Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter Quotes

Essential Quotes

Essential Quotes by Character: Hester Prynne

Essential Passage 1: Chapter 2

When the young woman—the mother of this child—stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

Summary
Hester Prynne, an English colonist of seventeenth-century Boston, has been found guilty of adultery, evidenced by the birth of her child, Pearl. Rather than have her submit to the severe consequences required by Puritan law (i.e., death), the authorities have given her a measure of mercy, due to the unknown fate of her husband, and have required that she simply wear the letter “A” upon her breast for the rest of her life. Having served at least three months in prison, Hester is now brought before the entire community, along with her baby, to stand upon the scaffold for several hours, subject to the shame and taunts of the community. At first, Hester displays shame for the scarlet letter and tries to shield it from view by drawing Pearl closely to her. Realizing that Pearl herself could be considered a living “scarlet letter” and evidence of her sin, Hester lowers her child and almost proudly displays the letter. Having embroidered the letter herself, she has made the most of it, sewing with a richness that was characteristic of Elizabethan fashion but definitely contrary to the Puritan practice of simplicity of dress.

Essential Passage 2: Chapter 5

It might be, too,—doubtless it was so, although she hid the secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hole,—it might be that another feeling kept her within the scene and pathway that had been so fatal. There dwelt, there trode the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union, that, unrecognised on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage-altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution. Over and over again, the tempter of souls had thrust this idea upon Hester's contemplation, and laughed at the passionate and desperate joy with which she seized, and then strove to cast it from her. She barely looked the idea in the face, and hastened to bar it in its dungeon. What she compelled herself to believe,—what, finally, she reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a resident of New England,—was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom.

Summary
After her release from prison and punishment on the scaffold, Hester takes up residence in a run-down cottage outside of town. There she makes a living as a seamstress and becomes quite well-known for her needlework. Although she is free to leave Boston, she has decided to stay, despite having to continue the wearing of the scarlet letter as well as facing rejection and rumors. The narrator speculates on the possible reasons why she has not relocated. First, the father of her child, Arthur Dimmesdale, remains in Boston. Although he has not confessed that he is the father of Pearl, Dimmesdale is still the object of love for...

(The entire section is 1803 words.)

Essential Quotes by Theme: Moral Cowardice

Essential Passage 1: Chapter 4

“Thou knowest,” said Hester,—for, depressed as she was, she could not endure this last quiet stab at the token of her shame,—“thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any.”

“True,” replied he. “It was my folly! I have said it. But, up to that epoch of my life, I had lived in vain. The world had been so cheerless! My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one! It seemed not so wild a dream,—old as I was, and sombre as I was, and misshapen as I was,—that the simple bliss, which is scattered far and wide, for all mankind to gather up, might yet be mine. And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made there!”

“I have greatly wronged thee,” murmured Hester.

“We have wronged each other,” answered he. “Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay. Therefore, as a man who has not thought and philosophised in vain, I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between thee and me, the scale hangs fairly balanced."

Summary
Hester, remaining in the prison cell following her stint on the scaffold, is so upset that a physician is sent for. Having learned some medicine in Europe and even more during his stay with the Indians, Chillingworth answers the call. (He has been posing as a doctor.) This gives him the opportunity to confront his wife. After explaining his absence as being the result of a hostage situation, he absolves himself of guilt for leaving Hester alone to come to the New World by herself. Chillingworth then confesses his own errors. As a scholar in England, he had lived alone with his studies until middle age. Seeking to ease his loneliness with a wife, he chose the very young Hester and persuaded her to marry him. Knowing him to be a scholar, and evidently ready to leave the poverty of her home, Hester married him, despite the age difference and the separation of their social classes. Hester is now honest with him, that she never loved him, nor professed to. He agrees that she did not, but he wanted to love her as a true husband loves his wife. Hester confesses on her own part that she has done Chillingworth wrong, not just in committing adultery, but in marrying him without loving him. Chillingworth in turn admits his own error in marrying her. It was unnatural, he says, and seeks no revenge on her. His revenge, he reveals, is against the man who is the father of her child.

Essential Passage 2: Chapter 4

“Thy acts are like mercy,” said Hester, bewildered and appalled. “But thy words interpret thee as a terror!”

“One thing, thou that wast my wife, I would enjoin upon thee,” continued the scholar. “Thou hast kept the secret of thy paramour. Keep, likewise, mine! There are none in this land that know me. Breathe not, to any human soul, that thou didst ever call me husband! Here, on this wild outskirt of the earth, I shall pitch my tent; for, elsewhere a wanderer, and isolated from human interests, I find here a woman, a man, a child, amongst whom and myself there exist the closest ligaments. No matter whether of love or hate; no matter whether of right or wrong! Thou and thine, Hester Prynne, belong to me. My home is where thou art, and where he is. But betray me not!”

Summary
Confronting Hester in her prison cell, under the guise of a physician, Chillingworth sets his plan of action. He has no desire to wreak his revenge on her, but he will do so on the man who cuckolded him. Hester has refused to reveal the identity of the father of her child; therefore, Chillingworth demands that she also keep his identity a secret. He does not hide his reason: he plans on bringing forth the wrongdoer to the light of the Puritan society, that he may be held accountable for his sins, as Hester has been for hers. Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and the child Pearl have become on odd little family...

(The entire section is 1789 words.)