The Scarlet Letter Summary
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter book cover
Start Your Free Trial

The Scarlet Letter Summary

The Scarlet Letter is an 1850 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne about a woman who is branded as an adulteress. 

  • The narrative begins in 1642. Hester Prynne stands trial before the town magistrates for adultery and is forced to wear the scarlet letter A.
  • Hester's long-lost husband returns. He forces her to keep his identity a secret, assuming the name of Roger Chillingworth. He tortures Reverend Dimmesdale, recognizing Dimmesdale as Hester’s lover.
  • Finally, Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold and reveals the letter A that he has been carving into his chest. He confesses during a sermon, then dies of his wounds in Hester's arms.

Summary

The year is 1642. Hester Prynne, a young wife whose husband has been missing for over a year, is accused of adultery following the birth of her infant daughter Pearl. In a shameful public ceremony, Hester is forced to stand on a scaffold for more than three hours and submit to an interrogation. She refuses to reveal the name of her child's father, which angers the Puritanical citizens of Boston. She is forced to wear a scarlet-colored A on her clothes to mark her as an adulteress.

Download The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

Subscribe Now

While on the scaffold, Hester sees her husband, Mr. Prynne, a physician who has just now returned to Boston. Following the interrogation, Hester and Prynne meet in private, where the two apologize for their respective offenses (Hester for her adultery and Prynne for his long absence, as well as for marrying such a young, vivacious woman at his relatively advanced age). Prynne was suspected of having been killed by Native Americans and thus was not recognized by anyone but Hester. He makes her promise not to reveal his true identity and assumes the name Roger Chillingworth.

Following her ordeal on the scaffold, Boston's officials decide to release Hester from prison. She is then allowed to build a business as a seamstress—a role in which she thrives, despite the contempt, condescension, and verbal abuse she suffers at the hands of her neighbors and patrons. Meanwhile, her daughter, Pearl, grows from an infant to a lovely, vibrant, peculiar little girl. Hester wonders at Pearl's strange mannerisms, suspecting that her daughter might be some sort of elf-child.

While delivering an order of gloves to the Governor's house, Hester speaks to the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a young, sickly minister who exhorted Hester to reveal the name of the father during her interrogation on the scaffold. Later, it will be revealed that Dimmesdale himself is the father. In this scene, however, Hester is the only other person who knows this, and Pearl speaks to her father, unaware of his true identity. He, the Governor, and Chillingworth all question Hester's ability to be a good role model for Pearl. She bears these criticisms well.

Chillingworth moves in with Dimmesdale under the pretense of being the minister's doctor. In fact, Chillingworth wants to ferret out the identity of Pearl's father and has reason to suspect that Dimmesdale might be the culprit. One day, when Dimmesdale falls asleep in his chair, Chillingworth opens the minister's shirt, revealing his chest, which the Reverend has been hiding from the doctor. Though the narrator doesn't say so, the minister has been carving an A into his chest, marking himself an adulterer. The doctor sees the wound, but chooses not to treat it.

Though Dimmesdale doesn't know what Chillingworth has done (or refrained from doing), he feels a mounting discomfort around the doctor and grows to hate him. He confesses this to Hester, who's unable to reveal Chillingworth's true identity due to her oath. In the years since her public shaming, Hester's beauty has faded, the scarlet A having imposed upon her an austere life that...

(The entire section is 844 words.)