Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is famous for presenting some of the greatest interpretive difficulties in all of American literature. While not recognized by Hawthorne himself as his most important work, the novel is regarded not only as his greatest accomplishment, but frequently as the greatest novel in American literary history. After it was published in 1850, critics hailed it as initiating a distinctive American literary tradition. Ironically, it is a novel in which, in terms of action, almost nothing happens. Hawthorne's emotional, psychic drama revolves around Hester Prynne, who is convicted of adultery in colonial Boston by the civil and Puritan authorities. She is condemned to wear the scarlet letter “A” on her chest as a permanent sign of her sin. The narrative describes the effort to resolve the torment suffered by Hester and her co-adulterer, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale, in the years after their affair. In fact, excluding even the representation of the passionate moment which enables the entire novel, the story begins at the close of Hester's imprisonment many months after her affair and proceeds through many years to her final acceptance of her place in the community as the wearer of the scarlet letter. Hawthorne was masterful in the use of symbolism, and the scarlet letter “A” stands as his most potent symbol, around which interpretations of the novel revolve. At one interpretive pole the “A” stands for adultery and sin, and the novel is the story of individual punishment and reconciliation. At another pole it stands for America and allegory, and the story suggests national sin and its human cost. Yet possibly the most convincing reading, taking account of all others, sees the “A” as a symbol of ambiguity, the very fact of multiple interpretations and the difficulty of achieving consensus.
The Scarlet Letter opens with an expectant crowd standing in front of a Boston prison in the early 1640s. When the prison door opens, a young woman named Hester Prynne emerges, with a baby in her arms, and a scarlet letter "A" richly embroidered on her breast. For her crime of adultery, to which both the baby and the letter attest, she must proceed to the scaffold and stand for judgment by her community.
While on the scaffold, Hester remembers her past. In particular, she remembers the face of a "misshapen" man, "well stricken in years," with the face of a scholar. At this moment, the narrator introduces an aged and misshapen character, who has been living "in bonds" with "Indian" captors. He asks a bystander why Hester is on the scaffold. The brief story is told: two years earlier, Hester had preceded her husband to New England. Her husband never arrived. In the meantime, she bore a child; the father of the infant has not come forward. As this stranger stares at Hester, she stares back: a mutual recognition passes between them.
On the scaffold, Boston's highest clergyman, John Wilson, and Hester's own pastor, Rev. Dimmesdale, each ask her to reveal the name of her partner in crime. Reverend Dimmesdale makes a particularly powerful address, urging her not to tempt the man to lead a life of sinful hypocrisy by leaving his identity unnamed. Hester refuses.
After the ordeal of her public judgment, the misshapen man from the marketplace—her long lost husband—visits her, taking the name Roger Chillingworth. When she refuses to identify the father of her child, he vows to discover him and take revenge. He makes Hester swear to keep his identity a secret.
Now freed, Hester and her baby girl, Pearl, move to a secluded cabin. The narrator explains that
There is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime.
Whether for this reason, or for others, Hester stays in the colony. She earns a living as a seamstress. Hester has "in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic" that shows in her needlework. Although the Puritans' sumptuary laws (which regulate personal expenditure and displays of luxury) restrict ornament, she finds a market for her goods—the ministers and judges of the colony have occasion for pomp and circumstance, which her needlework helps supply. She uses her money to help the needy, although they scorn her in return. Hester focuses most of her love, and all of her love of finery, on her daughter, her "pearl of great price." Pearl grows up without the company of other children, a wild child in fabulous clothing. Even her mother questions her humanity and sees her as an ethereal, almost devilish, "airy sprite."
When Pearl is three, Hester discovers that certain "good people" of the town, including Governor Bellingham, seek to "deprive her of her child." She goes to the governor and pleads her case. She and Pearl find the governor in the company of Rev. Wilson, Rev. Dimmesdale, and his now close companion, Dr. Chillingworth. Pearl inexplicably runs to Rev. Dimmesdale and clasps his hand. To the men, Hester argues that God has sent Pearl both to remind her of her sin, and to compensate her for all she has lost. When they seem unswayed, Hester throws herself on Rev. Dimmesdale's mercy. He endorses her argument: Providence has bound up both sin and salvation in Pearl, whom Hester must be allowed to care for herself. The men reluctantly agree.
Since his arrival, Roger Chillingworth has assumed the identity of a physician. His scholarly background, combined with a knowledge of New World plants gained from his "Indian" captors, have prepared him well for this role. But healing masks his deeper purpose: revenge. He "devotes" himself to Rev. Dimmesdale, whose health has greatly declined. Chillingworth takes up lodging in the same house as the minister. As time passes, an "intimacy" grows up between them, and they seem to enjoy the difference in their points of view, as men of science and religion.
Unsuspected by his victim, Chillingworth digs into the "poor clergyman's heart, like a miner searching for gold." The only clue to Dimmesdale's condition lies in a characteristic gesture: he frequently presses his hand on his heart. One day, when Dimmesdale sleeps heavily (perhaps having been drugged), Chillingworth looks under his shirt. He sees something that the reader does not—something that evokes a "wild look of wonder, joy, and horror!" From that moment, their relationship changes for the worse. Having mastered Dimmesdale's secret, Chillingworth grows increasingly ugly, increasingly diabolical, and his real purpose becomes more perceptible. Many townspeople become convinced that Satan himself has sent him to torment the young minister.
Dimmesdale's secret has a paradoxical effect on his religious career. He knows himself to be the worst of sinners, and his sin makes his sermons more heartfelt, and more effective. This success intensifies his inner torment, and increases his sense of hypocrisy. One night he wanders out and climbs onto the scaffold. He considers waking the town and confessing his guilt. Hester and Pearl, after watching by a deathbed, find him, and join him. By this time Pearl is seven years old, and Hester's reputation has improved; now many associate the "A" with "Able," because of her good works. Pearl asks the minister if he will stand there with them the next day at noon; he promises that they will stand together—not tomorrow—but on "judgment day." A light suddenly bursts in the sky, appearing, to some, as the letter "A." Their vigil ends when Chillingworth appears and takes Dimmesdale home.
Hester, disturbed by Dimmesdale's obvious torment, confronts Chillingworth. She entreats him to stop his vengeful scheme. He refuses. Pearl guesses at the connection between the reverend and her mother, but cannot wholly understand. She fixates on her mother's scarlet "A" in an ominous way. Worried that she has corrupted her child and both men, Hester decides to intervene and to tell Dimmesdale the truth.
Hester waits for Dimmesdale with Pearl in the woods. In the forest, the sun shines on Pearl, but never on Hester, who seems always enveloped in dark and shadow. Hester tells Dimmesdale all. The reader's suspicions about Dimmesdale are confirmed. "`Oh Arthur,' [cries] she, `forgive me! . . . he whom they call Roger Chillingworth!—he was my husband!'" Dimmesdale realizes how full of deception his life has been. He and Hester decide to leave together and start a new life. Hester removes her scarlet letter and lets down her hair. For a moment, they are happy in their love. Seeing them, Pearl refuses to come until her mother resumes her ordinary appearance; she obstinately washes off the kiss that her father plants on her forehead. Yet the parents remain optimistic, and part with the promise to leave, secretly and by ship, in four days.
The day before their planned departure is Election Day, and Rev. Dimmesdale gives a sermon, intending it as a triumphant farewell. His spirits are strangely high. During the sermon, Hester finds their plans going awry. Chillingworth has guessed their intent and arranged to leave with them—they will never escape him. As Dimmesdale leaves the church, his strength fails him. In front of the whole community, he reaches for Hester and Pearl, and, with them, ascends the scaffold. He confesses his part in Hester's sin, and tears open his minister's collar, exposing what looks like--to some--a letter "A." He asks for the crowd's forgiveness, and in turn absolves his own tormentor, Chillingworth. Then he asks his daughter for a kiss and, when she gives it, "a spell is broken":
The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl's errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.
His breast finally unburdened, Dimmesdale dies.
Chillingworth soon follows him to the grave, leaving his money to Pearl. Hester takes her daughter to Europe, but returns alone years later. Hester resumes her scarlet letter "A" and her good works. When she dies, the village buries her next to Dimmesdale.
Hester Prynne : Hester Prynne is the central and most important character in The Scarlet Letter. Hester was married to Roger Chillingworth while living in England and, later, Amsterdam—a city to which many English Puritans moved for religious freedom. Hester preceded her husband to New England, as he had business matters to settle in Amsterdam, and after approximately two years in America she committed adultery with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.
The novel begins as Hester nears the end of her prison term for adultery. While adultery was considered a grave threat to the Puritan community, such that death was considered a just punishment, the Puritan authorities weighed the long absence and possible death of her husband in their sentence. Thus, they settled on the punishment of permanent public humiliation and moral example: Hester was to forever wear the scarlet letter A on the bodice of her clothing.
While seemingly free to leave the community and even America at her will, Hester chooses to stay. As the narrator puts it, "Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul." According to this reasoning, Hester assumes her residence in a small abandoned cottage on the outskirts of the community.
While the novel is, in large part, a record of the torment Hester suffers under the burden of her symbol of shame, eventually, after the implied marriage of her daughter Pearl and the death of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, Hester becomes an accepted and even a highly valued member of the community. Instead of being a symbol of scorn, Hester, and the letter A, according to the narrator, "became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too." The people of the community even come to Hester for comfort and counsel in times of trouble and sorrow because they trust her to offer unselfish advice toward the resolution of upsetting conflict. Thus, in the end, Hester becomes an important figure in preserving the peace and stability of the community.
Arthur Dimmesdale : Arthur Dimmesdale is the young, charismatic minister with whom Hester commits adultery. Unlike Hester, who bears the child Pearl by their affair, Dimmesdale shows no outward evidence of his sin, and, as Hester does not expose him, he lives with the great anguish of his secret guilt until he confesses publicly and soon after dies near the end of the novel.
Dimmesdale is presented as a figure of frailty and weakness in contrast to Hester's strength (both moral and physical), pride, and determination. He consistently refuses to confess his sin (until the end), even though he repeatedly states that it were better, less spiritually painful, if his great failing were known. Thus Dimmesdale struggles through the years and the narrative, enduring and faltering beneath his growing pain (with both the help and harm of Roger Chillingworth), until, after his failed plan to escape to Europe with Hester and Pearl, he confesses and dies.
Roger Chillingworth : Roger Chillingworth is the alias of Hester's husband. The two were married in England and moved together to Amsterdam before Hester preceded Chillingworth to America. Chillingworth is a man devoted to knowledge. His outward physical deformity (a hunchback) is symbolic of his devotion to deep, as opposed to superficial, knowledge. His lifelong study of apothecary and the healing arts, first in Europe and later among the Indians of America, is a sincere benevolent exercise until he discovers his wife's infidelity, whereupon he turns his skills toward the evil of revenge.
Chillingworth is introduced near the very start of the narrative, where he discovers Hester upon the scaffold with Pearl, the scarlet letter upon her chest, and displayed for public shame. After surviving a shipwreck on his voyage to America, he lived for some time among the Indians and slowly made his way to Boston and Hester. Upon discovering Hester's "ignominious" situation, Chillingworth declines to announce his identity and instead chooses to reside in Boston to find and avenge himself on Hester's lover. When Dimmesdale becomes ill with the effects of his sin, Chillingworth comes to live with him under the same roof. Reneging on an earlier promise, Hester eventually discloses Chillingworth's identity to Dimmesdale. Soon after Dimmesdale publicly confesses his sin and, as Chillingworth puts it, "Hadst thou sought the whole earth over... there was no one place so secret,—no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me,—save on this very scaffold!" Thus, his vengeful victory taken from him, Chillingworth soon dies, though not before leaving all of his substantial wealth to Pearl.
Pearl : Pearl is the daughter of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. Necessarily marginal to Puritan society and scorned by other children, she grows up as an intimate of nature and the forest. Symbolically recreating the scarlet letter, Hester, in opposition to her own drab wardrobe, dresses Pearl in brilliant, decorative clothing such "that there was an absolute circle of radiance about her."
Like most characters in The Scarlet Letter, Pearl is complex and contradictory. On the one hand, as the narrator describes, she "could not be made amenable to rules." At one moment in the novel, her disregard of authority takes the form of a violent game where she pretends to destroy the children of the Puritan elders: "the ugliest weeds of the garden [she imagined were the elders'] children, whom Pearl smote down and uprooted, most unmercifully." On the other hand, at a climactic point in the narrative, where Hester discards the scarlet letter on the floor of the forest, it is Pearl who dramatically insists that she resume the potent symbol. The form of her insistence is particularly important, for, against her mother's request, she does not bring the letter to Hester, but obstinately has Hester fetch the letter herself. This moment demonstrates one of the central conflicted themes of the novel about the authoritarian imposition of law and the willing subjection to it, or even embodiment of it. In this scene Pearl becomes the figure of authority to whom Hester willingly, if symbolically, obeys. Pearl eventually leaves with Hester for Europe (though Hester returns), where, it is implied, Pearl stays and, with the aid of Chillingworth's inheritance, is married to nobility.
Hibbins, Mistress : Mistress Hibbins, who makes several provoking, if short, appearances in the novel, represents the actual historical figure Ann Hibbins, who was executed for witchcraft in 1656. Mistress Hibbins tempts both Hester and Dimmesdale to enter in the league of the "Black Man," who, as a representative of the devil, haunts the wild forest. While she is very nearly a comic figure in the narrative, the fact of her historical reality and fate remind us of the grim power of Puritan regulation and paranoia.
Bellingham, Governor : Governor Bellingham also represents an actual person, Richard Bellingham, who came to America in 1634 and was elected as governor of the English colony in 1641, 1654, and 1655. When not acting as governor, he still held positions of power as magistrate or deputy governor. In the novel his character demonstrates that in the colony, as the narrator states in chapter two, "religion and law were almost identical." Bellingham is described as a "stern magistrate," who, in chapter eight, is convinced that Pearl should be taken from her mother in order to receive a proper moral upbringing, until Dimmesdale persuades him that the union of Pearl and Hester is a part of God's design.
John Wilson : Another historical figure, John Wilson was a minister who came to America in 1630. He was a strong figure of Puritan authority and intolerance. In chapter three, where Hester is on the scaffold, he prods Dimmesdale to interrogate Hester about the identity of her lover. In chapter eight he questions Pearl about her religious knowledge.
The Goodwives : The Goodwives are several women who discuss Hester's situation in chapter two. They generally believe the magistrates have been too easy on Hester and suggest branding or execution as appropriate punishments. One exception is a "young wife" who in this, and a later scene, feels pity for Hester.
The Shipmaster : The Shipmaster is the captain of the ship on which Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl hope to leave America for Europe. During the Election Day sermon in chapter twelve, he is smitten by Pearl's charm. He even tries to kiss her, and, when this fails, he gives her a long gold chain.