Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

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Following her ordeal on the scaffold, Hester grows agitated and must be placed on suicide watch in prison. Finally, the jailer decides to call a doctor. Hester’s husband, a prisoner of a Native American tribe, happens to be staying in the prison while awaiting the negotiation of his ransom, so he comes to attend to Hester. He has taken an assumed name, Roger Chillingworth, so the guards don’t know his true identity.

Chillingworth claims to heave learned much from the Native Americans, in terms of medicine. He examines the infant, asking Hester to administer the draught since he isn’t the father and thus won’t be able to soothe Pearl with his presence. He then gives Hester a draught. She briefly suspects that it’s poison, but he assures her that this would be counter to his goal. He wants her to live and suffer under the weight of the scarlet letter. He admits, however, that it was wrong of him to marry her—a much younger woman—after she told him she didn’t love him. Both parties apologize.

In the end, Chillingworth doesn’t want Hester back. He wants the name of her lover, but she refuses to give him Dimmesdale’s name. If she gets to keep Dimmesdale’s secret, then Chillingworth thinks it only fair that she should keep his. He makes her promise not to reveal his true identity to anyone. She agrees, but wonders aloud if she has made a pact with the devil.


Lethe. In classical Greek mythology, the Lethe river is known as the river of forgetfulness. It’s one of five rivers in the underworld, and the spirits of the dead are forced to drink the waters in order to forget their lives on earth. Chillingworth alludes to the river to suggest that he never forgets a slight.
Nepenthe. In Greek, nepenthe means “anti-sorrow.” In Greek medicine, Nepenthe is a sort of antidepressant, a drug that induces forgetfulness in order to rid the patient of the very painful memories causing their depression.
Paracelsus (1493–1541). Paracelsus was a Swiss-German physician, in addition to being a philosopher. He’s now credited as the father of modern toxicology and has been widely recognized for his achievements, his creation of laudanum, his naming of the element zinc, and his many discoveries in the field of medicine and disease pathology. Chillingworth alludes to him to demonstrate that Native American medicine and healing practices are as old and therefore as respectable as Paracelsus’s many works.


Chillingworth uses a metaphor when he says that his “heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire.” This equates his heart with a big yet unwelcoming home. He extends the metaphor when he refers to the innermost “chamber,” or room, in his heart.


When Hester asks Chillingworth, “Art thou like the Black Man . . . ?” she’s effectively asking him if he’s the devil. This would make her promise to him a kind of devil’s pact, damning both her and her family (Dimmesdale included). In comparing Chillingworth to the devil, she characterizes him as a fundamentally evil character with malevolent intentions.


Secrets. There are two major secrets in this chapter: Chillingworth’s identity and Pearl’s paternity. Both these secrets are kept by Hester, who has been called upon to protect two men, both of whom will live by and large in the shadows, hiding their true identities. Hester, by contrast, lives out in the open, with the mark of her adultery visible for all the world to see.

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