorities pay his ransom to the Indians is such a man, Roger Chillingworth.

When left alone with Hester and her child, he gives a potion to calm the child. Hester drinks a potion herself after hearing Chillingworth say that he could wish no better vengeance upon than she wear the scarlet letter for the rest of her life. Chillingworth accepts part of the blame for their shame; he, a misshapen scholar, should not have married such a...

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Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis

Summary
After her ordeal upon the scaffold, Hester Prynne, free to leave the colony, chooses to remain and takes up residence in an abandoned cottage on the outskirts of the town. To support herself and her child, Hester becomes a seamstress, famous for her needlework, though she is not allowed to sew wedding garments.

Wearing the scarlet letter has several effects upon her. Even as Hester does charity work, she has to endure insults from the poor and the sick she is helping. She finds herself often at the center of sermons and public lectures and jeers. Sensing different reactions from certain men and women, she imagines the letter has given her the power to see the hidden sins of others.

...

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Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Pearl: Hester’s perplexing child

Summary
The narrator devotes this chapter to the first three years of Pearl’s life, so named because she cost her mother “a great price” (a Biblical reference). She is a child with no apparent physical defect but one who has moods of defiance and gloom mixed with great exuberance. In public, Pearl acts as if she were a child of the devil, defiantly hurling stones at the other Puritan children. Privately, Hester at first thought Pearl might be a fairy child because of her wild swings of mood. Hester later saw in Pearl’s eyes the image of an evil spirit.

Pearl has been fascinated by the scarlet letter upon...

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Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Hester has heard that Governor Bellingham is considering removing Pearl from her care. There have been rumors that Pearl is of demon origin and that she would be better raised by someone more respectable than Hester. Hester hopes to convince the Governor to allow her to keep the child.

Pearl stands out from the other children because Hester has taken to dressing her in scarlet trimmed in fancy gold embroidery—the scarlet letter in another form. On their way to see the Governor, they are accosted by children hurling mud and insults. Pearl drives them off, and the two continue on.

A servant informs them that Governor Bellingham is conferring with one or two ministers and a...

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Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Mistress Hibbins: sister of the Governor, reputed to be a witch

Summary
Governor Bellingham is the first of the group to come upon Pearl and expresses surprise at her brightly colored outfit. Reverend Wilson is next to react and asks if she is a Christian child. Wilson then recognizes Hester Prynne and tells Bellingham that this is the woman and child of whom they were just speaking.

The Governor explains that for the sake of Pearl’s soul, the authorities are considering removing her from Hester’s care and raising her more strictly. When Hester replies that she can better teach morality to the child because of what she has learned from the...

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Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Although not religious by nature, Roger Chillingworth chooses the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale as his spiritual advisor, a choice designed to pique the reader’s curiosity. Dimmesdale’s humility and his many fasts and vigils have impressed the townspeople with his holiness, but they fear that his deteriorating physical condition has brought him close to death. The elders persuade him to seek the advice of the learned doctor. Though Dimmesdale says he prefers death to Chillingworth’s medicines, he and the doctor spend long hours together talking about many subjects. To allow him to “help” the minister even more, Chillingworth arranges that the two of them should lodge in separate apartments at the...

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Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Roger Chillingworth, described as a kindly man earlier in his life, is now described as a man possessed by a terrible fascination with Dimmesdale’s secrets. During a conversation with the minister about strange plants he had found growing over a grave, Chillingworth remarks that perhaps they grew from a heart buried with some hideous secret—thus suggesting that he knows Dimmesdale himself hides a poisonous secret. Dimmesdale answers that there are many people with such secrets that they dare not reveal. Their conversation is interrupted by Pearl’s laughter outside their open window. The doctor observes the girl sticking burrs from plants in the graveyard onto her mother’s scarlet letter, an...

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Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Certain that he had found out the identity of Hester’s lover, Chillingworth now decides that public exposure of Dimmesdale is not as good a revenge as continued emotional torture. His comments are causing much pain to Dimmesdale, but the minister, focused as he is on his own sin, does not suspect Chillingworth’s intentions.

The minister’s sense of his own sin and the pain it continually causes has transformed him into a powerful and much revered preacher. While he painfully tells himself of his unworthiness and punishes himself with vigils and fasts, the congregation thinks him to be the model of holiness. Many times Dimmesdale resolves publicly to confess his sin but is only able to...

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Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis

Summary
On this May night the minister carries out the plan which occurred to him in Chapter 11. He will stand on the scaffold, the place of public humiliation on which Hester herself stood some seven years before. The dark of the night hides him, and he believes the town to be asleep. As he dwells on his sin and on the pain that comes from whatever is on his chest, he shrieks aloud. The only people who seem disturbed by his outburst are Bellingham and Mistress Hibbins, but their lights are soon extinguished.

In the relative calm that returns, Dimmesdale observes a person carrying a lantern on the street by the scaffold. Recognizing The Reverend Mr. Wilson, he boldly calls out to him but is not...

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Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Seven years have passed since Pearl’s birth. Hester is shocked at the poor physical and psychological state of Dimmesdale and resolves to do something to help his condition. Hester herself has been accepted by the community and has outwardly accepted the role she has been forced to assume. She has submitted uncomplainingly to menial tasks, to poor living conditions, and to public insults. Her charity and unfailing tenderness have earned her respect, and now most townspeople interpret the “A” upon her breast as standing for “Able.”

Inwardly, though, Hester is not the model citizen she is thought to be. The letter seems to have stolen her youth and beauty while forcing her to...

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Chapter 14 Summary and Analysis

Summary
While Pearl plays in a tidal pool, Hester speaks with Chillingworth, who has been gathering plants for his medicines. When Chillingworth tells her that the magistrates are considering allowing Hester to remove the scarlet letter, Hester replies that they do not have the power to remove it. She stares at the changes that seven years of seeking revenge have caused in Chillingworth. She goes on to speak of Dimmesdale and of her promise not to reveal her husband’s identity to her lover. When Hester says that the doctor has exacted enough revenge, Chillingworth argues that he has kept Dimmesdale from the gallows, that he has kept the man, whose body lacked the spirit to withstand the pressures, alive....

(The entire section is 287 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary and Analysis

Summary
As Hester watches Chillingworth walk away gathering herbs, she marvels at his ugliness and involuntarily admits that she hates him. Memories of their marriage lead her to conclude that the wrong he did her, marrying a girl so young, was far greater than any wrong she did him.

Pearl has been playing nearby and now creates a letter “A” out of seagrass and places it on her chest. Hester, calling to her, notes the green letter and asks whether Pearl knows why her mother wears her letter. Pearl replies that all she knows is that it is for the same reason that the minister places his hand over his heart. She thinks that the reason might be known to the old doctor. Hester is tempted to take...

(The entire section is 284 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary and Analysis

Summary
After several days of attempting to meet with and tell Dimmesdale the truth about her former husband, Hester learns that he will be returning from a visit to another minister along a path through the forest. She wishes to speak with him in the openness of nature, but she is also aware of the parallel between the actual wilderness and the moral wilderness in which she feels she has been wandering.

Pearl has been playing in the patches of the sunshine that shifting clouds have caused. She teases her mother that the sunshine is avoiding her. Pearl does catch the light, but when Hester approaches and attempts to grasp it, the sunlight disappears.

Pearl asks for a story about the...

(The entire section is 390 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis

Summary
The meeting of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale is awkward at first. After speaking of unimportant matters, both confess that they have not found peace. The minister tells of his continued hypocrisy and wishes for one person before whom he could daily be known for the sinner he is. Hester replies that there is such a person and he “dwellest with him under the same roof.” Dimmesdale is furious with Hester for concealing Chillingworth’s identity, and allowing him to go through the horror of living with Chillingworth. Hester sees the depth of evil she has permitted and tries to explain why she allowed the deception. However, she concludes that “a lie is never good, even though death threatens...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary and Analysis

Summary
The narrator explains the source of Hester’s boldness. Ostracized by the community, she has learned to think for herself, free of the strict boundaries proscribed by the Puritans. In contrast, Arthur Dimmesdale is a representative of that system, a priest, and therefore bound all the more by it. When Dimmesdale agrees to leave with Hester, they both feel a resurgence of hope. Hester symbolically tears off the scarlet letter and tosses it into the bushes. Rather than landing in the brook which could carry it away, the scrap of cloth lands among the fallen leaves on the edge of the water.

Hester lets down her hair, and as she does so, sunlight bathes the scene. She wants father and...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary and Analysis

Summary
As Hester and Dimmesdale await Pearl’s return, the minister confesses his ongoing dread of the child, the living testimony of his sin, while Hester remarks on her beauty and her fitful moods. Pearl responds to her mother’s call but remains in a patch of sunlight on the opposite side of the brook, refusing to come closer. When Dimmesdale reaches his hand up to his heart, Pearl points to the spot on her mother’s breast where the scarlet letter should be. In response to Hester’s promptings to join them, Pearl goes into a wild tantrum, pointing to Hester’s bodice. To pacify her, Hester points to the scarlet letter lying by the side of the stream and asks Pearl to bring it to her. Pearl insists...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary and Analysis

Summary
As he leaves Hester and Pearl behind on the forest path, Dimmesdale reviews the plan he and Hester have devised for escape. Hester is to secure passage for the three of them on a ship now in port and bound for England. When Hester tells him that it will probably be four days until their departure, the minister is glad. Three days from now he will preach the Election Day sermon and has decided that it is the ideal time to confess his guilt and end his career as a preacher.

The dramatic changes in his life now rejuvenate the minister, and he experiences strange transformations and impulses. He wants to tell people about the new Dimmesdale, to whisper sacrilegious ideas to a church official...

(The entire section is 371 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary and Analysis

Summary
The settlement is crowded with visitors and townspeople interested in seeing the new governor take office. Hester, with Pearl by her side, views the scene with mixed emotions. She is looking, for what might be the last time, at the society which has been her life and her torture for seven long years. She is anticipating the freedom which will be hers in a few hours. Pearl, dressed in a bright dress, reflects in her actions the mixed emotions which her mother is hiding beneath a calm exterior. She demands an explanation for the gathering and is told all are here for the holiday procession of soldiers and officials. To questions about the minister, Hester replies that they must not greet him publicly...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Chapter 22 Summary and Analysis

Summary
March music is heard, and even Pearl is momentarily transfixed by the sight and sound of the musicians, the military men, the civil authorities, and lastly, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale as he is escorted to the meeting-house. He walks with unusual energy, and as Hester looks upon him, she senses that he is beyond her reach. In contrast to the closeness they shared in the forest, he seems a player in a drama and she, a mere spectator. Even Pearl is unsure that she recognizes the man.

Mistress Hibbins begins a conversation with Hester about the transformation in the minister. Over Hester’s protests, the woman goes on to speak of the minister’s dark secrets and his possible revelation of...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Chapter 23 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Dimmesdale has finished his sermon, and as people exit the meeting-house, they proclaim the wisdom in his inspired words. He has spoken of the special relationship between God and the New England communities and prophesied a great future for the people. Now the march music begins anew, and all are to proceed to the town-hall for a solemn banquet.

Even as he is honored as being at the high point of his career, Dimmesdale looks exhausted, and people fear he will fall at any moment. He rejects the offered arm of Reverend Wilson and continues on until he encounters Hester and Pearl standing by the scaffold. Governor Bellingham steps forward to offer assistance but is stopped by a look from the...

(The entire section is 842 words.)

Chapter 24 Summary and Analysis

Summary
In the days that follow Dimmesdale’s death many opinions are offered for the letter “A” that was seen on the minister’s chest. Some say he inflicted it upon himself, others say that Chillingworth caused it to appear through the use of drugs and magic, and still others speculate that personal remorse and divine judgment combined to put it upon the minister’s chest. Again, by presenting multiple versions of an incident, the storyteller allows the reader’s mind to choose the most likely version and thus to think more deeply about the idea he is presenting.

Others deny that any such mark even existed. They maintain that the minister was not guilty of any misdeed, and that he simply...

(The entire section is 650 words.)