Because The Scarlet Letter is more than 150 years old, some readers forget that the events described in the novel did not occur during the author’s lifetime, but instead describe fictional events that occurred in colonial Boston. This would have been approximately 200 years before the author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, actually wrote The Scarlet Letter. Therefore, while it is a historical work today, it is important to keep in mind that it was historical fiction at the time it was written and published.
Hawthorne was a well-known author by the time this novel was published. However, many of his works were more gothic in nature, with Hawthorne often being compared to Washington Irving. This novel, with its emphasis on psychological drama, sexuality, religion, and sin, was a departure from his normal work. It was well received by many critics at is time, but others criticized its subject matter and its overt questioning of American Christianity........
The Scarlet Letter opens with a preamble from the narrator, a man who works in a customhouse and discovered documents describing the tale in the story. The manuscript he found was left by a prior customhouse surveyor and was wrapped with an embroidered scarlet “A”. The narrator says that after losing the post at the customhouse, he decided to write a fictionalized record of the events in the documents that he found.
The setting for the novel is Boston in the 1600s, which was a colonial Puritan settlement. Hester Prynne is a young married woman whose husband sent her from Europe to Boston without him. She had a love affair and became pregnant, giving birth to an illegitimate child, Pearl. As the story opens, Hester is being released from the town’s prison with her daughter Pearl. Hester has a scarlet “A” embroidered on her dress. She also has to sit on a scaffold for a public shaming. Despite the punishments, she refuses to name the father of her child.
Unbeknownst to Hester, one of the men in the crowd is her missing husband, who has finally come to Boston, but has taken on a new identity, Roger Chillingworth, and is intent on getting revenge on Hester’s lover. He reveals himself to Hester, but swears her to secrecy, and she keeps his identity a secret. Chillingworth is practicing medicine in the town. Hester has become a seamstress whose work is admired. Pearl is growing into a willful child that the townsfolk often describe in fanciful terms, like elfish or impish.
After several years, Hester hears that the community intends to take Pearl from her. However, the town’s minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, intercedes on her behalf and her daughter continues to live with her. Dimmesdale is a young man, but has been suffering from some type of illness that seems to be impacting his heart. Chillingworth moves in with Dimmesdale, theoretically to help care for him. Chillingworth thinks that Dimmesdale knows who the father of Hester’s child is. One day, while Dimmesdale is napping, Chillingworth finds a mark on his breast, which seems to confirm his suspicions. The details of the mark are kept from the reader.
Throughout the book, Dimmesdale seems to get more and more anxious. He also seems to be punishing himself. While he is still well respected in the community, he is clearly lacking inner peace. Hester, on the other hand, not only seems at peace with herself, but also with the community. She is involved in charitable work and is a sought-after seamstress, known for her beautiful embroidery. She and Pearl encounter Dimmesdale on the scaffold, attempting to punish himself for his sins. They join him and the three hold hands. However, when Pearl asks Dimmesdale to acknowledge he is her father in public, he refuses. Hester, concerned about Dimmesdale’s deterioration, asks Chillingworth to leave him alone, but Chillingworth refuses.
Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest. The two hatch a plan to flee to Europe with Pearl and live as a family. They decide to take a ship that departs in four days. Hester takes the “A”off of her dress and lets her hair down; Pearl does not recognize her without the letter. The day before they are set to depart, Dimmesdale gives an impassioned sermon to the townspeople. Hester finds out that Chillingworth has somehow discovered their plans and has booked passage on the same ship. When Dimmesdale leaves the church, he pulls Hester and Pearl up onto the town scaffold, confesses that he is Pearl’s father, opens his shirt to reveal the scarlet letter he seared into his own flesh, and then dies.....
Hester Prynne– The protagonist of the book, Hester is a young married woman who became pregnant as the result of an adulterous affair. She is punished for her crimes, with time in jail, a public shaming, and being ordered to wear an “A” on her chest to show that she is an adulterer. Her husband is elderly scholar, whom she married in Europe. He sent her to live in Boston, but never came to join her. He lover is Dimmesdale, the town minister. Hester spends the entire novel in shame and punishment, so she acts as an outsider observing Puritan society, as well as a member of that society. She is strong-willed and has very feminist ideas, believing that Puritan society is not good to women.
Pearl- Pearl is Hester and Dimmesdale’s daughter. She is described in terms that seems to suggest that she is otherworldly, such as imp and elf. The more malicious townspeople suggest that her father is the Devil. She seems more perceptive than the townspeople and realizes that Dimmesdale is her father.
Roger Chillingworth- Hester’s husband, Chillingworth is set up as the antagonist in the story. An older man, he sent Prynne ahead of him to Boston while he finished up his affairs in Europe. When he traveled to the Americas, he was captured by Native Americans. He manages to get to Boston just in time to find Hester and Pearl being displayed on the scaffold. Knowing the child is not his, he stays in Boston in order to get revenge. However, he pretends to be a doctor named Chillingworth.
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale- Hester’s lover, Dimmesdale was a renowned minister in Europe and is still well-respected in Boston. He is deeply ashamed of what he has done, but lacks the courage to confess that he is Pearl’s father, instead letting Hester take all of the blame. His guilt manifests itself physically, and he has a heart condition that will prove fatal by the conclusion of the story.
Governor Bellingham- Based on the actual Governor Bellingham, who governed Boston at the time, he is the political head of Boston during the time of the story. He is a rule follower, but he does not seem to notice that his sister is a witch, and he finds Dimmesdale’s arguments to be persuasive.
Mistress Hibbins- She is known to be a witch and invites Hester to join her in the forest for rides with the Black Man. However, her brother is the Governor, so she is not punished for her behaviors. The real-life Mistress Hibbins was executed as a witch.
Reverend John Wilson- One of Boston’s older ministers, Wilson is a stereotypical Puritan who is deeply invested in community rules and wants to harshly punish sinners.
The Narrator- The narrator is unnamed and does not really play a role in the story, but does tell his story of working in the customhouse and encountering the manuscript that inspired his fictionalized account.
Any recurring idea in a work of literature is a theme, and there are several themes that the readers will see over and over again in The Scarlet Letter. They are mostly based on an understanding of Puritan culture, so, while that culture is more setting than theme, it is important to understand Puritan cultural norms in order to understand the novel.
Sin- Sin is one of the biggest themes in the novel. Hester committed the sin of adultery and is punished as a result of it. The punishment, which is a form of banishment, is reminiscent of the original punishment of banishment that Adam and Eve experienced when they were kicked out of Eden. However, like that original sin, Hester’s sin leads to knowledge. As an outcast, she is better able to evaluate the role of women in Puritan society. Dimmesdale does not experience the same suffering as an outcast that Hester experiences, but also gains greater compassion through his own experience as a sinner.
Banishment- Closely linked to the theme of sin, banishment plays a role in the play. Hester is first banished by her husband. For reasons that are never explained, he sends her to Boston without him. As a married woman without a husband, she does not have a role in Puritan society. Then, even though not technically banished, she is ostracized by the Puritans after she gives birth to Pearl. They are not sure how to handle what they perceive as sin, so their reaction is to try to shut it away from them.
The Devil- The ultimate personification of Evil, the Devil is repeatedly mentioned throughout the novel. The townspeople suggest that Pearl is the Devil’s child, and Mistress Hibbins invites Hester to join her in the forest and dance with the Black Man. Other characters in the novel, such as Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, are also associated with the Devil. However, the novel does not seem to suggest that the Devil is real; instead, it seems to suggest that the Devil is symbolic of the evil that is inside of men.
Community- One of the most puzzling aspects of the novel is why Hester stays in Boston. She is free to leave the colony and go anywhere, where she could simply claim to be a widow and live without the stigma she has as a known adulterer. However, she does not choose to do so. Even though she lives on the fringes of society and is outside of it, there is still something about society that she seems to find necessary. In fact, she even returns to Boston at the conclusion of the story, after presumably having established a good life elsewhere in the interim. Part of why she stays is defiance of societal norms that dictate that she should be ashamed because of her scarlet letter, but part of why she stays can also be attributed to the human desire for community.
Feminism- Though the term was not really in use at the time that Hawthorne wrote the novel, feminism is one of its most significant themes. Hester is punished for sexual behavior, but her lover is not. Hester is independent throughout the novel. Her husband first sends her to Boston, where she is responsible for caring for herself. Then she takes care of herself and of Pearl, without help from her husband, from Dimmesdale, or from the people of the town. She acts independently and eventually becomes a woman that other women in town turn to when they are feeling oppressed. She also does so in her own way, not acting like a witch like Mistress Hibbins. However, the novel’s take on feminism seems to be rooted in some of the sexist ideals that were in play at the author’s time, linking Hester’s behavior with immoral practices. The fact that Hester eventually returns to Boston, where she continues to wear the scarlet letter, suggests that, at some level, Hester has internalized the idea that her behavior was somehow faulty.
At the beginning of the novel, the narrator introduces himself and provides a surrounding story for the novel. The narrator explains that he was the chief executive officer at the Salem Custom House, which would have been the place where people paid import taxes. There, he uncovers some documents, including a manuscript that is bundled with a scarlet letter A with gold embroidery. The manuscript was written by Jonathan Pue, a customs surveyor from 100 years before, who wrote down events that took place 100 years before Pue worked there. The narrator decides to use this manuscript as the basis for his own fictional account of Hester Prynne’s life. While the narrator shares many characteristics with Hawthorne, he also serves as a plot device that frames the rest of the story. The narrator also talks about the idea of writing as a career, his family’s resistance to it, and how difficult it is to devote himself to writing a romance until he loses his job and is able to fully devote his attention to the task.
The initial chapters help introduce the reader to the Puritan setting, which plays an important role in the novel. It opens with a look at the prison door, which is heavy and ominous looking. Next to the prison door is a rosebush. A woman emerges from the prison door. She has a scarlet letter “A” on her chest, which has gold embroidery. She is holding an infant and being led to the scaffold to be shamed. Women in the crowd make it clear that the woman has had an illegitimate child as the result of adultery and is to be condemned for it. While she is being shamed, Hester reflects on her life. She thinks about her marriage to an older scholar in Europe. She reflects on where she is now. She has a hard time believing that she is in her current position.
The beginning of the novel helps the reader to understand the Puritan mindset about sin. On the one hand, Puritans believe in original sin, which means that all humans are sinners. However, they also believe in sin as something active and are determine to find sin, expose it, and publicly punish sinners. While the theory behind this is that it helps the sinner, the actions of the novel make it clear that the community gets enjoyment out of the humiliation and is able to make the sinner into a scapegoat.
One of the most important things about the introductory novels is that they show Hester as being set apart from the community. This is true in several ways. Obviously, Hester is being punished by the community. However, as she thinks about how she came to be on that scaffold in Boston, it is clear that Hester’s background may differ from that of the Puritans who surround her.
Chillingworth, who has taken on the role of doctor, has become a valued member of society. He is so valued that he is expected to help cure Dimmesdale, who seems to be having health problems. Dimmesdale has also refused to marry, despite having many available options. Chillingworth pushes for the town leaders to have him live with Dimmesdale so that he can find out what is wrong with him and cure them. The two men begin to live together, and the contents of their rooms highlight their differences. Chillingworth’s room is a laboratory, while Dimmesdale’s room is decorated with scenes of adultery and punishment. In addition, while people were initially welcoming to Chillingworth, he as lost favor with many in the village, and people begin to whisper that he is the Devil.
As Chillingworth tries to discover what is wrong with Dimmesdale, he begins to suspect a psychological cause, even though Dimmesdale is reserved and reluctant to share any personal information. Even when Chillingworth tries to get Dimmesdale to confess, suggesting that a spiritual issue is responsible for his declining health, Dimmesdale refuses, stating that such a problem would be between him and God. Chillingworth finds this behavior suspicious. When he finds Dimmesdale napping, he is able to confirm his suspicions by lifting up Dimmesdale’s shirt to reveal a mark on his chest. While the mark is later revealed as a scarlet “A,” the nature of the mark is not revealed to the reader at this time.
This chapter really explores Dimmesdale’s character. At times, he seems considerate and caring. For examp