Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter Analysis

  • Tone

    Detached, Complex, Skeptical, Moralizing

    Yeah, that's a lot of tone to pack into one novel, but Hawthorne is a good writer. Check out this sentence from a very early part of the novel:

    The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. (1.2)

    Our narrator is very detached. He doesn't show any feeling toward these Puritans one way or another, although over time we get the sense that he sees some problems with their community. It's also extremely complex writing, with lots of clauses and modifiers.

    Part of that complexity comes from ever-so-slight hint of wryness or skepticism that he can't help using. He notes that the founders had "originally" wanted to found a "Utopia"—a perfect place—but, nevertheless, two of the very first sites they build are a cemetery and a prison. We get the sense that the narrator is poking just a little bit of fun at the lofty, idealistic goals of the Puritan founders—and suggesting that even they didn't fully believe it.

    Teacher, Teacher

    So much for detached, complex, and skeptical; what about moralizing? Look at the way this first chapter ends:

    Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolise some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow. (1.3)

    Here, the narrator is directly addressing the reader, essentially telling us that every sad story has at least one little hint of brightness in it, one "moral blossom." And he's going to make sure that we pluck that moral blossom. In fact, he's going to force us to take it.

  • Genre

    Gothic, Romance, Historical

    Mystery? Check. Malevolent villain? Check. Quasi-supernatural events, like meteors and bloody markings of uncertain origin? Also check. There may not be a castle or ghost, but we're definitely in familiar Gothic territory here.

    For all the supernatural elements, The Scarlet Letter also explores the life and times of early America. It may not be 100% accurate, but it's a historical novel set in a real place among real people, like Governor Bellingham and Mistress Hibbins. We learn about early American crime and punishment; we learn about their attitudes toward meteors and other natural phenomena; we learn what they wore and how they acted; and we also learn how they thought about their little community.

    Finally, The Scarlet Letter is a love story. Surprised? No, there's no bodice-ribbing, but Pearl is the physical manifestation of a passionate love affair, and the story ends by making Hester into a kind of prophetess suggesting that marriages of convenience aren't so convenient after all: that "in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness" (24.11). In other words, people will begin to marry for love.

    Crazy idea, right?

  • What’s Up With the Title?

    Back in the day (colonial times, that is), law and religion were inseparable, like peanut butter and jelly. When a woman cheated on her husband—even if that husband had been missing for two years—she had to be punished by law, preferably in a creative way like having to wear a big red "A" on her dress.

    When we begin The Scarlet Letter, Hester is carrying out her sentence by displaying her scarlet "A" (for adultery) for the community's enjoyment. They're digging it, even if one onlooker does say that the "A" should have been burned onto Hester's forehead. (Hey, she's being merciful: another onlooker thinks that the she should have been executed.)

    Over time, though, the "A" becomes more than a symbol of adultery. It burns, glows, gets discarded, and taken back up again—almost as though it has a life of its own. And it's made so beautifully that the townspeople notice its artistry and craftsmanship before they remember what it means. Eventually, Hester is able to change the meaning of the letter and to earn the respect of those around her. The book's title puts the focus where it belongs: not on the individual (Hester) but on the letter that represents the community's response to her—and her response back.

    And one more thing. Why do you think it's called The Scarlet Letter and not The Scarlet A? Does it just sound better?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    When Chillingworth dies and leaves all his money to Pearl, mom and daughter can finally escape the judgy ways of the Massachusetts Bay colonists. In fact, they've been able to put an entire ocean between themselves and those stern Puritans. They live lavishly in England. The End.

    Except not. Years later, Hester Prynne actually goes back to the community that's shunned her for so long. She goes back to her little cottage on the outskirts of town. She goes back to wearing her scarlet letter. Her adultery has become so much a part of her that she can't actually feel free unless she's doing penance by wearing that A.

    The novel leaves us with a final picture of Hester and Dimmesdale's gravestone. They have been buried near one another (but not directly next to each other). A motto carved on the headstone they share ensures that their punishment follows them even into death: "on a field, sable, the letter A, gules." This motto is a verbal representation of the scarlet letter ("sable" means black and "gules" means reddish).

    A final, tragic image? Maybe. But

    We could interpret this persistent A as a tragic final image. However, the fact that Hester and Dimmesdale can be buried near each other suggests that the community has, in many ways, forgiven them for their adultery. Even after death, the legend of their love continues.

  • Setting

    (Click the map infographic to download.)

    Mid-17th century new England, specifically Boston (Massachusetts Bay Colony)

    In the 17th century in England, the state religion was Church of England, which had broken off from the Roman Catholic Church about 200 years earlier. The Church of England had gotten rid of or seriously cut back on a lot of Catholic practices like the veneration of saints and emphasis on works (doing good things) rather than grace (having faith that God will save you), but the Puritans thought they hadn't gone nearly far enough.

    Puritans were a sect of Protestant Christians influenced by Calvinism, the idea that salvation is predestined. You'd better hope you're one of the lucky ones, because there's not one thing you can do to get yourself saved, not even going to church all the time. How do you know if you're saved? Well, you really like going to church. Religious behavior (and worldly success) was a result of salvation, but also proof of it. Because Puritan communities were really into purity (duh) sins were rooted out and punished harshly.

    Unfortunately for them, Church of England was basically compulsory. You had to show up at least a couple of times a year, and you could be seriously persecuted for practicing different beliefs. So, what's a Puritan to do? Obviously, set sail on a treacherous, many-weeks-long journey to settle in a (to them) barbarous, wild land— basically like going to live on the moon—so you can root out sin in peace.

    This is the setting of The Scarlet Letter. It's a community specifically designed to be religiously pure, which means being secularly strict. In the first chapter, we get a mini tour of the most important town buildings and structures: the prison and the town scaffold. Law and religion form the heart of the town.

    Into the Woods

    But it's not all heavy oaken doors and iron studs. No matter how many prisons they build, the Massachusetts Bay Colony is surrounded by vast expanses of forest and ocean. The colony is like an island in the midst of wilderness, and the sense of the unknown and unexplored is tangible.

    Nature (as represented by this ocean and this wilderness) is far larger than civilization (as represented by the town itself). The colonists are on the frontier, having left the Old World of England in exchange for the New. And there's always the sense that, while inside the town is all order and law, right outside is the unknown: witchcraft, Indian medicine, adulterous relationships, and—just possibly—some new and better ways to live.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (9) Mount Everest

    Honestly, we were tempted to give this one a 10. No lie: it's a toughie. Check out this sentence:

    Doomed by his own choice, therefore, as Mr. Dimmesdale so evidently was, to eat his unsavory morsel always at another's board and endure the lifelong chill which must be his lot who seeks to warm himself only at another's fireplace, it truly seemed that this sagacious, experienced, benevolent old physician, with his concord of paternal and reverential love for the young pastor, was the very man, of all mankind, to be constantly within reach of his voice. (9.16)

    "Unsavory," "sagacious," "concord": these words aren't hard in and of themselves, but stack them all together in a 77-word-long sentence full of dependent clauses, and the hike up Mt. Scarlet Letter starts to get pretty steep. And that's not even to mention all the tricky ideas about fate, community, and forgiveness.

    But take it from us: there's a reason this book has stayed on required reading lists for decades. (And it's not because your teachers like to torture you.)

  • Writing Style

    Ornate, Formal, Thorny, Biblical, Shadowy, Comma-Loving

    Get out your passports: Hawthorne's style is so strange to our modern ear that it's almost like visiting a foreign country. (It was rough going for the time, too; check out a book like Charles Dickens' Bleak House, written around the same time, and you'll see that not everyone wrote like this.)

    Thanks to words like "ignominy" and "cogitating" continually tripping us up, and Hawthorne's passionate love affair with the comma, these sentences can be truly epic:

    Doomed by his own choice, therefore, as Mr. Dimmesdale so evidently was, to eat his unsavory morsel always at another's board and endure the lifelong chill which must be his lot who seeks to warm himself only at another's fireplace, it truly seemed that this sagacious, experienced, benevolent old physician, with his concord of paternal and reverential love for the young pastor, was the very man, of all mankind, to be constantly within reach of his voice. (9.16)

    If you feel like you've just run a marathon with your brain, it's cool. The trick with Hawthorne is to try to understand the backbone of the sentence. In this case the sentence is basically just saying, "because Dimmesdale has chosen a life of solitude, the fatherly doctor is the perfect companion for him." Get out the sculptor's tools, and don't be afraid to chip away at the sentences you encounter in this novel. You just might strike solid gold.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Prison Door

    The prison door is described as having never known "a youthful era," i.e., innocence (1.2). It’s made of iron and is a little worse for wear, if you catch our drift. Yet, the wild rosebush that grows at the side of the portal is its saving grace. The rosebush represents kindness and forgiveness to the prisoners who must face either a prison sentence or a death sentence (1.2). The iron door seems to represent all that is strict and unrelenting in Puritan society, while the rosebush seems to represent the concept of "grace" or forgiveness. In Christian thought, grace is "unmerited mercy," that is, forgiveness of sins even though forgiveness is undeserved. Since the prison is a place of darkness and sin, the beauty of a wild rose bush growing in such an unexpected place is a symbol of grace. We encounter this prison door and this rosebush in the very first pages of The Scarlet Letter, and both objects seem to tell us that, even in a place of such cold and rigid law, there is hope and there is love.

    Pearl, Hester’s Daughter

    Pearl, Hester’s daughter, is a symbol of all that Hester gave up when she committed adultery and gave up her place in Puritan society. Pearl is a "pearl of great price," a reference to Jesus’ proverb in the Gospel of Matthew: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it." Matthew 13:45-46. Hester has gone through hell and high water as a result of giving birth to a child. She lives in perpetual punishment because of Pearl, and that is why she loves Pearl so much. The name “Pearl” makes us think of precious jewels, and there is indeed something very regal about Pearl – we know that she becomes a great and wealthy heiress. The name “Pearl” also reminds us of the fact that pearls come from oysters, and oysters are hard to pry open at times. Pearl definitely is not an easy nut to crack – she mysterious and full of mischief.

    The Scarlet Letter

    The symbolism behind the scarlet letter A changes throughout this novel. Though initially this letter A symbolizes the sin of adultery, Hester Prynne alters its meaning through her hard work and charity. Some people begin to suggest that the A stands for "able," since Hester is such a capable woman. Others begin to recognize that the scarlet letter has begun to achieve holiness, righteousness. It has "the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness, which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril. Had she fallen among thieves, it would have kept her safe" (13.5). Many years later, when Hester returns and voluntarily takes up the scarlet letter again, it has become, for her and others, a symbol of grace.

    Hester sews this letter herself while in prison, and the result is breathtaking:

    On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter ‘A.’ It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony. (2.10)

    By embroidering the “A” so finely and ornately, Hester takes control of her own punishment. She owns it. Though the letter causes Hester to live a lonely life of banishment and ostracization, it seems almost immediately to become a symbol for something far nobler than “adultery.” The letter showcases her talent and artistry – skills that allow her to make a living as a single parent in Puritan Boston. As such, it represents her strength and independence. Such qualities set her apart from every other woman around her. Wearing the letter cuts her off from society, but it also frees her in many ways. She is able to observe the cold and strict ways of Puritan society from the perspective of an outsider.

    The Red Mark on Dimmesdale’s Chest

    The red mark on Dimmesdale’s chest in the shape of the letter A is the physical manifestation of the minister’s guilt. We are never given an exact description of this mark or its origins, but Dimmesdale tells Hester it is from God. Although he refuses to confess and be punished, his sin ultimately marks his body more permanently than Hester’s scarlet letter made from thread does.

    The Meteor

    We learn that things like meteors-in-the-shape-of-an-A and exploding stars are common occurrences in early America, and that Puritan communities and community leaders would interpret these celestial explosions to be messages from God, typically warning them about bad things ahead or commenting on issues affecting the community. The meteor in The Scarlet Letter exposes both a communal and an individual reaction. The Massachusetts Bay Colony community interprets the meteor-in-the-shape-of-an-A to be a message from God commemorating the life of the recently deceased Governor and proclaiming him to be an angel (“A” for “angel”). Dimmesdale, on the other hand, sees this meteor as symbol of his own sin, as though God were trying to expose his secret to the entire world. He thinks solely about what the meteor means to him and him alone. To us, this crazy occurrence suggests that there’s more than one way to interpret anything. How did you feel when you read about the meteor-in-the-shape-of-an-A? What do you think it signifies?

    The Black Man

    The Black Man is a euphemism for Satan in this book. Hester considers the scarlet letter A to be the Black Man’s mark, and Pearl wonders aloud if the Black Man left his brand on Dimmesdale’s heart. Our narrator loves to compare Chillingworth to Satan as well. By invoking Satan, our narrator raises the question of whether humans are innately good or evil. A favorite pastime of the Black Man is to hang out in the woods and lure the locals to come hang out with him and sign their names in his book (with their own blood). Mistress Hibbons knows the Black Man well, apparently.

    The Forest and the Wilderness

    The forest and wilderness are seen as the home or dwelling place of evil by the townspeople. It’s the unknown. Such a wilderness is compared to the moral wilderness in which Hester has been lost for years: "She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest" (18.2). The forest contrasts sharply with the town, or "civilization," the former representing a place where passion and emotion reign, and the latter, a place where law and religion prevail. Interestingly, Hester lives on the edge of town, on the border between wilderness and civilization. She straddles both worlds.

    We associate Nature with kindness and love from the very beginning of this story, for our narrator tells us that the wild rosebush reminds all that “the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him” (1.2). As much as we want to root for Nature in this book, it isn’t always a place of comfort and peace. When Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the woods, the brook and the trees seem to listen, talk, and to have secrets of their own. After a few hours in the woods with Hester, Dimmesdale becomes incredibly mischievous and unrestrained. The woods seem to affect people in interesting ways. The creepy Chillingworth harvests his medicine and remedies from the woods and from the seashore – remedies that help keep Dimmesdale alive and, therefore, tortured.The brook that Pearl plays with while her mom and Dimmesdale chitchat is a particularly important brook. It babbles and talks, taking on an almost humanlike quality:

    All these giant trees and boulders of granite seemed intent on making a mystery of the course of this small brook; fearing, perhaps, that, with its never-ceasing loquacity, it should whisper tales out of the heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or mirror its revelations on the smooth surface of the pool. Continually, indeed, as it stole onward the streamlet kept up a babble, kind, quiet, soothing, but melancholy, like the voice of a young child that was spending its infancy without playfulness, and knew not how to be merry among sad acquaintances and events of somber hue. (16.23)

    Like Pearl, this brook seems to be almost childlike and yet full of all of the deepest, darkest secrets. It seems to know everything, and it doesn’t seem to be a cheery, gushing brook out of a fairy tale. There’s something distinctly sad about this streamlet. Pearl tries to cheer the brook up, but it won’t be cheered. Her mom tells her that she could understand what the brook was saying if she had suffered something in her life. Pearl thinks the brook is too boring and gloomy to be a plaything, so she finds other things to occupy her while her mom chitchats with Dimmesdale.

    However, when Hester calls Pearl over to her in order that she might embrace her dad (Dimmesdale), Pearl hesitates at the edge of the brook, and it forms a kind of divide between her world and that of her mothers. Pearl will not cross this divide until her mother fastens the scarlet letter once more to her chest. It’s as though the scarlet letter binds Pearl to her mother in a way that little else in the world does. She doesn’t seem to know her mother without it. The scarlet letter is a part of both of their identities and is a significant part of their relationship. Why do you think Pearl makes her mother put the scarlet letter back on again? Why is it significant that this babbling, melancholy brook provides Pearl with a perfect, almost flawless mirror reflection at the moment her mother summons her across it?

    The Custom House

    You may have fallen asleep or skipped the little introductory appetizer to The Scarlet Letter known as “The Custom House.” We don’t really blame you. The language seems particularly thorny, and it’s hard to make out why exactly this introduction is so important. In it the narrator tells us the story of how he came across the scarlet letter and of how he came to write the story down. Our narrator is the chief executive officer of the Salem Custom House (sometime during the mid-1800s). His account is a mixture of fact and fiction and loosely follows the story of how Hawthorne himself came to write The Scarlet Letter.

    A Custom House is a governmental building situated near a port or a wharf. All sailors, sea captains, merchants, and sea traders are required to report directly to the Custom House upon laying anchor in Salem. These tradesmen must pay taxes on their imported goods. Things aren’t so hopping in this particular Custom House – business has slowed down and the building itself is falling apart. The narrator describes a statue of the American eagle that hovers over the Custom House entrance:

    Over the entrance hovers an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw. With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears, by the fierceness of her beak and eye, and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community. […] But she has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and, sooner or later—oftener soon than late—is apt to fling off her nestlings, with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a ranking wound from her barbed arrows. (Custom House.3)

    Woowee, that’s one cold bird. We all know the eagle is one of the most famous and beloved symbols of America and of the freedom that America represents. Here, however, we get the image of a very unwelcoming and unfeeling symbol – one that doesn’t care whether you survive or not. This eagle, a statue though it may be, suggests that something might not be right with the Custom House or with the government to which Custom House reports. Upon reading The Scarlet Letter, we begin to think this eagle might be a descendent of the strict Puritans that spurn Hester Prynne so harshly.

    The narrator goes on to tell us that his ancestors were involved in both the Salem Witch Trials (check out Shmoop History on the Witch Trials and The Crucible) as well as in the persecution of Quakers. Needless to say, the narrator feels mighty guilty and mighty weirded out by the fact that he is related to so many hateful and cold people. He also seems to hear their voices in his head, mocking his dream of becoming a writer (“Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” [Custom House.9]).

    One day, while exploring the abandoned and slightly creepy second floor of the Custom House, our speaker comes across a scarlet letter A and an account of its history written by a former chief executive officer of the Custom House. Our narrator, inspired to write his own version of this incredible story, can’t seem to tap into his creative juices in the stifling workplace environment. As luck would have it, he gets laid off! He finds himself scorned and rejected by an organization he has so long worked for, and, therefore, he feels a connection to Hester Prynne. Through his account, we see a more modern account of house laws and government can be stifling and cruel.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person Omniscient

    Our narrator is omniscient, all right. Here's a good example:

    She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to decide their fate. (18.2)

    He's describing Hester's willingness to drop everything and run away with Dimmesdale. She can think these crazy thoughts because she's been outside of the community for so long. But notice that he doesn't actually tell us what she thinks. He describes it. This narrator is much more of a show-er than a tell-er, which—we'll be honest—can make the book a wee bit challenging to read. There's a lot of philosophizing, and a lot of revealing secret thoughts and actions.

    Of course, we're pretty sure that Hawthorne knows what he's doing. Remember, he's got this whole story of finding the documents and the letters in the custom-house, so The Scarlet Letter is supposed to be a kind of history. But it's not just any kind of history; it's the history of two people caught up in religious and social forces way, way outside of their control. It may be about individual sin, but it's also about the epic conflict of different worldviews—so, it needs a narrator who's not afraid to get epic.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Falling Stage

      Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale are both Guilty with a capital "G," but only one of them is getting publicly shamed, and—spoiler—it's not the one with the "Reverend" in front of his name. How is this the falling stage? Well, Booker tells us that, in the Falling Stage, a young hero or heroine falls under the shadow of the dark power. We're thinking guilt—and its human embodiment in Chillingworth—definitely qualifies.

      Recession Stage

      During the Recession Stage, things go reasonably well for our intrepid hero(ine). Hester's able to make a living sewing, and Dimmesdale gains the respect of the entire town—along with a new BFF, Robert Chillingworth.

      Imprisonment Stage

      Things might be going well enough for Hester, but they're not working out too well for Dimmesdale, who's imprisoned by his guilt. Booker tells us that the imprisonment is a "living death"—but for Dimmesdale, it's, well, a dying death: guilt is literally killing him.

      Nightmare Stage

      There's a brief moment when it looks like things might cheer up for our unhappy couple, when Hester and Dimmesdale decide to run away together just as soon as he gives his final, blowout sermon. Psyche! It turns out Chillingworth is planning to follow them to England, where he'll continue to persecute them like the crazy stalker we've come to know and love.

      Rebirth Stage

      Dimmesdale finally confesses his sin and… dies. Wait, what? Well, considering that he's now going to be reborn into Christ and whatnot, we definitely think it counts as a rebirth. Meanwhile, Hester gets a much more straightforward rebirth when she starts a new life with Pearl in England. But that's not all: she gets another rebirth at the end of the novel, when she comes back to live in the colony as a wise, respected old woman.

      Happy ending?

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      GPS, Puritan-Style

      Welcome to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It's got everything a thriving colonial town needs: a public square and a prison. Why start us off with a prison? Why not the bustling marketplace or the sweet new church? Well, Hawthorne doesn't want us thinking that this is going to be a cheerful book, or anything. Nope. Someone's going to get shamed.

      Conflict

      Pay No Attention to the Man in the Crowd

      As our heroine Hester Prynne is getting her shame on in front of the whole town by displaying her scarlet letter A-for-adultery, she recognizes her long-lost husband in the crowd. Oops. Uh, welcome home, honey? At least she's the only one who recognizes him, since he's been away for two years and has come in disguise.

      So, instead of a happy homecoming, they have a tense meeting at the prison where hubby Robert Chillingworth swears that he'll track down Hester's illicit lovah and she continues to swear that she'll never tell. Ooooh, we love love triangles—even if the Native Americans are only on the periphery.

      Complication

      Someone's Got a Secret

      Roger Chillingworth worms his way into the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale's confidence—and his bedroom. (Not like that—they're roomies.) One evening when the minister falls asleep at the table, Chillingworth pokes around under Dimmesdale's shirt. Whatever he finds there lets him know that Dimmesdale is Hester's boyfriend. (Not that we get to see it, of course.)

      All right! Now that Chillingworth has uncovered the secret—by the way, this is about seven years later—we're ready for the big showdown.

      Climax

      Run Away With Me

      Hester and Dimmesdale have a secret meeting in the woods—well, secret except for Hester's daughter, Pearl, who is always up in her mom's bidness—where they agree to run away to the Old World, i.e., Europe, and start a new life together. Sweet! Happy ending! They'll leave in three days.

      But first, Dimmesdale has to go out with a bang by giving one last sermon.

      Suspense

      Gather At the Scaffold

      Hester and Pearl go with all the other townspeople—plus a bunch of strangers and some Native Americans—to watch Dimmesdale give his special Election Sermon for the colony bigwigs. Just as they're settling in for a nice morning of preaching, the shipmaster lets them know that someone else has booked passage on the ship they're planning to take out of town: Chillingworth. Yep, he's going to follow them to England.

      We're starting to think this isn't going to end well.

      Denouement

      Surprise! It's Jean Valjean!

      After preaching the best sermon of his life, the Reverend Dimmesdale manages to crawl up onto the scaffold, where he confesses and rips open his shirt to reveal that there's a mark on his chest, too. Only this one's in blood. And then he dies.

      Dude, that is so metal.

      Conclusion

      Back to Boston

      Since Chillingworth no longer has the thought of revenge to keep him alive, he promptly dies and leaves all his money to Pearl. She and her mom skip town for years and years, where we hope they live happily ever after.

      Except not. Years later, she comes back and starts wearing the scarlet A again—except, this time, everyone thinks it's awesome instead of disgusting and shameful. When she dies, she's buried in a grave near Dimmesdale. (But not too near. And with a scarlet A on her tombstone. What, did you think that was a Disney movie or something?)

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Shame, Shame, Shame

      Hester is publicly shamed for her sin but refuses to name her partner-in-crime. Her long-lost husband returns, discovers her adultery, and, not content with having his wife shunned and ostracized for the rest of her life, starts plotting his revenge.

      Act II

      Run, Run, Run

      Roger Chillingworth is possessed by his need for vengeance, and Reverend Dimmesdale grows steadily weaker as a result of his guilt. You know, kind of like Chillingworth is a guilt-vampire and Dimmesdale is his victim. Hester, meanwhile, manages to raise her child, support herself, and stay charitable while all the mean girls in town are gossiping about her behind her back.

      Eventually the stress gets to be too much, and Hester decides to mix things up by revealing the truth to Dimmesdale and basically asking him to run away with her. You go, girl!

      Act III

      Die, Die, Die

      Dimmesdale finally confesses (publicly, natch), collapses, and dies. Roger Chillingworth dies soon after, since guilt-vampires die without guilt to feed on.

      Hester and Pearl escape Puritan life thanks to Chillingworth's fortune, which he leaves to Pearl, and go to the Old World, i.e., Europe. But eventually, Hester returns to the scene of her crime—er, passion and triumph: the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    • Allusions

      Literature and Philosophy

      • Matthew 13:45-46, the Pearl of Great Price: The reference to the "pearl of great price" (8.16) is an allusion to parable found in the Gospel of Matthew: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it."
      • Ralph Waldo Emerson (Preface.28)
      • William Ellery Channing (Preface.28)
      • George S. Hillard (Preface.28)
      • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Preface. 28)
      • Alcott, almost certainly Bronson Alcott, neglectful father of Louisa May Alcott (Preface.28)

      Historical Figures