The Scarlet Letter Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis

While on the scaffold, Hester notices a Native American in the crowd. Next to him is a small man, whom Hester recognizes as her husband, Mr. Prynne. She doesn't reveal his identity, however, and he lifts a finger to his lips to make sure she keeps quiet. He asks people in the crowd why she is on the scaffold and learns of her crime. He also learns that, because of his own presumed death and his long absence, she has been spared the harshest punishment (that is, death) for adultery.

Governor Bellingham and several magistrates sit in the balcony over the scaffold. Upon looking up at them, Hester pales, seeing no sympathy in their hearts. This clergyman wants Hester to speak of her sin in the open, but his colleague, Reverend Dimmesdale, disagrees. In explaining this, the first clergyman puts Dimmesdale on the spot, and the Reverend feels compelled to stand and ask Hester for the name of her lover. He does this despite the fact that he is the culprit.

When Hester refuses to reveal the name of the baby's father, the first clergyman to speak delivers a sermon on the horrors of sin, focusing particularly on that symbolized by the scarlet letter. Though aware of the crowd's condemnation, Hester glazes over, unmoved by the sermon, and is eventually taken back to prison.

Alliteration

Hawthorne is fond of alliteration, and he uses it frequently. One example of this can be found at the end of the chapter, when he writes that Hester "seemed scarcely to sympathize" with Pearl's crying.
 
Motifs
 
Color. In response to the clergyman's evidently melodramatic sermon, the Puritans of Boston see the fires of hell in the scarlet letter. Traditionally, the color red is associated with love, passion, and heat, all of which are linked to sin in this novel. Note that the color red will be used sparingly in this novel, making the scarlet of the letter A all the more vivid.
 
Repetition
 
Mr. Prynne (here identified only as "the stranger") repeats the ominous promise "he will be known" three times. This emphasizes his determination to discover the identity of Pearl's father.
 
Simile
 
Hawthorne uses many similes in this chapter. One example is found in the way horror washes over Chillingworth's facial features "like a snake gliding softly over them." Another is in the description of the one of the clergyman: "He looked like the darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed to old volumes of sermons…" Hawthorne's simile likens the clergyman to a stately, elderly theologian whose outdated opinions are irrelevant and self-important.
 
Themes
 
Fatherhood. In this chapter, Hawthorne introduces two different kinds of fatherhood: that of God—or the "Holy Father"—whom Christians believe to be everyone's spiritual father and that of Reverend Dimmesdale, Pearl's biological father, who will play little to no part in her upbringing. When he implores Hester to "give [her] child a father," he means both that she should reveal his name and free him from the binds that prevent him from being a father to Pearl.
 
Guilt. Guilt and sin go hand in hand in this novel, and both are symbolized by the scarlet letter sewn onto Hester's clothes. Though Hester claims that the mark can never be removed because it's "too deeply branded," there's some question as to whether or not she feels guilty. Certainly, she understands the shame of the letter and intends to bear the agony alone, but this could be interpreted as capitulation to necessity rather than guilt. Reverend Dimmesdale, on the other hand, appears crushed under the weight of his guilt. When he commands Hester to name his name, it's as if he's begging her to free him of his guilt.
 
Sin. Traditionally, sin has been associated with filth, abominations, and a general uncleanliness of body and mind. Thus, any reference to dirt or cleanliness is an indirect way of characterizing someone or something as sinful or sinless. "Unadulterated" sunlight is, therefore, pure or innocent, whereas the "lurid" color of the scarlet letter recalls the fire of hell.