Key Plot Points

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While we recommend reading The Scarlet Letter in its entirety, we understand that your classroom may have time constraints. The following Key Plot Points are meant to guide you and your students to the most relevant parts of the text so you can plan your lessons most efficiently.

Hester Prynne Is Punished for Adultery (Chapter 2): Hester is a beautiful young woman living in 17th-century Boston, a Puritan community. She has been found guilty of adultery and part of her punishment requires that she be publicly humiliated by standing on a scaffold for several hours. She carries her baby daughter, Pearl, whose birth revealed her illicit affair, and wears a scarlet letter “A” on the breast of her dress. Hester inwardly agonizes about her punishment but descends the scaffold with confidence and refuses to reveal her lover’s identity.

Hester’s Husband Visits Her in Jail (Chapter 4): Hester’s husband pretends to be a physician in order to visit Hester and Pearl in jail. He is an elderly scholar and was presumed lost at sea when he did not follow Hester to America, as was prearranged. He helps to calm Pearl, who has been crying uncontrollably, and accepts equal blame for Hester’s betrayal. He tries to identify Hester’s lover, but Hester will not name him. He asks her not to reveal that he is her husband because of the shame it would bring upon him, and she agrees. He adopts the name Roger Chillingworth.

The Reverend Dimmesdale Prevents Hester and Pearl from Being Separated (Chapter 8): Hester has been released from jail, and several years have passed. The Puritan authorities have strongly considered taking Pearl away from Hester, both because Pearl is rumored to be possessed and because they think that Hester’s sin makes her an unsuitable mother. Hester begs the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale to defend her before Governor Bellingham. Dimmesdale gives an impassioned speech defending God’s decision to place Pearl with Hester and convinces the governor to allow Pearl to stay with her mother.

Chillingworth Tries to Get Revenge Against Dimmesdale (Chapter 11): Chillingworth is now certain that Dimmesdale, whose health is mysteriously failing, is Pearl’s father. Chillingworth has been living with Dimmesdale as his physician and now tries to make Dimmesdale as miserable as possible. Dimmesdale, suffering intensely under Chillingworth’s care and the burden of his own hypocrisy, begins punishing himself physically and psychologically, though he does not confess.

Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl Stand on the Scaffold Together (Chapter 12): Out walking late one night, Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold where Hester stood with Pearl seven years earlier. He is tormented by guilt. Hester and Pearl notice him and, upon his invitation, join him on the scaffold. Pearl asks him if he will stand with them in front of everyone, but he says he will do so only on judgment day. A meteor illuminates the three of them standing together. Chillingworth sees them and coaxes Dimmesdale down from the scaffold.

Hester Reveals Chillingworth’s Identity to Dimmesdale (Chapter 17): Hester confesses to Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband and that he is tormenting Dimmesdale out of revenge. Dimmesdale initially blames Hester for the misery he lives in, but he ultimately forgives her and concludes that Chillingworth is a more grievous sinner. Hester suggests leaving Boston for Europe, but Dimmesdale worries that he is too weak to travel until Hester says that she would go with him.

Hester and Dimmesdale Decide to Flee to Europe (Chapter 20): Hester and Dimmesdale plan to return to Europe with Pearl. They are both intensely relieved and Dimmesdale’s health appears to improve significantly. He tells Chillingworth that he no longer needs his medications, and Chillingworth privately suspects that Dimmesdale has met with Hester.

Dimmesdale Confesses His Sin and Dies (Chapter 23): Dimmesdale’s renewed good health has abandoned him following the delivery of his Election Sermon. Before the assembled town, he asks Hester and Pearl to join him on the scaffold. Chillingworth, who was planning to follow Hester and Dimmesdale to Europe, urges him not to besmirch his reputation and in doing so deny Chillingworth his revenge. However, Dimmesdale publicly confesses his part in Hester’s sin and reveals a scarlet letter “A” on his bare chest. He dies in Hester’s arms after thanking God for putting him through misery as a lesson for committing the sin of adultery.

Chillingworth Dies, Pearl Marries for Love, and Hester Lives Out the Rest of Her Life in Boston (Chapter 24): Chillingworth dies within a year of Dimmesdale’s death and leaves his land to Pearl. Hester and Pearl go to Europe, where Pearl is eventually rumored to have married a man she loves. Hester returns to her little cabin in Boston and lives out her life while still wearing the scarlet letter. She is buried beside Dimmesdale.

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