Hester Prynne, an attractive young woman living among the Puritans of Boston during the 1650’s. She becomes a martyr because she, presumably a widow, bears a child out of wedlock; this sin results in her being jailed and then publicly exhibited on a pillory for three hours. After she is released from jail, she must wear for a lifetime a scarlet “A” upon her bosom. She becomes a seamstress, stitching and embroidering to earn a living for herself and for Pearl, her child. After her one act of sin, Hester behaves with such uncanny rectitude that she seems an American Jeanne d’Arc, battling not against opposing armies and bigotry but against bigotry alone, the most formidable of antagonists. Hester refuses to name the child’s father, who is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, her minister; she does not quail when her supposedly dead husband, Roger Chillingworth, comes from out of the forest to witness her appearance on the pillory; and without complaint or self-pity, she fights her way back to respectability and the rights of motherhood. Her situation is made more poignant and heroic by Dimmesdale’s lack of sufficient moral courage to confess that he is Pearl’s father. Hester seems to need no partner to share her guilt. Tragedy befalls her when Dimmesdale dies, but the reader feels that Hester will stoutly and resolutely make her way through life.
The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale
The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a minister in Boston. Emotionally, he is drawn and halved by the consequences of his sin with Hester, and he is pulled apart by responsibility. Should he confess and thus ruin his career, or should he keep silent and continue the great good resulting from his sin-inspired sermons? Outwardly, Dimmesdale is a living man, but inwardly he is the rubble and wreckage resulting from a Puritan conscience. One night, he drags himself (along with Hester and Pearl) up to the pillory where he feels he should have stood long ago, but this confession is a sham, for only Roger Chillingworth, hidden in the darkness, observes the trio. Finally, at the end of his Election Day sermon, he takes Hester and Pearl by the hand, ascends the pillory, confesses publicly, and sinks down dead. When his clothing is removed, Puritans see the stigma of an “A” on the skin of his chest. Hawthorne takes no stand on Dimmesdale’s weakness or strength; he says simply, “This is Dimmesdale.”
Roger Chillingworth, a “physician” who might better be called “Evil.” Thought to have been killed by Indians, he reenters Hester’s life when she first stands on the pillory. Pretending to minister to the physically ailing Dimmesdale, he tries only to confirm his suspicion that the minister is Pearl’s father. When Arthur and Hester, in a desperate act of hope, book passage on a ship to England, Chillingworth also signs up for the voyage, and Hester knows she can never escape him. Although motivated by the fact of his wife bearing another man’s child, Chillingworth nevertheless seems inordinately twisted toward vengeance. Conniving, sly, and monomaniacal, he is more a devilish force than a man.
Pearl, Hester’s elfin, unpredictable daughter. She refuses to repeat the catechism for the governor and thus risks being taken from her mother. At a meeting of Hester and Arthur in the forest, she treats the minister as a rival; when he kisses her on the brow, she rushes to a stream and washes away the unwelcome kiss.
Governor Bellingham, the leader of the Massachusetts Colony. He thinks Hester is unfit to rear Pearl but is persuaded to allow them to remain together by the plea of Dimmesdale.
The Reverend John Wilson
The Reverend John Wilson, a stern divine. Early in the story, he exhorts Dimmesdale to force Hester to reveal Pearl’s father.
Mistress Higgins, the bitter-tempered sister of the governor. She is simply and literally a witch.