Book Summary: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Book Summary: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Type of work: Impressionistic fiction
Setting: Boston,Massachusetts; 17th century
Principal characters
Hester Prynne, a condemned adulteress
Pearl, her daughter
Arthur Dimmesdale, one of the community’s ministers
Roger Chillingsworth, Hester’s estranged husband (his assumed name)

Book Summary

Condemned to wear a bright red “A” over her breast wherever she went, Hester Prynne had been convicted of adultery by Boston’s Puritan leaders; a child had been born to her during her husband’s long absence.

Emerging from the prisonhouse under the gaze of her neighbors, Hester surprised the townsfolk with her air of aloof and silent dignity. Led to the town square, she ascended a scaffold, her babe cradled in her arms. There on the scaffold she suffered scorn and public admonishment.

One “good woman” loudly decried the elaborate letter Hester had embroidered into her frock: blazing scarlet, ornately fashioned and bordered with prominent gold stitching – the requisite token of her deed. A minister in the crowd denounced her crime and called on her to reveal the identity of her partner. Another minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, pled with her more gently.

He, in compassion, also begged her to unmask her lover. Unknown to the multitude, however, Dimmesdale himself was that lover; his gentle prodding was in fact a distraught and convoluted effort to urge a confession from Hester which he knew she would never make – and which he could not find the courage to make for himself.

From her place on the pulpit, Hester’s eyes met with those of a hunched, wrinkled man in the crowd, a stranger in the town but well known to her. He was Hester’s husband, a scholar and a physician of sorts, who had spent years away, exploring the western wilderness. Now he had reappeared under the name of “Roger Chillingsworth.”

Visiting Hester in her prison cell later that day, Chillingsworth expressed his rage that she should betray him and made her swear not to expose him as her husband. Furthermore, he vowed that he would discover the identity of his wife’s lover.

Finally released, the adulteress took up residence in a lonely cottage by the sea. Her chief employment, for which she demonstrated a prodigious talent, was sewing. She managed to win the business of nearly everyone in the community. Still, despite the acceptance she won as a seamstress, Hester was forced to bear social ostracism: children jeered as she passed, other women avoided her, and clergymen pointed to her as a living example of the consequences of sin.

Rumors circulated that she was a witch, and that the scarlet letter she bore on her clothing glowed a deep blood red in the dark. Still Hester withstood this abuse without complaint. Hester felt much more concern for her daughter, Pearl, than for herself. She cringed when the illegitimate girl was pushed aside by other children.

In contrast to Hester’s remarkable dignity, Pearl displayed a wild, undisciplined character, seemingly incapable of natural affection. The governor of Boston and all the clergy publicly proclaimed their doubts that the sprite-like, curious child could develop the capacity to enter Christian society.

Even more tragically, the townspeople looked on Pearl as a kind of evil spirit – the perverse offspring from a moment of unholy passion. Even Hester little understood her daughter, who served at once as both a comfort and a painful reminder of her past.

In the meantime, Roger Chillingsworth had taken lodgings with Minister Dimmesdale. Chillingsworth immediately suspected that the clergyman had been his wife’s once-guilty partner in lust, and, posing as a true friend, he managed, over the course of months, to wring his roommate’s conscience with subtle hints and comments about the dire strait of hypocrites in the eyes of God.

Soon it became clear that Dimmesdale was indeed Hester’s lover; but, rather than expose him then, Chillingsworth chose to continue torturing the preacher’s moral sanity. Dimmesdale’s sense of guilt grew, ultimately causing his health to wane. He took to holding his hand over his heart, as if he felt some deep pain.

Yet he failed to recognize the treachery being perpetrated on him, blaming only himself for his growing infirmity. To make matters worse, the weaker and more guilt-ridden Dimmesdale became, the holier he appeared to his congregation, whose members regarded him as unequaled in piety. Every sermon he preached seemed to be more inspired than the last.More than once the minister resolved to confess his hypocrisy and take his place beside Hester, but he was too afraid of the shame open confession would bring.

And so it was that the years passed: Hester, suffering in disgrace and isolation, devoting her life to charitable service and winning the hidden admiration of many of her peers; Pearl, maturing into a lovely girl but still showing no signs of outgrowing her eccentricities; Dimmesdale, weighed down by unbearable remorse even as his reputation for holiness increased; and Chillingsworth, daily tampering with Dimmesdale’s fragile conscience.

Frequently the four of them crossed paths. However, no momentous event transpired – until one day seven years after Hester’s initial public censure. While Hester and Pearl were strolling in the woods, they came upon Dimmesdale, and he and Hester finally savored a long-awaited and emotional reunion.

Speaking of their long-kept secret, Hester attempted to assure the minister that his good works and humility had gained him penance. But the priest cried, “Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret!” In sorrow and pity, Hester admitted that Chillingsworth, Dimmesdale’s own valued friend, was in fact her estranged husband; and he the nurturing demon behind the minister’s living hell.

Then she convinced her dear Dimmesdale to escape with her to Europe, where they could enjoy a new, unfettered life together. Their plan was to depart after the minister had delivered his final sermon. The day of departure came, and Hester waited anxiously outside the church.

Nearby, the captain of the ship on which they would sail mentioned to her that Roger Chillingsworth was also booked as a passenger on his vessel. So, the evil man intended to follow them, she thought in horror. Their plans were dashed! When the service ended, the townsfolk exited the chapel in a high state of emotion; Minister Dimmesdale had imparted an extraordinarily spiritual message.

But to their surprise, Dimmesdale made his way out of the procession and feebly trod toward the scaffold in the marketplace. Then he turned and beckoned Hester and Pearl to come to him. Roger Chillingsworth thrust himself through the crowd and caught the minister by the arm. “Madman, hold! What is your purpose?” he whispered frantically. “Wave back that woman! Cast off this child!…Do not blacken your fame, and perish in dishonor! I can yet save you!” “Ha, tempter!” Dimmesdale replied. “Me thinks thou art too late! Thy power is not what it was! With God’s help, I shall escape thee now!”Then extending his hand to Hester, Dimmesdale admitted to his partnership in her sin, and berated himself for the years he had lived in deceit.

Then he focused on Roger Chillingsworth and exposed the true identity and sinister nature of the man. This done, he turned and mounted the scaffold. His emotional anguish over the years, though, had devastated his body and his spirit: his confession proved to be fatal.

As he collapsed on the wooden planks, supported on Hester’s bosom, Dimmesdale bid farewell to his beloved, and then to little Pearl. Finally, in the triumph of a soul at last filled with peace, the minister breathed his last.

Hawthorne, through his narrator, adds a final chapter, in which he speculates on the fate of the other characters. He proposes the following: Roger Chillingsworth, hatefully hunched over and shriveled, died within the year; but in sympathy he left his considerable estate to Pearl.

Having come into such wealth, both Pearl and Hester sailed abroad. Hester eventually returned to Boston alone to occupy her old cottage, frequently receiving letters and gifts from her daughter. She became a trusted confidante to scores of local women, but never removed the scarlet letter from her breast. Her gravestone – it is suggested – can still be seen: a plain black headstone with no name engraved; only a blazing scarlet “A”.

The Scarlet Letter Reviews

The Scarlet Letter, as one of the first and finest “psychological gothics,” may bewilder modern “TV readers,”who keep waiting for something to happen. The book contains very little dramatic action. The bulk of the novel is occupied by the narrator’s uniquely penetrating descriptions of his characters’ thoughts, feelings and relationships.

This narrator also breaks other literary ground: Not content to slip into the background and let the storyline flow, he constantly interrupts the plot, speculating on motives, offering his opinions, and suggesting alternative views. Sometimes he even takes part in the interactions, as when, in the first chapter, he plucks a rose from a bush outside the town prison and offers it to you, the reader.

Furthermore, he claims to be guiding the story through its many macabre twists based on various sources (manuscripts, gossip, rumors and legends) that may or may not be reliable. The reader is often left to choose one or another version of the tale, or to reject them all.

Hester Prynne is one of the great heroines of literature. Though Hawthorne never condones her crime, he is, as described in Harry Levin’s introduction, “concerned to show that fundamental morality is not so much a series of rigorous laws to be enforced by a meddling community as it is an insight to be attained through continuous exertion on the part of the individual conscience.”

An ambiguous blend of sin and virtue, pride and humility, severity and gentleness, justice and mercy, the novel’s true message may lie in what Hawthorne describes as its true genre: The Scarlet Letter, says its author, is not so much a novel as a “romance,” filled with details that disclose the “truth of the human heart.”

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