The Scarlet Letter Summary
After a brief authorial digression about how his stuffy coworkers at the Custom House kept him from writing this book until he was fired, Hawthorne starts us off with a tour of the jail of the mid-17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Inside the jail is one Hester Prynne, an adulteress who's just about to be released from prison so that she can be paraded through town, displaying the scarlet "A" that she's been forced to wear as evidence of her adultery. How do we know she's an adulteress? She's got a baby daughter, Pearl, but her husband has been away for two full years. Even we can do the math on that one. Despite all the shaming, Hester protects Pearl's father from punishment by refusing to give up his name.
The adultery parade (worse parade ever) is winding through town when… Hester Prynne's long-lost husband arrives in disguise! Once she's back in prison, he shows up and orders her to keep her mouth shut so he can carry out his Nefarious Plan of ferreting out and seeking revenge on her lover. For some reason, she agrees.
Hester's husband tells the townspeople that he's a physician named Roger Chillingworth. He's a smart fellow, so he realizes pretty quickly that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is the likely father of Hester's baby. Obviously, his next step is to stalk the minister day and night. The minister is too afraid to confess his sin publicly, but he's feeling pretty guilty, not to mention antsy from Chillingworth's constant examination, and also maybe in a little pain from strange red mark that's on his chest
Oh, and this goes on for seven years.
Finally, Hester realizes that her husband has been doing some really wack psychological manipulation to the man she loves, and she reveals Chillingworth's true identity to Dimmesdale. They concoct a plan to settle in England and create a new life together. Yay, happy ending!
Or not. Dimmesdale ultimately backs out and confesses his sin to the townspeople on the scaffold where Hester was publicly shamed seven years earlier. He goes out with a bang by ripping his shirt open (à la Jean Valjean) to reveal the mark on his chest, just before dying.
That's all very dramatic and satisfying, but it's not the end. About a year later, Chillingworth dies and leaves all his money and property to Pearl, which means she and her mom can finally get themselves out of that awful community and return to England to build a new life. Yay, happy ending for sure this time!
Not quite. Years later, Hester actually returns to the colony, resuming the scarlet letter of her own will. When she dies, she's buried near the minister, and they share a gravestone marked with—what else?—the letter "A."
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The Custom House
- We start off with a little direct address from our narrator.
- He's telling us about a fictional three-year experience working in the Custom House (a building where people documented goods for import and export) in Salem, Massachusetts.
- Okay, maybe not so fictional: Hawthorne really did work for the Salem Custom House.
- The Custom House has seen better days. It's mostly staffed by people who have job security because their families fund their positions. Yeah nepotism!
- Not many ships come to Salem anymore, so life is kind of slow for our narrator, the customs agent.
- One day, he discovers a few documents and an odd scrap of fabric, an embroidered scarlet letter A.
- These manuscripts bear the story of Hester Prynne as documented by a man named Jonathan Pue, who was collecting local history some hundred years before our narrator's time.
- Our narrator decides to write out the narrative of Hester Prynne, but quickly realizes that his boring coworkers are stifling his creative juices.
- Preach it, narrator. (J/K, coworkers! You're the best! Love your cat videos!)
- The narrator wonders whether his Puritan ancestors would scoff at him for wanting to do something as frivolous as writing a book to meditate on human nature.
- Yeah, sounds pretty frivolous to us, too…
- And then, the Custom House gets a new big cheese, and our narrator loses his job.
- Turns out, losing his job is the best thing that could've happened: our narrator loses his writer's block and is finally able to tell the tale of Hester Prynne.
The Prison Door
- This first chapter describes the town prison. Cool! This bodes well.
- See, every colony needs a prison, even those that seem perfect.
- (Note to self: add "Build Prison" to Shmoop Colony To-Do List.)
- The townspeople are staring at the prison door. It's awfully gloomy: "like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era" (1.2).
- There's a wild rose bush growing along the side of the door that serves as a blessing to all criminals who enter the prison.
- Random, we know. But just imagine you were a criminal in Puritan Boston on a dreary spring day and, right before you're tossed in the clink, you see a beautiful, blood red rosebush. Would your day not be that much lighter?
- No? Yeah, we're not sold on it either.
- The townspeople believe that the wild rose bush at the prison door sprang up the moment Anne Hutchinson entered the prison. Ann Hutchinson is a real historical figure who punished for saying that people should focus on their individual relationships to God rather than relying on the words of ministers. (Intrigued? We've got whole section on her.)
The Market Place
- Ooh, now it's time for a description of the solemn way Puritans observe any act of punishment, from the execution of a hardened criminal to a child's whipping, all "solemnity of demeanour" and "meager… and cold" (2.2).
- That's right: talk back to your parents, and instead of getting your smartphone taken away, you get whipped. Publicly.
- The town mean girls gossip while they wait to watch Hester Prynne's punishment.
- One says Hester should have been executed. Another says that Hester's punishment is way too light—just a letter A on the bodice of her dress, which could be easily covered up.
- And then there's the third one, who scolds all of them and says that she's sure Hester Prynne will feel the mark every day.
- When Hester Prynne appears in the doorway of the prison with her 3-month-old daughter in her arms, the women get seriously ticked off. There's the letter A on her chest all right, but she's embroidered it so it's actually become beautiful.
(Click the summary infographic to download.)
- The townspeople think she's mocking them and mocking her punishment.
- Not so fast, says that same woman who scolded them before (we like this lady): she's certain that Hester felt each stroke of the needle in her heart.
- Now the fun begins. Hester walks to the center of town, where she's placed in the pillory (a wooden structure where criminals are displayed to jeering crowds).
- Standing there, she thinks of her mother, her father, and an unnamed scholar (weird), and she realizes that her scarlet A will always mark her as an outsider.
- She squeezes her little baby so tightly that it starts crying, which we're pretty sure is SYMBOLIC.
- Standing on this public stage, Hester looks out and notices an American Indian and a white dude (who is dressed partly in American Indian traditional attire) standing on the outskirts of the crowd.
- She recognizes the white man by the slight deformity in his shoulders and squeezes her baby again until it cries.
- But the man just looks at her and puts a finger to his lips.
- Helpfully for us, he questions a nearby citizen of the town about what's going on.
- The woman is Hester Prynne. She's married to an Englishman who's been missing for two years.
- Wait, but what about the kid?
- That's just it. The 3-month-old baby makes it pretty clear that Hester's been up to something she shouldn't have.
- The stranger asks who the father is, but nobody knows—Hester's not telling.
- Meanwhile, Hester is up on the public stage thinking that she's glad she's encountered the stranger this way, with a crowed of people between her and him.
- Everyone wants Hester to reveal the name of her partner in crime.
- Her pastor, Reverend Dimmesdale, is particularly insistent. He wants her to 'fess up, even if the man she names has to step down from a high position of authority to join her on the stage.
- This plea is so moving that even Hester's baby lifts its arms out to him, but she keeps her mouth shut.
- Then, the townspeople engage in a crazy sort of mass hallucination, where the scarlet letter takes on a life of its own and they begin to see its scarlet glow as coming from the very fires of hell itself.
- Who said the Puritans were boring?
- In the prison, the baby is upset. We wonder why? Oh, maybe because the baby is in a PRISON.
- The stranger shows up, telling everyone that he's a doctor named Roger Chillingworth.
- Ooh. Is it cold in here? Did someone just open a window?
- Chillingworth is left alone with Hester, we are shocked—okay, actually not that shocked—to find out that he's her long-lost husband. Cue the dramatic music.
- He gives both the baby and Hester medicine to help them sleep and to take away whatever pain they feel.
- Uh, Hester? Maybe you should be careful about taking something from your absentee husband who's just shown up to find out that you've been stepping out on him.
- Hester thinks so, too.
- No, no, Chillingworth says: he plans to keep her alive so she can keep on feeling the shame of the scarlet letter.
- Nice guy.
- Anyway, he's done wrong, too. Sure, Hester cheated on him, but Chillingworth should have known better than to imprison a youthful beauty like Hester in a marriage to an elderly, misshapen man.
- In any case, he's going to ferret out the identity of her lover. Meanwhile, he wants her to keep his identity a secret.
- For some reason, she agrees to this.
(Click the summary infographic to download.)
Hester at Her Needle
- Hester is released from prison. Woohoo! Time to start a new life!
- Not so fast. She may have done her time, but that's not enough for these crazy Puritans. She'll be wearing that letter for the rest of her life, becoming a symbol of female passion and frailty for the entire town.
- Tough job, but someone's got to do it.
- The narrator gets a bit long-winded as he wonders why a woman would remain at the scene of her public humiliation. He philosophizes that humans are drawn to the places where "some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime," and dark events are even more "irresistible" (5.2).
- You know, the way a criminal always returns to the scene of a crime. Or the way we secretly still like to go to Chuck-E-Cheese's.
- Hester, meanwhile, settles down in a small cottage on the outskirts of town and makes a living doing needlework and frightening small children.
- Well, frightening small children is actually just a side effect of being totally shunned by the town—unless someone needs some embroidery done.
- She's such a good seamstress that her work becomes fashionable. She embroiders all sorts of clothes, especially for powerful men, like the Massachusetts Bay governor, military men, ministers, and so on. (Men wore some pretty fancy clothes back then.)
- Obviously, she's never asked to make or to embroider a single wedding gown for fear of symbolically staining the bride's purity.
- Hester also makes a lot of clothing for the poor. They're happy to accept the charity, but they still look down on her.
- Basically, Hester just can't catch a break. If she enters a church, she may be the subject of the sermon. As she goes about town, children mock her. Young women glance at the scarlet letter and then haughtily glance away.
- Not fun.
- Hester is bummed about all this, but she also can't help wondering whether many more people shouldn't have scarlet letters attached to their clothes.
- Like, doesn't the Bible say something about not judging people?
- At the same time, a part of her believes that there is no greater sinner than herself.
- Hester names her daughter Pearl, a reference to Jesus' proverb describing heaven as a "pearl of great price"; when a merchant came upon a pearl, he sold all he had to buy it.
- Just like Hester gave up her "treasure"—her reputation as a chaste woman—for her daughter.
- Hester is pretty worried that Pearl will be marked by sin in some way, but her daughter seems fine.
- Actually, more than fine: she's pretty and charming and basically would be the most popular girl at school if she weren't an outcast like her mom.
- And one other thing: Pearl is passionate. She will not obey rules.
- You can imagine that passionate Pearl doesn't always respond kindly to Puritan children's insults.
- Because she's grown up as an outcast, even her imaginary friends are adversaries. That's intense.
- The first object Pearl notices as she grows up is Hester's "A."
- Whenever Pearl looks at the letter, Hester imagines her features assuming devilish qualities.
- One particularly memorable summer's day, Pearl invents the fun game of throwing flowers at the scarlet letter.
- Hester feels like each flower is wounding her, so she cries out and asks Pearl what she is.
- Hester's "little Pearl," of course.
- For some reason, that answer doesn't satisfy mom, so she keeps asking who (or what) she is, and what sent her.
- Finally, Pearl says, "You guess!" Hester replies, "Thy Heavenly Father sent thee!" but she hesitates.
- Pearl catches the hesitation.
- Oh, and did we mention that some of the townspeople insist that Pearl is the offspring of demons?
The Governor's Hall
- Hester takes a pair of gloves she fringed and embroidered to the Governor.
- Her real purpose is to find out if the rumors she had heard are true: are the town leaders going to take Pearl away?
- Pearl comes with her, wearing a scarlet dress—a color that brings out Pearl's beauty, making her appear the "very brightest little jet of flame that ever danced upon the earth" (7.3).
- Obviously, this reminds everybody of the scarlet letter on Hester's breast, so maybe not such a good idea if you're trying to retain custody of your kid.
- While waiting for the Governor at his house, Pearl discovers a mirror that distorts shapes.
- When Hester looks in the mirror, she sees her scarlet letter in "exaggerate and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance" (7.20).
- Well, obviously, otherwise we might miss the fact that the scarlet letter is a SYMBOL.
- Pearl's look of "naughty merriment" is also enhanced and distorted by the mirror, giving Hester the feeling that she is looking at an "imp" (or a devilish figure) and not her daughter.
- They move to the garden and, just as Pearl is starting to cry for a red rose from one of the bushes in the garden, they hear the voices of the Governor and his guests coming toward them.
The Elf-Child and the Minister
- Governor Bellingham comes towards Hester Prynne and her child.
- He's got company: ministers John Wilson and Arthur Dimmesdale and… physician Roger Chillingworth.
- When they come in the room, Hester is half-hidden by a curtain, so the men only see little Pearl.
- They ask her who she is and who she belongs to, and finally realize that she is Hester Prynne's child, whom they have been discussing, and, oh look, here's Hester herself, surprise surprise.
- The Governor doesn't waste time asking why they should leave the child in Hester's care.
- Hester points to her scarlet letter, and responds that they should leave Pearl with her because of all she has learned from this.
- Uh, duh, says the governor. That's exactly why they want to take Pearl away.
- Hester says that the letter teaches her all the time the lessons she needs to impart to her child.
- The Rev. Wilson questions Pearl to find out how much she knows of her religion. Question #1: "Who made thee?"
- (Quick Brain Snack: "Who made thee" is the first question in many versions of the Christian catechism for children. A catechism is a series of questions and answers that teaches the basic principles of something, usually Christianity.)
- Pearl knows the answer, but, since she wants to be difficult, she says that her mother plucked her off one of the wild rose bushes that grew by the prison door.
- Uh-oh. The Governor is horrified by Pearl's response and all but snatches her away from Hester right then.
- Hester grabs her child and tells the Governor that God gave Pearl to her—Pearl is her happiness and torture, all wrapped in one.
- She threatens to kill herself, like, melodramatic, much?
- Finally, she begs Revered Dimmesdale to intervene.
- The Reverend Dimmesdale isn't looking too good. He's also got a peculiar habit of placing a hand over his head when he's worked up.
- But he does speaks up, claiming that the child will be Hester's salvation.
- The other men decide to leave Pearl alone (for now), but they want to make sure she knows her religion.
- When Dimmesdale wanders off to a corner, Pearl creeps over to him and places his hand on her cheek.
- Dimmesdale responds as all good men respond to the innocence and affection of a child (so says the narrator) and kisses her forehead.
- On her way home, Hester meets Governor Bellingham's sister, who invites her to a party.
- Cool! We'll bring the party mix!
- Oh, no. Not that kind of party. The "merry company" kind of party, held in honor of the "Black Man," i.e., Satan.
- Did we mention that Governor Bellingham's sister would be executed a few years later as a witch?
- Hester says thanks but no thanks, and the narrator uses this as proof that Pearl is already saving her mom.
- And we're back to Roger Chillingworth. Are you feeling a little irritated with him? Well, says the narrator, remember that he came home hoping to find a home and warmth with his wife, only to discover that she is the symbol of sin for the entire town.
- Gee, maybe you could have called, or at least sent a text message?
- At least he's a good doctor, combining his knowledge of American Indian herbal medicine and British medicine.
- And he chooses as his spiritual mentor one Reverend Dimmesdale.
- Dimmesdale's isn't looking too good, probably because he studies too hard and is a wee bit overly devoted to God.
- He's thin, tired, and depressed, and often observed to put his hand over his heart, as if he is in pain.
- Maybe Chillingworth can heal him?
- Dimmesdale says he doesn't need any medicine, but he eventually agrees to take on Chillingworth as his personal physician.
- Personal physician? We can't even get a same-day appointment!
- The two men hang out together, talking about manly things like last night's game and abstruse theological debates.
- (Quick Brain Snack: the narrator refers to Chillingworth as "the leech," which is just another word for "doctor." Remember, medicine back in these days mostly consisted of killing your patient a little faster through insanely ineffective or dangerous "cures," like bloodletting—which was sometime accomplished with leeches.)
- Chillingworth decides that he needs to know what's wrong with Dimmesdale before he can help him (duh), so he analyzes him mentally, psychologically, and spiritually as well as physically.
- But Dimmesdale never reveals his secret.
- Eventually, Chillingworth hints to Dimmesdale's friends that it would be better if he and Dimmesdale lived together so that he could better assist the minister's health.
- This is getting a little too Single White Female for our tastes.
- Since Dimmesdale is unmarried and doesn't seem interested in changing that, living with his physician seems like the perfect solution.
- In fact, most the congregation thinks it sounds a lot like the hand of God.
- But not everyone.
- These doubters feel that Chillingworth has changed since he first came to town. At first, he had appeared like scholar, but now there was something "ugly and evil in his face" (9.17).
- In fact, some people start to think that Dimmesdale is being haunted and hunted by Satan himself in the guise of Chillingworth.
The Leech and his Patient
- Before the whole adultery fiasco, the narrator tells us, Roger Chillingworth was a pretty nice guy.
- And all he wanted was to find out the truth.
- But the quest to find it has warped him. He's desperate. He trusts no one, but he can't recognize his enemies, either.
- One day, Dimmesdale asks Chillingworth where he found a certain herb. Oh, on a grave, of course: "They grew out of [the dead person's] heart, and typify, it may be, some hideous secret that was buried with him, and which he had done better to confess during his lifetime" (10.8).
- Maybe, Dimmesdale suggests, the man wanted to confess but could not. He says that the idea that the weeds sprang from a secret is unbiblical—definitely just Chillingworth's invention. Nobody will fear telling their secrets when they're dying, because in heaven, at judgment's gate, they will face the solution to the problem of sin.
- Okay, says Chillingworth, so why don't people solve the problem on earth by confessing?
- Most people do, answers Dimmesdale, and they feel a lot better afterward.
- While he speaks, he grabs his chest as though he feels a sudden pain.
- Dimmesdale suggests that some men, however, keep their sins secret because if they confess, they will never again be able to do good for God.
- Chillingworth is just claiming that these men are fooling themselves, when Pearl laughs.
- Hm, wonder what Dimmesdale's secret is?
- The men look out the window and see Hester and her child passing by.
- Pearl is fixing burrs along the lines of the scarlet A. She doesn't pick them out, even though that's got to hurt.
- Chillingworth looks down at the cute little kid playing with her mom and declares that she's evil. Obvs.
- The child looks up and throws a burr at Dimmesdale, who shrinks from being hit by it.
- Hester looks up, and the four individuals look at each other. That's when Pearl yells, "Come away, mother! Come away, or yonder old Black Man will catch you! He has got hold of the minister already. Come away, mother, or he will catch you! But he cannot catch little Pearl!" (10.22).
- After that… chilling little exchange, the men keep talking.
- Does Dimmesdale think Hester is relieved from her burden of sin by the scarlet A?
- He does.
- Has Dimmesdale held anything back from Chillingworth?
- He hasn't. And he's had just about enough of these questions, saying that Chillingworth doesn't deal in "medicine for the soul" (10.34).
- But a sickness has indeed taken over Dimmesdale's spirit and manifests itself physically. If Dimmesdale doesn't reveal the source of evil that disturbs him, how can he expect Chillingworth to heal him?
- No way: Dimmesdale isn't going to reveal his spiritual wounds to an "earthly physician," but only to a "Physician of the soul," i.e., Christ.
- Hmm. Chillingworth reflects silently that the minister is so passionate, it's easy to see how he might have done a "wild thing" due to the "hot passion of his heart" (10.38).
- After this little fight, the two men make up. And not too long afterwards, Dimmesdale falls asleep while reading a book.
- Chillingworth enters the room and opens the minister's shirt to look at his chest.
- Ah-ha! There, he sees everything he needs to know.
- And, the narrator says, if anybody wants to see what Satan looks like in his moment of joy, he would need look no further than Chillingworth's dance as he leaves the room.
The Interior of a Heart
- Chillingworth is ticked off. He starts plotting his revenge, but, if you ask us, he really shouldn't bother: Dimmesdale is torturing himself enough for the both of them.
- Dimmesdale can tell something is wrong with the guy, but he figures that his intuition isn't trustworthy because he himself is such a big sinner.
- His entire congregation venerates him, but he just cannot deal. Even when he tells them how vile he is, they don't believe him.
- More than once, he's gone up to the pulpit resolved to confess, but he keeps chickening out. Basically, he sickens himself.
- Instead of confessing, Dimmesdale commits acts of penance like beating himself mercilessly all night in a secret room. It's a lot less fun than it sounds.
- But no matter how hard he beats himself, he can't purify the sin.
- Night after night, he has visions of Hester Prynne, pointing her forefinger at the letter on the bodice of her dress and then at his breast.
- Okay, apparently we know who the father of her baby is now.
- And then he has an idea. He gets up from his chair and leaves the house, going out into the night.
The Minister's Vigil
- Dimmesdale goes to the scaffold where Hester Prynne had lived through her public ordeal.
- He stands there just waiting for someone to throw rotten fruit, but no one shows up.
- (Maybe next time try going during the day, dude.)
- He gives a little shriek, trying to rouse people to come shame him, but the only people who stir are Governor Bellingham and his sister.
- Mistress Hibbins (the witch-lady from chapter 8) hears him, but the narrator tells us that she probably thinks that it's just her friendly neighborhood witches making a ruckus.
- Dimmesdale calms down enough to notice that his friend and fellow clergyman Reverend Mr. Wilson is approaching.
- He's coming from the deathbed of Governor Winthrop, looking all holy and saint-like with the glow of the lamp like a halo surrounding him.
- He doesn't notice Dimmesdale lurking up on the platform, and Dimmesdale doesn't speak.
- Dimmesdale imagines what would happen if he were still there in the morning, and he's apparently tickled by imagining his community discovering that their beloved minister is a huge sinner because he busts out laughing.
- Surprise! Pearl laughs back at him.
- He calls out and Pearl responds. Hester is also with her. They're heading back from Governor Winthrop's house, where she's measured his body so she can make his burial robe.
- The two join him on the scaffold.
- Dimmesdale and Hester are connected through Pearl, as each holds one of her hands.
- Pearl asks him if he will stand with her and her mother tomorrow at noon.
- No—but he will stand with them on the judgment day.
- How comforting,
- Just then, there's a bright light on the horizon, which is either a meteor or a big, fat symbol.
- Also looking very symbolic right about now: the minister, with his hand over his heart; Hester Prynne, the scarlet letter on her heart; and Pearl, herself a symbol.
- Pearl grins a little and points, and Dimmesdale sees what looks like an immense letter A marked out in red light.
- And then he sees Roger Chillingworth, who Dimmesdale finally notices is looking kind of evil.
- Pearl and Dimmesdale have a little squabble, which ends with Pearl basically telling them that he sucks for not promising to stand there with her and her mom.
- Just then, Chillingworth steps forward and gets Dimmesdale to come home with him.
- The next day, Dimmesdale gives an A+ sermon. As he comes down the pulpit-steps, the sexton hands him a glove, his glove, which the sexton had found on the scaffolding.
- The sexton's theory? Satan must have dropped it there.
- By the way, the sexton says, did Dimmesdale see the letter A in the sky last night? It was a portent of the death of Governor Winthrop, surely now an Angel.
Another View of Hester
- Hester is shocked at how bad Dimmesdale looks.
- She knows that his conscience is working on him and has made him sick. She realizes that he was appealing to her that night on the scaffolding to protect him from his enemy, from Roger Chillingworth.
- And Hester decides that she should help him, despite the fact that he has done literally nothing for her for the past seven years.
- Yep, Pearl is now seven. The townspeople have developed a grudging respect for Hester, who's certainly worked hard enough for it: she's been pure inwardly and outwardly even since that little adultery thing.
- People are even saying crazy things like, "Hey, maybe the A stands for Able"; or, "Maybe the scarlet letter actually means that she's holy."
- Hester knows the truth: the "A" has hardened her against ever feeling passion or affection again. Apparently passion and affection are crucial components of womanhood, because this means that she's no longer a woman.
- Sometimes, she even wonders if it's worth being alive. Maybe it would be better to send Pearl to Heaven immediately, and follow herself?
- Luckily, she ends up deciding against the murder-suicide—but, the narrator says, the fact that she thought about it at all means that the scarlet letter hasn't done the work it was supposed to do.
- But seeing Dimmesdale's oppression actually makes Hester feel bad, so she resolves to help him.
- And she gets her chance, when she runs into Chillingworth in an isolated part of the peninsula while she's out walking with Pearl.
Hester and the Physician
- Hester sends Pearl to the water to play so that Hester can talk to Chillingworth.
- Uh, maybe you shouldn't let a 7-year-old play in the water by herself?
- Well, Hester does have a lot on her mind.
- The doctor lets Hester know that the magistrates have been considering letting Hester take off the red letter.
- Thanks, but no thanks, says Hester. If she were worthy, it would fall away by itself or be transformed into something else. The magistrates don't have the right to order it removed.
- Although apparently they had the right to order it on…
- Then wear it, Chillingworth replies. It's fancy and suits her.
- Hester is shocked by how Chillingworth has changed from a scholarly man to a desperate, greedy creature.
- There's evil in his heart—but she blames herself, since her sin drove him to it.
- She finally speaks to him about Dimmesdale and says she shouldn't have remained silent.
- It would have been better if Dimmesdale had died or been publicly shamed than to have Chillingworth stalking him for seven years.
(Click the summary infographic to download.)
- Chillingworth does a little evil-villain chuckling about how Dimmesdale knew that he was being persecuted, but he never guessed that Chillingworth was doing it.
- At least he has the self-awareness to be slightly horrified by how evil he is.
- Hester begs from him to let up, but Chillingworth says that Dimmesdale has actually made things worse by forcing Chillingworth to become a vindictive monster.
- Way to blame the victim, Chillingworth.
- Hester points out that it's actually her fault, so why doesn't he pick on her instead?
- In fact, she's had about enough of this: she's going to reveal the secret, since her silence has wrecked Dimmesdale's life.
- For some reason, this makes Chillingworth break out into admiration and wish that she'd met someone who deserved her.
- When she leaves, she asks him one more time to forgive Dimmesdale.
- No can do. He has no power to forgive. This is his fate, just as it was her fate to commit adultery.
Hester and Pearl
- As Chillingworth returns to his task of gathering herbs, Hester watches him.
- Is she imagining the shadow following him? Can such an evil man actually heal anyone? Or will the herbs become poison, because his hatred ruins everything around him?
- Hester declares that she hates him, even if hatred is a sin.
- She can't believe she ever agreed to marry Chillingworth, and she actually gets kind of mad at him for convincing her that she'd be happy with him.
- In fact, she decides that he's done more wrong to her than she's done to him.
- All this time, Pearl has been entertaining herself by dressing up as a mermaid with a seaweed scarf, mantle, and headdress—and a seaweed "A" on her chest.
- Hester asks Pearl if she even knows that Hester's letter means.
- Yep—and the minister keeps his hand over his heart for the same reason.
- How does she know this? Pearl says that she's said everything she knows—but Chillingworth knows a lot more.
- Smart girl.
- Pearl takes her mother's hands, and Hester realizes that Pearl is growing up into kind of a nice girl. Maybe they can be friends now.
- As they stand there, Pearl asks her mother what the letter means and why Dimmesdale keeps his hand over his heart.
- But Hester can't tell her, even if it would make Pearl sympathetic. Instead, she does the knee-jerk adult thing of saying that there are some things kids should ask.
- As to why she wears the scarlet letter, she says, "I wear it for the sake of its gold thread" (15.26).
- That's the first time she's lied about it, and she can feel the evil creeping in.
- Like any kid told not to ask questions, Pearl… continues to ask questions, until Hester finally snaps at her.
A Forest Walk
- Hester and Pearl plan to waylay Dimmesdale on his way back from visiting a sick person.
- Pearl, who is really sassy for a Puritan child, teases her mom that the sun is afraid of the scarlet letter.
- When they sit down to rest, Pearl asks for a story about the Black Man who haunts the forest and offers a book and iron pen to everybody who meets him in the trees. Anyone who encounters him has to write their name in the book in blood.
- Apparently this is a common superstition, which Pearl overheard an old woman talking about.
- The old woman claimed that lots of people had written their names in the Black Man's book, including Mistress Hibbins, and that the scarlet letter was the Black Man's mark on Hester.
- So, mom, is that true?
- It sure is. Hester has met the Black Man, and the scarlet letter is his mark.
- When they meet Dimmesdale in the woods, Pearl asks whether he holds his hand over his heart because the Black Man had put his mark there.
- And if he does have the Black Man's mark there, why doesn't he wear it on his clothes, as Hester does?
- Hester tells Pearl to take a chill pill, and looks at poor Dimmesdale, who's looking pretty rough.
The Pastor and His Parishioner
- Hester and Dimmesdale's encounter in the woods seems so out-of-this-world to both of them that they have to ask one another whether they're each still alive.
- Dimmesdale at last touches Hester's hand, which reassures both of them.
- They make small talk until Dimmesdale asks Hester if she has found peace.
- She doesn't answer but looks at the scarlet letter, then asks him if he has found peace.
- Nope. In fact, he's miserable.
- Well, does he at least find comfort in the good that he does as a minister?
- Nope. He feels only misery.
- In fact, he's afraid that any good he does is an illusion, since there's so much evil in his heart.
- Satan's probably getting a pretty good chuckle out of that.
- He's wrong, Hester says: it's clear from his words that he's repented.
- But penance and penitence aren't any good; he's a hypocrite.
- He's just glad that he can look in the eye of somebody who can see him for who he is.
- It would be even better if he could have friend, or even an enemy, who recognizes what he has become.
- But he does have a friend—Hester.
- And he also has an enemy, who lives with him under his own roof.
- As Dimmesdale stands there essentially with his mouth hanging open, Hester realizes that she's really messed things up by keeping Chillingworth's secret.
- Guilt isn't going to cure Dimmesdale; it's going to corrupt him.
- It's time for the big reveal: Hester confesses, Dimmesdale vows he'll never forgive her; she says that he will, and then they hug it out. (Seriously.)
- Anyway, Dimmesdale finally says Chillingworth's heart is way blacker than theirs because he violated the sanctity of the human heart in cold blood. At least he and Hester never did that.
- So, is Chillingworth going to reveal their secret now?
- Hester doesn't think so. She thinks he'll seek his revenge in another way.
- In any case, they both manage to agree that the two men can't keep living together.
- Dimmesdale asks Hester to tell him what he should do.
- How about leave the settlement? He can be free if he leaves and goes into the wilderness.
- Um, anyone else think that sounds like a bad idea?
- Luckily, she has another suggestion: head back to Europe, where no one's ever even heard of Chillingworth.
- Dimmesdale says he can't run away. He will do what he can as a minister in this village, despite his fallen nature.
- Hester continues to urge him to go, to "exchange this false life" for a "true one."
- No, he says. He's too tired to leave, and he doesn't want to go alone into the world.
- Wait, who said anything about alone?
A Flood of Sunshine
- Dimmesdale is pretty stoked (and surprised) that Hester would be bold enough to suggest running away with him.
- But the narrator isn't surprised. After all, Hester has been wandering in a "moral wilderness" for seven years, so she isn't blinded confines of Puritan morality and social structures.
- She's been prepping to ditch this community for seven years—but Arthur Dimmesdale hasn't. He's pretty freaked out by the whole idea.
- Still, it's tempting, and he eventually decides to do it. Yay!
- Hester even takes off that stupid scarlet letter and throws it on the forest floor. Everyone celebrates, the birds sing, the sun comes out, Nature itself blesses them. You know, the whole thing.
- Even the narrator gets in on the action, philosophizing that untamed Nature will bless people's freedom from society's laws.
- Hester calls Pearl over—oh, did you forget she was there?—and she comes over, all decked out in twigs and flowers.
The Child at the Brook-Side
- Pearl walks up, and her parents talk about how she (1) looks like both of them, (2) also looks like a fairy, and (3) is the "visible tie" that binds them together.
- Oh, but Dimmesdale should , chill because Pearl doesn't like emotion.
- Come to think of it, children often don't like Dimmesdale—but Hester promises that this one will.
- As Pearl stands on the other side of the brook, looking at them, Hester suddenly feels separated from her daughter.
- Um, maybe because she's standing on the other side of the brook?
- Anyway, the narrator has something to say about this: it's Hester's fault, because she admitted another person to the intimate circle that had always been made up of only mother and child.
- Pearl feels lost, looking at the two of them.
- Dimmesdale is getting a little freaked out, too, so he tells Pearl to hurry up.
- And then Pearl flips out a bit, throwing a cute little temper tantrum.
- For some reason, Hester thinks the solution is to tell Pearl to bring her the scarlet letter, which is lying on the ground nearby.
- Get it yourself, says Pearl.
- Actually, says Hester, that's a good idea; she'd better keep wearing it until they leave the village.
- Symbol back on and hair back in her cap, she's the same old sinning Hester, and Pearl finally comes over and kisses her—and kisses the letter.
- "Ooh, burn," Hester essentially says.
- Despite all this heavily symbolic foreshadowing, Pearl asks if Dimmesdale will hold their hands as they walk back to the village.
- We're not surprised when he refuses, but she is—and when he bends down to kiss her, she runs to the brook to wash it off.
The Minister in a Maze
- As Dimmesdale heads back to town, he glances back at Hester and Pearl, half-expecting that he just imagined the whole thing.
- Nope. Still there.
- He thinks about how they wanted to return to the Old World, and remember that there's actually a ship in the harbor at that exact moment, just waiting to sail for Bristol, England.
- Hester has met the captain and crew, so she should be able to secure passage for two adults and a child.
- They'll sail in four days, which will give Dimmesdale just enough time to leave his career on a high note by preaching his final sermon, the Election Sermon.
- (Quick Brain Snack: the "Election Sermon" was a sermon that basically meditated on the religious and civil duties of elected officials (and those who elect them) as allegedly laid out in the Bible. Pretty important stuff in a mid-17th century Puritan community.)
(Click the summary infographic to download.)
- When Dimmesdale gets back to town, though, he feels… weird.
- When he meets a deacon in the church, he almost blurts out some really blasphemous things.
- He even—prepare yourself—thinks about arguing against the immortality of the soul.
- And when he meets a new church member, he totally blows her off—making her wonder what she's done wrong.
- Oh, and he's tempted to teach some naughty words to some Puritan children playing by the road.
- He wonders if he is mad. Did he make a contract with the devil in the forest?
- Eh, we've all been there. Right?
- Just then, he passes the witch-lady Mistress Hibbins.
- She gives him a knowing smile and tell him to let her know next time he heads off into the woods, and she'll come along too.
- In fact, why doesn't join her at midnight in the forest, i.e., come to one of her fun witch parties?
- Now Dimmesdale is getting pretty nervous, wondering if he actually has sold his soul to the devil.
- Uh, actually, yes: the narrator says that deliberately choosing to sin is pretty much like dealing with the devil.
- "Wicked mortals" have a lot in common with "perverted spirits" (20.17).
- Back at his house, Dimmesdale is studying the Election Sermon (which he obviously wrote pre-encounter in the woods, since we'd hate to see what he came up with post-encounter), when Chillingworth comes in.
- Does he need medicinal strength for his sermon?
- Nope. In fact, he doesn't need any more of Chillingworth's drugs.
- Chillingworth mulls this over for a bit, and Dimmesdale starts to worry that he knows about the moment in the woods.
- He doesn't. But he does realize that Dimmesdale knows Chillingworth has it in for him. After a little back-and-forth about the medicine, Chillingworth finally leaves.
- Alone, Dimmesdale throws his Election Sermon in the fire and pulls an all-nighter writing a new one.
The New England Holiday
- The new Governor is going to take office, and it's party time for everyone.
- Even Hester comes into town. Like always, she doesn't give much away—but there just might be a teeny little expression of freedom on her face.
- Most people wouldn't notice a gorilla wandering onto a basketball court, so they sure don't notice Hester's expression.
- But Pearl does.
- Knowing something's up, she's acting wild—but she calms down enough to say that she's a strange, sad man if he'll greet them only at night or in the forest.
- Hester shushes her and tells her to notice how happy everybody is around them, celebrating Election Sunday (i.e., a day of both religious and civil thanksgiving).
- This is essentially the one day of the year that the Puritans seem like all other communities.
- The commander of the Bristol ship comes to talk to Hester. BTW, he says, there's going to be another passenger from your town.
- Three guesses?
- Okay, fine, we'll tell you.
- It's Chillingworth, obviously.
- Just then, Hester hears military music floating down the street.
- The magistrates and citizens are arriving at the meetinghouse to hear the Reverend Dimmesdale's Election Sunday sermon.
- First comes the music, then the men of "civil eminence" (22.3), and then the "young and eminently distinguished divine" (22.4).
- Dimmesdale is looking pretty energetic, but he doesn't even bother glancing at Hester, who's pretty bummed out.
- It's almost like he's a different person from the guy who kissed her in the forest—which is exactly what Pearl points out.
- Someone else notices the change, too. It's Mistress Hibbins, the town witch, given a wide berth by everyone else in the town.
- She stands next to Hester Prynne, and the whole town starts sweating in fear.
- You never want your adulteress and your witch to start plotting together, after all.
- Anyway, Mistress Hibbins tells Hester that she knows something's up. When the Black Man sees one of his servants fail to acknowledge his allegiance publicly by wearing a mark like Hester's scarlet A, he makes sure to shame that person by placing a mark on his body and revealing it to the world.
- Translated: Dimmesdale may not wear a scarlet letter on his clothes, but he's wearing one on his body.
- As Hester listens to Dimmesdale's sermon, she feels worse than ever.
- For some reason, Pearl gets to play in the marketplace, watched by a group of American Indians.
- The shipmaster gets her attention by throwing her a gold chain, which she twists around her neck and waist.
- Hm, a little foreshadowing, perhaps?
- He gives her a message to take to Hester: Chillingworth is going to bring Dimmesdale on board with him, so she doesn't need to worry about him.
- Oh, and also calls her "witch-baby," but Pearl doesn't go for that: Mistress Hibbins says her father is the "Prince of the Air."
- Hester is seriously bummed out now, since apparently they're never going to escape Dimmesdale.
- Also, there are a bunch of strangers in town, and they're all staring at her letter, since their mommas didn't teach them any manners.
- The sailors and American Indians are also gawking.
- With all these people staring at Hester's chest, the townspeople are feeling pretty interested, too.
- And this is all going down while Dimmesdale is standing up on his pulpit.
- Who, says the narrator, could have guess that the scarlet letter marked them both, the sinner and the (alleged) saint?
The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter
- Dimmesdale is really going to town on the subject of his sermon, which is God's relationship to human communities.
- It's almost like he's a prophet—or like he's about to die.
- Sermon over, the music starts again and the procession heads off to the town hall where they're going to have a banquet.
- Meanwhile, Dimmesdale is looking pretty ragged. He's not glowing like a saint; he looks a lot more like a man near death.
- Reverend John Wilson tries to help him, but Dimmesdale pushes him away to walk to the scaffold, where Hester's standing.
- And now it starts to get crazy.
- Dimmesdale tells Hester and Pearl to come stand next to him.
- Pearl runs up right away, but Hester hangs back.
- Chillingworth butts in, telling the minister to save himself and cast off the woman and child.
- Nothing doing: Dimmesdale says that he should have done this seven years ago.
- Everyone's getting a little agitated now, especially when Hester puts her arm around Dimmesdale and helps him up to the scaffold.
- Up there, he starts talking: everyone's horrified by Hester's sin, but there's someone else they should be horrified by.
- Who could it possibly be?
- Oh, yeah: him.
- And, just before he collapses, he tears open his shirt to show the mark on his chest.
- Chillingworth is all, "Curses! Foiled again!" because Dimmesdale has managed to escape his revenge.
- And Dimmesdale digs his claws in a little deeper by saying that he sure hopes God will forgive Chillingworth, since he's also sinned.
- Now that Dimmesdale has confessed, Pearl feels sorry for him. She kisses him, and it makes her into a woman. (But not in a creepy way, we promise.)
- Will he and Hester meet again?
- Eh, probably not, he says. After all, they have broken the law and sinned. God is merciful and all, but probably not so merciful that he'll let them be together in the afterlife.
- Still, they've both suffered and confessed, so let God's will be done.
- And those are Dimmesdale's last words.
(Click the summary infographic to download.)
- Of course, no one can agree on what actually happened at the scaffold.
- Some people say they saw a scarlet letter, similar to the one worn by Hester Prynne, engraved in Dimmesdale's flesh. Some think he minister etched the letter himself as a form of penance. Others think that Roger Chillingworth made it appear. And then some suggest that it appeared due to the "ever active tooth of remorse" (24.1).
- And then there are the eternal optimists, who claimed they didn't see anything at all and that there's no way Dimmesdale could have been Pearl's father.
- These people think that Dimmesdale chose to die in the arms of a fallen woman to demonstrate that we're all sinners in the eyes of God.
- That's, um, a lot of planning for a dying man.
- Anyway, the narrator tells us all that we should be honest, rather than hiding our worst traits and sins from the world.
- You know, like the fact that you wear the same socks two days in a row or never throw out leftovers?
- After Dimmesdale's death, Roger Chillingworth has no reason to live. He dies a year later and leaves all his property, in both England and in the U.S., to Pearl.
- This makes Pearl the richest heiress in the New World, which is awesome.
- It also means that Hester and Pearl can finally get out of town, which they do: one day, they just disappear from their cottage.
(Click the summary infographic to download.)
- Hester Prynne's story becomes legend… until, one day, years later, a tall woman in a gray robe comes to the abandoned cottage where Hester and Pearl had lived.
- As she goes in, she turns around long enough to display the scarlet letter on the bodice of her dress.
- Whoa! Hester's back!
- For the rest of her life, somebody sends Hester rich gifts, tokens, and ornaments—so someone's obviously looking after her.
- The gossips also believe that Pearl is alive, married, and having kids, because they see Hester embroidering a baby garment.
- But wherever Pearl lives, Hester has decided that New England is her real home. As the narrator says, "Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence" (24.11).
- She wears her scarlet letter, even though she doesn't have to.
- But the letter isn't a stigma anymore. Instead, it's a sign of her respect.
- Instead of avoiding her, women actually seek her out for comfort and advice, and she helps them out with the wisdom she's gained through her years of suffering.
- Just like Oprah.
- So, finally, Hester gets her happy ending, right? Well, it depends on what you think of as "happy."
- When she dies, she's buried near Dimmesdale... but not too near. And her gravestone, obviously, has a scarlet letter on it.
(Click the summary infographic to download.)