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.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1053 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues 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...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
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...
(The entire section is 843 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1460 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
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
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
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...
(The entire section is 409 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
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
From the scaffold Hester recognizes someone on the edge of the crowd. Her husband, who has been held hostage by the...
(The entire section is 547 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis
Master Brackett: the jailer
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...
(The entire section is 322 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis
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....
(The entire section is 275 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis
Pearl: Hester’s perplexing child
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...
(The entire section is 352 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 284 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis
Mistress Hibbins: sister of the Governor, reputed to be a witch
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...
(The entire section is 777 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 291 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 436 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 265 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 723 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 430 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary and Analysis
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.)