The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne

by contributor

Sharon Fleming

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Context

The Scarlet Letter’s narrator, who is nameless, is described as having been a customhouse surveyor in Salem, Massachusetts. We read in the preamble how he found mysterious seventeenth-century documents in the attic, including a manuscript that is held in gold-embroidered, scarlet cloth strangely shaped like the letter “A.” These documents, written by another surveyor, sets out the events we read about in the novel. It is the loss of his position as customhouse surveyor that leads the narrator to write about the fascinating story he has discovered.

Hester Prynne, a persecuted young woman in Puritan seventeenth-century Boston, is being led to the town scaffold from prison. She is carrying Pearl, her infant daughter, and on the breast of her dress is a letter “A” in scarlet. This has been imposed on her as punishment for the adultery that led to the birth of her child and her refusal to provide the name of her lover.  She is assumed to now be widowed, as her husband never arrived to join her from Europe and is thought to have been lost at sea. He was a scholar and significantly older than she is. After Hester and her child arrive at the scaffold, she is aggressively questioned by the town fathers but still refuses to provide her lover’s name.

In reality, Hester’s husband is not dead. Rather, he is disguised in the crowd as an elderly onlooker. He now functions under an alias, Roger Chillingworth, and is practicing medicine. Hester comes to know this and promises not to reveal his secret.  He is looking for revenge in Boston. After Hester’s dramatic public shaming, she works as a seamstress to support herself and her daughter. She and Pearl are ostracized by the community and live in exile on the outskirts of Boston, in a tiny cottage. Pearl is now a difficult and mischievous child. Eventually, certain people in the community decide that perhaps Pearl should be taken away from Hester. Luckily, Arthur Dimmesdale, a highly respected young minister, intervenes and advocates for Pearl to stay where she is. It seems that Dimmesdale has a heart condition of some kind. He is very thin and appears extremely ill., and his mind seems to be troubled. As Chillingworth now works as a doctor, he begins treating the ill Dimmesdale and eventually moves in with him to give him constant care. Chillingworth has suspicions that Dimmesdale and Hester have secret connections, and that the minister’s illness could be a result of guilt. The older man goes out finding ways to test Dimmesdale to determine the truth. Chillingworth’s idea that Dimmesdale might be Pearl’s father leads him to more closely examine the minister as he sleeps. He finds that Dimmesdale has a strange mark on this chest. Chillingworth now realizes that Dimmesdale is Hester’s lover.

Dimmesdale continues to psychologically torture himself. Hester has begun receiving better treatment from the community, however, because of her good behavior and charity. One night, Dimmesdale climbs on top of the town scaffold, hoping that people will come to witness his humiliation so that he may feel punished. Hester and Pearl happen to be making their way home from a visit when they see this. As a gesture of their unity, Hester and Pearl also get onto the scaffold and they all hold hands. Visible in the dark sky is a meteor creating a red “A”. Pearl asks Dimmesdale to accept her in public the next day, but he refuses. In an effort to save Dimmesdale’s life, Hester visits Chillingworth and begs him to cease in his psychological torture of Dimmesdale. This appeal is unsuccessful.

Hester and Dimmesdale arrange to meet in the forest. They decide they want to be a family, and that they will take Pearl and travel on a ship that is to leave Boston in four days to Europe, to start a new life. Hester signifies her relief and happiness by letting her hair fall loose over her shoulders and taking off the scarlet “A”. As Pearl has never seen her mother without the “A”, she isn’t able to recognize her without it. Dimmesdale gives a sermon, a particularly eloquent one, for the townspeople the next day. The day before Hester and Dimmesdale plan to leave, it is discovered that Chillingworth has secured a place on the same ship: he knows about their hope of escaping. Hester and Pearl stand in front of the scaffold, and this is seen by Dimmesdale after delivering the sermon and exiting the church. He joins them, and they all climb onto the scaffold together. Dimmesdale opens his shirt, shows the mark that is seared on his chest, and collapses. He is dead.

Chillingworth, enraged by his inability to exact further revenge, dies the following year. Hester and Pearl leave the town, leaving no word of where they are going. It’s not for many years before the townspeople see Hester again, when she returns with the scarlet letter still on her chest. She wants to devote her life to charity again and live in the cottage. Pearl is in Europe, married to an aristocrat. Hester is buried next to Dimmesdale, sharing a tombstone when she dies. There is a scarlet “A” on it.

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