A crowd of somber, dreary-looking people has gathered outside the door of a prison in seventeenth-century Boston. The building’s heavy oak door is studded with iron spikes, and the prison appears to have been constructed to hold dangerous criminals. No matter how optimistic the founders of new colonies may be, the narrator tells us, they invariably provide for a prison and a cemetery almost immediately. This is true of the citizens of Boston, who built their prison some twenty years earlier.The one incongruity in the otherwise drab scene is the rosebush that grows next to the prison door. The narrator suggests that it offers a reminder of Nature’s kindness to the condemned; for his tale, he says, it will provide either a “sweet moral blossom” or else some relief in the face of unrelenting sorrow and gloom.
As the crowd watches, Hester Prynne, a young woman holding an infant, emerges from the prison door and makes her way to a scaffold (a raised platform), where she is to be publicly condemned. The women in the crowd make disparaging comments about Hester; they particularly criticize her for the ornateness of the embroidered badge on her chest—a letter “A” stitched in gold and scarlet. From the women’s conversation and Hester’s reminiscences as she walks through the crowd, we can deduce that she has committed adultery and has borne an illegitimate child, and that the “A” on her dress stands for “Adulterer.”
The beadle calls Hester forth. Children taunt her and adults stare. Scenes from Hester’s earlier life flash through her mind: she sees her parents standing before their home in rural England, then she sees a “misshapen” scholar, much older than herself, whom she married and followed to continental Europe. But now the present floods in upon her, and she inadvertently squeezes the infant in her arms, causing it to cry out. She regards her current fate with disbelief.
In the crowd that surrounds the scaffold, Hester suddenly spots her husband, who sent her to America but never fulfilled his promise to follow her. Though he is dressed in a strange combination of traditional European clothing and Native American dress, she is struck by his wise countenance and recognizes his slightly deformed shoulders. Hester’s husband (whom we will learn, in the next chapters, is now calling himself Roger Chillingworth) gestures to Hester that she should not reveal his identity. He then turns to a stranger in the crowd and asks about Hester’s crime and punishment, explaining that he has been held captive by Native Americans and has just arrived in Boston. The stranger tells him that Hester is the wife of a learned Englishman and had been living with him in Amsterdam when he decided to emigrate to America. The learned man sent Hester to America first and remained behind to settle his affairs, but he never joined Hester in Boston. Chillingworth remarks that Hester’s husband must have been foolish to think he could keep a young wife happy, and he asks the stranger about the identity of the baby’s father.
The stranger tells him that Hester refuses to reveal her fellow sinner. As punishment, she has been sentenced to three hours on the scaffold and a lifetime of wearing the scarlet letter on her chest. The narrator then introduces us to the town fathers who sit in judgment of Hester: Governor Bellingham, Reverend Wilson, and Reverend Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale, a young minister who is renowned for his eloquence, religious fervor, and theological expertise, is delegated to demand that Hester reveal the name of her child’s father. He tells her that she should not protect the man’s identity out of pity or tenderness, but when she staunchly refuses he does not press her further. Hester says that her child will seek a heavenly father and will never know an earthly one. Reverend Wilson then steps in and delivers a condemnatory sermon on sin, frequently referring to Hester’s scarlet letter, which seems to the crowd to glow and burn. Hester bears the sermon patiently, hushing Pearl when she begins to scream. At the conclusion of the sermon, Hester is led back into the prison.
Hester and her husband come face to face for the first time when he is called to her prison cell to provide medical assistance. Chillingworth has promised the jailer that he can make Hester more “amenable to just authority,” and he now offers her a cup of medicine. Hester knows his true identity—his gaze makes her shudder—and she initially refuses to drink his potion. She thinks that Chillingworth might be poisoning her, but he assures her that he wants her to live so that he can have his revenge. In the candid conversation that follows, he chastises himself for thinking that he, a misshapen bookworm, could keep a beautiful wife like Hester happy. He urges her to reveal the identity of her lover, telling her that he will surely detect signs of sympathy that will lead him to the guilty party. When she refuses to tell her secret, he makes her promise that she will not reveal to anyone his own identity either. His demoniacal grin and obvious delight at her current tribulations lead Hester to burst out the speculation that he may be the “Black Man”—the Devil in disguise—come to lure her into a pact and damn her soul. Chillingworth replies that it is not the well-being of her soul that his presence jeopardizes, implying that he plans to seek out her unknown lover. He clearly has revenge on his mind.
The narrator covers the events of several years. After a few months, Hester is released from prison. Although she is free to leave Boston, she chooses not to do so. She settles in an abandoned cabin on a patch of infertile land at the edge of town. Hester remains alienated from everyone, including the town fathers, respected women, beggars, children, and even strangers. She serves as a walking example of a fallen woman, a cautionary tale for everyone to see. Although she is an outcast, Hester remains able to support herself due to her uncommon talent in needlework. Her taste for the beautiful infuses her embroidery, rendering her work fit to be worn by the governor despite its shameful source. Although the ornate detail of her artistry defies Puritan codes of fashion, it is in demand for burial shrouds, christening gowns, and officials’ robes. In fact, through her work, Hester touches all the major events of life except for marriage—it is deemed inappropriate for chaste brides to wear the product of Hester Prynne’s hands. Despite her success, Hester feels lonely and is constantly aware of her alienation. As shame burns inside of her, she searches for companionship or sympathy, but to no avail. She devotes part of her time to charity work, but even this is more punishment than solace: those she helps frequently insult her, and making garments for the poor out of rough cloth insults her aesthetic sense.
Hester’s one consolation is her daughter, Pearl, who is described in great detail in this chapter. A beautiful flower growing out of sinful soil, Pearl is so named because she was “purchased with all [Hester] had—her mother’s only treasure!” Because “in giving her existence a great law had been broken,” Pearl’s very being seems to be inherently at odds with the strict rules of Puritan society. Pearl has inherited all of Hester’s moodiness, passion, and defiance, and she constantly makes mischief. Hester loves but worries about her child.
When the narrator describes Pearl as an “outcast,” he understates: Pearl is an “imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants.” Pearl herself is aware of her difference from others, and when Hester tries to teach her about God, Pearl says, “I have no Heavenly Father!” Because Pearl is her mother’s constant companion, she, too, is subject to the cruelties of the townspeople. The other children are particularly cruel because they can sense that something is not quite right about Hester and her child. Knowing that she is alone in this world, Pearl creates casts of characters in her imagination to keep her company.
Pearl is fascinated by the scarlet letter and at times seems to intentionally torture her mother by playing with it. Once, when Pearl is pelting the letter with wildflowers, Hester exclaims in frustration, “Child, what art thou?” Pearl turns the question back on her mother, insisting that Hester tell her of her origins. Surprised at the impudence of a child so young (Pearl is about three at the time), Hester wonders if Pearl might not be the demon-child that many of the townspeople believe her to be.
Hester pays a visit to Governor Bellingham’s mansion. She has two intentions: to deliver a pair of ornate gloves she has made for the governor, and to find out if there is any truth to the rumors that Pearl, now three, may be taken from her. Some of the townspeople, apparently including the governor, have come to suspect Pearl of being a sort of demon-child. The townspeople reason that if Pearl is a demon-child, she should be taken from Hester for Hester’s sake. And, they reason, if Pearl is indeed a human child, she should be taken away from her mother for her own sake and given to a “better” parent than Hester Prynne. On their way to see the governor, Hester and Pearl are attacked by a group of children, who try to fling mud at them. Pearl becomes angry and frightens the children off.
The governor’s mansion is stuffy and severe. It is built in the style of the English aristocracy, complete with family portraits and a suit of armor, which the governor has worn in battles with the Native Americans. Pearl is fascinated by the armor. When she points out her mother’s reflection in it, Hester is horrified to see that the scarlet letter dominates the reflection. Pearl begins to scream for a rose from the bush outside the window, but she is quieted by the entrance of a group of men.
Bellingham, Wilson, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale enter the room. They notice Pearl and begin to tease her by calling her a bird and a demon-child. When the governor points out that Hester is also present, they ask her why she should be allowed to keep the child. She tells the men that she will be able to teach Pearl an important lesson—the lesson that she has learned from her shame. They are doubtful, and Wilson tries to test the three-year-old’s knowledge of religious subjects. Wilson resents Pearl’s seeming dislike of him, and Pearl’s refusal to answer even the simplest of questions does not bode well.
With nowhere else to turn, Hester begs Dimmesdale to speak for her and her child. He replies by reminding the men that God sent Pearl and that the child was seemingly meant to be both a blessing and a curse. Swayed by his eloquence, Bellingham and Wilson agree not to separate mother and child. Strangely, Pearl has taken well to Dimmesdale. She goes to him and presses his hand to her cheek. Vexed because Hester seems to have triumphed, Chillingworth presses the men to reopen their investigation into the identity of Hester’s lover, but they refuse, telling him that God will reveal the information when He deems it appropriate. As Hester leaves the governor’s mansion, Mistress Hibbins, the governor’s sister, pokes her head out of the window to invite Hester to a witches’ gathering. Hester tells her that if she had not been able to keep Pearl, she would have gone willingly. The narrator notes that it seems Pearl has saved her mother from Satan’s temptations.
By renaming himself upon his arrival in Boston, Chillingworth has hidden his past from everyone except Hester, whom he has sworn to secrecy. He incorporates himself into society in the role of a doctor, and since the townsfolk have very little access to good medical care, he is welcomed and valued. In addition to his training in European science, he also has some knowledge of “native” or “natural” remedies, because he was captured by Native Americans and lived with them for a time. The town sometimes refers to the doctor colloquially as a “leech,” which was a common epithet for physicians at the time. The name derives from the practice of using leeches to drain blood from their patients, which used to be regarded as a curative process.
Much to the community’s concern, Dimmesdale has been suffering from severe health problems. He appears to be wasting away, and he frequently clutches at his chest as though his heart pains him. Because Dimmesdale refuses to marry any of the young women who have devoted themselves to him, Chillingworth urges the town leadership to insist that Dimmesdale allow the doctor to live with him. In this way, Chillingworth may have a chance to diagnose and cure the younger man. The two men take rooms next to the cemetery in a widow’s home, which gives them an opportunity for the contemplation of sin and death. The minister’s room is hung with tapestries depicting biblical scenes of adultery and its punishment, while Chillingworth’s room contains a laboratory that is sophisticated for its time.
The townspeople were initially grateful for Chillingworth’s presence and deemed his arrival a divine miracle designed to help Dimmesdale. As time has passed, however, rumors have spread concerning Chillingworth’s personal history. Even more ominously, the man’s face has begun to take on a look of evil. A majority of the townspeople begin to suspect that Chillingworth is the Devil, come to wage battle for Dimmesdale’s soul.
The inwardly tortured minister soon becomes Chillingworth’s greatest puzzle. The doctor relentlessly and mercilessly seeks to find the root of his patient’s condition. Chillingworth shows great persistence in inquiring into the most private details of Dimmesdale’s life, but Dimmesdale has grown suspicious of all men and will confide in no one. Chillingworth devotes all of his time to his patient. Even when he is not in Dimmesdale’s presence, Chillingworth is busy gathering herbs and weeds out of which to make medicines.
One day Dimmesdale questions his doctor about an unusual-looking plant. Chillingworth remarks that he found it growing on an unmarked grave and suggests that the dark weeds are the sign of the buried person’s unconfessed sin. The two enter into an uncomfortable conversation about confession, redemption, and the notion of “burying” one’s secrets. As they speak, they hear a cry from outside. Through the window, they see Pearl dancing in the graveyard and hooking burrs onto the “A” on Hester’s chest. When Pearl notices the two men, she drags her mother away, saying that the “Black Man” has already gotten the minister and that he must not capture them too. Chillingworth remarks that Hester is not a woman who lives with buried sin—she wears her sin openly on her breast. At Chillingworth’s words, Dimmesdale is careful not to give himself away either as someone who is intimately attached to Hester or as someone with a “buried” sin of his own. Chillingworth begins to prod the minister more directly by inquiring about his spiritual condition, explaining that he thinks it relevant to his physical health. Dimmesdale becomes agitated and tells Chillingworth that such matters are the concern of God. He then leaves the room.
Dimmesdale’s behavior has reinforced Chillingworth’s suspicions. The minister apologizes for his behavior, and the two are friends again. However, a few days later, Chillingworth sneaks up to Dimmesdale while he is asleep and pushes aside the shirt that Dimmesdale is wearing. What he sees on Dimmesdale’s chest causes the doctor to rejoice, but the reader is kept in the dark as to what Chillingworth has found there.
Chillingworth continues to play mind games with Dimmesdale, making his revenge as terrible as possible. The minister often regards his doctor with distrust and even loathing, but because he can assign no rational basis to his feelings, he dismisses them and continues to suffer. Dimmesdale’s suffering, however, does inspire him to deliver some of his most powerful sermons, which focus on the topic of sin. His struggles allow him to empathize with human weakness, and he thus addresses “the whole human brotherhood in the heart’s native language.” Although the reverend deeply yearns to confess the truth of his sin to his parishioners, he cannot bring himself to do so. As a result, his self-probing keeps him up at night, and he even sees visions.
In one vision, he sees Hester and “little Pearl in her scarlet garb.” Hester points “her forefinger, first at the scarlet letter on her bosom, and then at the clergyman’s own breast.” The minister understands that he is delusional, but his psychological tumult leads him to assign great meaning to his delusions. Even the Bible offers him little support. Unable to unburden himself of the guilt deriving from his sin, he begins to believe that “the whole universe is false, . . . it shrinks to nothing within his grasp.” Dimmesdale begins to torture himself physically: he scourges himself with a whip, he fasts, and he holds extended vigils, during which he stays awake throughout the night meditating upon his sin. During one of these vigils, Dimmesdale seizes on an idea for what he believes may be a remedy to his pain. He decides to hold a vigil on the scaffold where, years before, Hester suffered for her sin.
Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold. The pain in his breast causes him to scream aloud, and he worries that everyone in the town will wake up and come to look at him. Fortunately for Dimmesdale, the few townspeople who heard the cry took it for a witch’s voice. As Dimmesdale stands upon the scaffold, his mind turns to absurd thoughts. He almost laughs when he sees Reverend Wilson, and in his delirium he thinks that he calls out to the older minister. But Wilson, coming from the deathbed of Governor Winthrop (the colony’s first governor), passes without noticing the penitent. Having come so close to being sighted, Dimmesdale begins to fantasize about what would happen if everyone in town were to witness their holy minister standing in the place of public shame.
Dimmesdale laughs aloud and is answered by a laugh from Pearl, whose presence he had not noticed. Hester and Pearl had also been at Winthrop’s deathbed because the talented seamstress had been asked to make the governor’s burial robe. Dimmesdale invites them to join him on the scaffold, which they do. The three hold hands, forming an “electric chain.” The minister feels energized and warmed by their presence. Pearl innocently asks, “Wilt thou stand here with Mother and me, tomorrow noontide?” but the minister replies, “Not now, child, but at another time.” When she presses him to name that time, he answers, “At the great judgment day.”
Suddenly, a meteor brightens the dark sky, momentarily illuminating their surroundings. When the minister looks up, he sees an “A” in the sky, marked out in dull red light. At the same time, Pearl points to a figure that stands in the distance and watches them. It is Chillingworth. Dimmesdale asks Hester who Chillingworth really is, because the man occasions in him what he calls “a nameless horror.” But Hester, sworn to secrecy, cannot reveal her husband’s identity. Pearl says that she knows, but when she speaks into the minister’s ear, she pronounces mere childish gibberish. Dimmesdale asks if she intends to mock him, and she replies that she is punishing him for his refusal to stand in public with her and her mother.
Chillingworth approaches and coaxes Dimmesdale down, saying that the minister must have sleepwalked his way up onto the scaffold. When Dimmesdale asks how Chillingworth knew where to find him, Chillingworth says that he, too, was making his way home from Winthrop’s deathbed.
Seven years have passed since Pearl’s birth. Hester has become more active in society. She brings food to the doors of the poor, she nurses the sick, and she is a source of aid in times of trouble. She is still frequently made an object of scorn, but more people are beginning to interpret the “A” on her chest as meaning “Able” rather than “Adulterer.” Hester herself has also changed. She is no longer a tender and passionate woman; rather, burned by the “red-hot brand” of the letter, she has become “a bare and harsh outline” of her former self. She has become more speculative, thinking about how something is “amiss” in Pearl, about what it means to be a woman in her society, and about the harm she may be causing Dimmesdale by keeping Chillingworth’s identity secret.
Hester resolves to ask Chillingworth to stop tormenting the minister. One day she and Pearl encounter him near the beach, gathering plants for his medicines. When Hester approaches him, he tells her with a smirk that he has heard “good tidings” of her, and that in fact the town fathers have recently considered allowing her to remove the scarlet letter. Hester rebuffs Chillingworth’s insincere friendliness, telling him that the letter cannot be removed by human authority. Divine providence, she says, will make it fall from her chest when it is time for it to do so. She then informs Chillingworth that she feels it is time to tell the minister the truth about Chillingworth’s identity. From their conversation, it is clear that Chillingworth now knows with certainty that Dimmesdale was Hester’s lover and that Hester is aware of his knowledge.
A change comes over Chillingworth’s face, and the narrator notes that the old doctor has transformed himself into the very embodiment of evil. In a spasm of self-awareness, Chillingworth realizes how gnarled and mentally deformed he has become. He recalls the old days, when he was a benevolent scholar. He has now changed from a human being into a vengeful fiend, a mortal man who has lost his “human heart.” Saying that she bears the blame for Chillingworth’s tragic transformation, Hester begs him to relent in his revenge and become a human being again. The two engage in an argument over who is responsible for the current state of affairs. Chillingworth insists that his revenge and Hester’s silence are “[their] fate.” “Let the black flower blossom as it may!” he exclaims to her. “Now go thy ways, and deal as thou wilt with yonder man.”
As Chillingworth walks away, Hester goes to find Pearl. She realizes that, although it is a sin to do so, she hates her husband. If she once thought she was happy with him, it was only self-delusion. Pearl has been playing in the tide pools down on the beach. Pretending to be a mermaid, she puts eelgrass on her chest in the shape of an “A,” one that is “freshly green, instead of scarlet.” Pearl hopes that her mother will ask her about the letter, and Hester does inquire whether Pearl understands the meaning of the symbol on her mother’s chest. They proceed to discuss the meaning of the scarlet letter. Pearl connects the letter to Dimmesdale’s frequent habit of clutching his hand over his heart, and Hester is unnerved by her daughter’s perceptiveness. She realizes the child is too young to know the truth and decides not to explain the significance of the letter to her. Pearl is persistent, though, and for the next several days she harangues her mother about the letter and about the minister’s habit of reaching for his heart.
“Mother,” said little Pearl, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. . . . It will not flee from me; for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”Intent upon telling Dimmesdale the truth about Chillingworth’s identity, Hester waits for the minister in the forest, because she has heard that he will be passing through on the way back from visiting a Native American settlement. Pearl accompanies her mother and romps in the sunshine along the way. Curiously, the sunshine seems to shun Hester. As they wait for Dimmesdale by a brook, Pearl asks Hester to tell her about the “Black Man” and his connection to the scarlet letter. She has overheard an old woman discussing the midnight excursions of Mistress Hibbins and others, and the woman mentioned that Hester’s scarlet letter is the mark of the “Black Man.” When Pearl sees Dimmesdale’s figure emerging from the wood, she asks whether the approaching person is the “Black Man.” Hester, wanting privacy, tries to hurry Pearl off into the woods to play, but Pearl, both scared of and curious about the “Black Man,” wants to stay. Exasperated, Hester exclaims, “It is no Black Man! . . . It is the minister!” Pearl scurries off, but not before wondering aloud whether the minister clutches his heart because the “Black Man” has left a mark there too.
In the forest, Hester and Dimmesdale are finally able to escape both the public eye and Chillingworth. They join hands and sit in a secluded spot near a brook. Hester tells Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband. This news causes a “dark transfiguration” in Dimmesdale, and he begins to condemn Hester, blaming her for his suffering. Hester, unable to bear his harsh words, pulls him to her chest and buries his face in the scarlet letter as she begs his pardon. Dimmesdale eventually forgives her, realizing that Chillingworth is a worse sinner than either of them. The minister now worries that Chillingworth, who knows of Hester’s intention to reveal his secret, will expose them publicly. Hester tells the minister not to worry. She insists, though, that Dimmesdale free himself from the old man’s power. The former lovers plot to steal away on a ship to Europe, where they can live with Pearl as a family.
The scarlet letter was [Hester’s] passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers, —stern and wild ones, —and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.
The decision to move to Europe energizes both Dimmesdale and Hester. Dimmesdale declares that he can feel joy once again, and Hester throws the scarlet letter from her chest. Having cast off her “stigma,” Hester regains some of her former, passionate beauty, and she lets down her hair and smiles. Sunlight, which as Pearl has pointed out stays away from her mother as though it fears her scarlet letter, suddenly brightens the forest. Hester speaks to Dimmesdale about Pearl and is ecstatic that father and daughter will be able to know one another. She calls their daughter, who has been playing among the forest creatures, to join them. Pearl approaches warily.
Hester calls to Pearl to join her and Dimmesdale. From the other side of the brook, Pearl eyes her parents with suspicion. She refuses to come to her mother, pointing at the empty place on Hester’s chest where the scarlet letter used to be. Hester has to pin the letter back on and effect a transformation back into her old, sad self before Pearl will cross the creek. In her mother’s arms, Pearl kisses Hester and, seemingly out of spite, also kisses the scarlet letter. Hester tries to encourage Pearl to embrace Dimmesdale as well, although she does not tell her that the minister is her father. Pearl, aware that the adults seem to have made some sort of arrangement, asks, “Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?” Because Dimmesdale will not, Pearl rebuffs his subsequent kiss on the forehead. She runs to the brook and attempts to wash it off.
As the minister returns to town, he can hardly believe the change in his fortunes. He and Hester have decided to go to Europe, since it offers more anonymity and a better environment for Dimmesdale’s fragile health. Through her charity work, Hester has become acquainted with the crew of a ship that is to depart for England in four days, and the couple plans to secure passage on this vessel. Tempted to announce to all he sees, “I am not the man for whom you take me! I left him yonder in the forest,” Dimmesdale now finds things that were once familiar, including himself, to seem strange.
As he passes one of the church elders on his way through town, the minister can barely control his urge to utter blasphemous statements. He then encounters an elderly woman who is looking for a small tidbit of spiritual comfort. To her he nearly blurts out a devastating “unanswerable argument against the immortality of the human soul,” but something stops him, and the widow totters away satisfied. He next ignores a young woman whom he has recently converted to the church because he fears that his strange state of mind will lead him to plant some corrupting germ in her innocent heart. Passing one of the sailors from the ship on which he plans to escape, Dimmesdale has the impulse to engage with him in a round of oaths; this comes only shortly after an encounter with a group of children, whom the minister nearly teaches some “wicked words.” Finally, Dimmesdale runs into Mistress Hibbins, who chuckles at him and offers herself as an escort the next time he visits the forest. This interchange disturbs Dimmesdale and suggests to him that he may have made a bargain with Mistress Hibbins’s master, the Devil.
When he reaches his house, Dimmesdale tells Chillingworth that he has no more need of the physician’s drugs. Chillingworth becomes wary but is afraid to ask Dimmesdale outright if the minister knows his real identity. Dimmesdale has already started to write the sermon he is expected to deliver in three days for Election Day (a religious as well as civil holiday that marks the opening of the year’s legislative session). In light of his new view of humanity, he now throws his former manuscript in the fire and writes a newer and better sermon.
Echoing the novel’s beginning, the narrator describes another public gathering in the marketplace. But this time the purpose is to celebrate the installation of a new governor, not to punish Hester Prynne. The celebration is relatively sober, but the townspeople’s “Elizabethan” love of splendor lends an air of pageantry to the goings-on. As they wait in the marketplace among an assorted group of townsfolk, Native Americans, and sailors from the ship that is to take Hester and Dimmesdale to Europe, Pearl asks Hester whether the strange minister who does not want to acknowledge them in public will hold out his hands to her as he did at the brook. Lost in her thoughts and largely ignored by the crowd, Hester is imagining herself defiantly escaping from her long years of dreariness and isolation. Her sense of anticipation is shattered, however, when one of the sailors casually reveals that Chillingworth will be joining them on their passage because the ship needs a doctor and Chillingworth has told the captain that he is a member of Hester’s party. Hester looks up to see Chillingworth standing across the marketplace, smirking at her.
“Mother,” said [Pearl], “was that the same minister that kissed me by the brook?”
“Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!” whispered [Hester]. “We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest.”
The majestic procession passes through the marketplace. A company of armored soldiers is followed by a group of the town fathers, whose stolid and dour characters are prominently displayed. Hester is disheartened to see the richness and power of Puritan tradition displayed with such pomp. She and other onlookers notice that Dimmesdale, who follows the town leaders, looks healthier and more energetic than he has in some time. Although only a few days have passed since he kissed her forehead next to the forest brook, Pearl barely recognizes the minister. She tells Hester that she is tempted to approach the man and bestow a kiss of her own, and Hester scolds her. Dimmesdale’s apparent vigor saddens Hester because it makes him seem remote. She begins to question the wisdom of their plans. Mistress Hibbins, very elaborately dressed, comes to talk to Hester about Dimmesdale. Saying that she knows those who serve the Black Man, Mistress Hibbins refers to what she calls the minister’s “mark” and declares that it will soon, like Hester’s, be plain to all. Suggesting that the Devil is Pearl’s real father, Mistress Hibbins invites the child to go on a witch’s ride with her at some point in the future. The narrator interrupts his narration of the celebration to note that Mistress Hibbins will soon be executed as a witch.
After the old woman leaves, Hester takes her place at the foot of the scaffold to listen to Dimmesdale’s sermon, which has commenced inside the meetinghouse. Pearl, who has been wandering around the marketplace, returns to give her mother a message from the ship’s master—Chillingworth says he will make the arrangements for bringing Dimmesdale on board, so Hester should attend only to herself and her child. While Hester worries about this new development, she suddenly realizes that everyone around her—both those who are familiar with her scarlet letter and those who are not—is staring at her.
Dimmesdale finishes his Election Day sermon, which focuses on the relationship between God and the communities of mankind, “with a special reference to the New England which they [are] here planting in the wilderness.” Dimmesdale has proclaimed that the people of New England will be chosen by God, and the crowd is understandably moved by the sermon. As they file out of the meeting hall, the people murmur to each other that the sermon was the minister’s best, most inspired, and most truthful ever. As they move toward the town hall for the evening feast, Dimmesdale sees Hester and hesitates. Turning toward the scaffold, he calls to Hester and Pearl to join him. Deaf to Chillingworth’s attempt to stop him, Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold with Hester and Pearl. He declares that God has led him there. The crowd stares. Dimmesdale leans on Hester for support and begins his confession, calling himself “the one sinner of the world.” After he concludes, he stands upright without Hester’s help and tells everyone to see that he, like Hester, has a red stigma. Tearing away his ministerial garments from his breast, Dimmesdale reveals what we take to be some sort of mark—the narrator demurs, saying that it would be “irreverent to describe [the] revelation”—and then sinks onto the scaffold. The crowd recoils in shock, and Chillingworth cries out, “Thou hast escaped me!” Pearl finally bestows on Dimmesdale the kiss she has withheld from him. The minister and Hester then exchange words. She asks him whether they will spend their afterlives together, and he responds that God will decide whether they will receive any further punishment for breaking His sacred law. The minister bids her farewell and dies.
[T]he scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too.
(See Important Quotations Explained)
The book’s narrator discusses the events that followed Dimmesdale’s death and reports on the fates of the other major characters. Apparently, those who witnessed the minister’s death cannot agree upon what exactly it was that they saw. Most say they saw on his chest a scarlet letter exactly like Hester’s. To their minds, it resulted from Chillingworth’s poisonous magic, from the minister’s self-torture, or from his inner remorse. Others say they saw nothing on his chest and that Dimmesdale’s “revelation” was simply that any man, however holy or powerful, can be as guilty of sin as Hester. It is the narrator’s opinion that this latter group is composed of Dimmesdale’s friends, who are anxious to protect his reputation.
Left with no object for his malice, Chillingworth wastes away and dies within a year of the minister’s passing, leaving a sizable inheritance to Pearl. Then, shortly after Chillingworth’s death, Hester and Pearl disappear. In their absence, the story of the scarlet letter grows into a legend. The story proves so compelling that the town preserves the scaffold and Hester’s cottage as material testaments to it. Many years later, Hester suddenly returns alone to live in the cottage and resumes her charity work. By the time of her death, the “A,” which she still wears, has lost any stigma it may have had. Hester is buried in the King’s Chapel graveyard, which is the burial ground for Puritan patriarchs. Her grave is next to Dimmesdale’s, but far enough away to suggest that “the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle, even in death.” They do, however, share a headstone. It bears a symbol that the narrator feels appropriately sums up the whole of the narrative: a scarlet letter “A” on a black background.
This passage comes from the introductory section of The Scarlet Letter, in which the narrator details how he decided to write his version of Hester Prynne’s story. Part of his interest in the story is personal—he is descended from the original Puritan settlers of Massachusetts. Like Hester, the narrator both affirms and resists Puritan values. He is driven to write, yet the Puritan in him sees the frivolity in such an endeavor: what good, after all, can come of writing this story? Yet in that very question lies the significance of this tale, which interrogates the conflict between individual impulses and systematized social codes. The narrator finds Hester Prynne compelling because she represents America’s past, but also because her experiences reflect his own dilemmas. Thus, for the narrator, the act of writing about Hester becomes not a trivial activity but a means of understanding himself and his social context.
“A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” Such are the compliments bandied between my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.
This quote, taken from Chapter 16, “A Forest Walk,” is illustrative of the role Pearl plays in the text. It is also a meditation on the significance of the scarlet letter as a symbol and an exposition of the connection between sin and humanness—one of the novel’s most important themes.
Pearl is frequently aware of things that others do not see, and here she presciently identifies the scarlet letter on her mother’s bosom with the metaphorical (and in this case also literal) lack of sunshine in her mother’s life. Because she is just a child, Pearl often does not understand the ramifications of the things she sees. She frequently reveals truths only indirectly by asking pointed questions. These queries make her mother uncomfortable and contribute to the text’s suspense. Here Pearl is assuming, as children often do, that her mother is representative of all adults. Her question suggests that she thinks that all grown women wear a scarlet letter or its equivalent. Surely, Pearl has noticed that the other women in town don’t wear scarlet letters. But, on a more figurative level, her question suggests that sin—that which the scarlet letter is intended to represent—is an inevitable part of being a mature human being.
“Mother,” said little Pearl, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. . . . It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”
“Nor ever will, my child, I hope,” said Hester.
“And why not, mother?” asked Pearl, stopping short. . . . “Will it not come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?”
These are the narrator’s reflections at the beginning of Chapter 18, “A Flood of Sunshine.” The quotation concerns the theme of sin and knowledge that is so central to The Scarlet Letter. Over the course of their first significant conversation in many years, Hester and Dimmesdale decide to run away to Europe together. The minister is still in a state of shock, but Hester accepts their decision with relative equanimity. One result of her “sin” has been her profound alienation from society—she has been forced into the role of philosopher. Although the narrator tries to claim that her speculations have led her “amiss,” it is clear from his tone that he admires her intellectual bravery. It is deeply ironic, too, that it is her punishment, which was intended to help her atone and to make her an example for the community, that has led her into a “moral wilderness” devoid of “rule or guidance.” Finally, this passage is a good example of the eloquent, high-flown yet measured style that the narrator frequently adopts when considering the moral or philosophical ramifications of a situation.
“But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness. . . . The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.”
This conversation, which is described in Chapter 22, takes place a few days after Hester and Pearl’s encounter with Dimmesdale in the forest. It emphasizes the importance of physical settings in the novel and evokes the motif of civilization versus the wilderness. Dimmesdale has just walked by Hester and Pearl as part of the Election Day pageantry, and Pearl notices his changed appearance. Hester’s realization that different rules apply in the marketplace than in the forest has more significant consequences than she realizes, making this yet another ironic moment in the text. Hester primarily wishes Pearl to maintain a sense of decorum and not reveal her mother’s secret and the family’s plans to flee. On another level, though, Hester’s statement suggests that plans made in the forest will not withstand the public scrutiny of the marketplace. What is possible in the woods—a place of fantasy, possibility, and freedom—is not an option in the heart of the Puritan town, where order, prescription, and harsh punishment reign.
“Mother,” said [Pearl], “was that the same minister that kissed me by the brook?”
“Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!” whispered her mother. “We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest.”
This passage, which appears in the novel’s final chapter, concludes the book’s examination of the theme of individual identity in the face of social judgments. After many years’ absence, Hester has just returned to her former home. She resumes wearing the scarlet letter because her past is an important part of her identity; it is not something that should be erased or denied because someone else has decided it is shameful. What Hester undergoes is more akin to reconciliation than penitence. She creates a life in which the scarlet letter is a symbol of adversity overcome and of knowledge gained rather than a sign of failure or condemnation. She assumes control of her own identity, and in so doing she becomes an example for others. She is not, however, the example of sin that she was once intended to be. Rather, she is an example of redemption and self-empowerment.
“But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home. Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But . . . the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too.”
For Hester, to remove the scarlet letter would be to acknowledge the power it has in determining who she is. The letter would prove to have successfully restricted her if she were to become a different person in its absence. Hester chooses to continue to wear the letter because she is determined to transform its meaning through her actions and her own self-perception—she wants to be the one who controls its meaning. Society tries to reclaim the letter’s symbolism by deciding that the “A” stands for “Able,” but Hester resists this interpretation. The letter symbolizes her own past deed and her own past decisions, and she is the one who will determine the meaning of those events. Upon her return from Europe at the novel’s end, Hester has gained control over both her personal and her public identities. She has made herself into a symbol of feminine repression and charitable ideals, and she stands as a self-appointed reminder of the evils society can commit.
Discuss the relationship between the scarlet letter and Hester’s identity. Why does she repeatedly refuse to stop wearing the letter? What is the difference between the identity she creates for herself and the identity society assigns to her?
Typically, America is conceptualized as a place of freedom, where a person’s opportunities are limited only by his or her ambition and ability—and not by his or her social status, race, gender, or other circumstances of birth. In the Puritan society portrayed in the novel, however, this is not the case. In fact, it is Europe, not America, that the book presents as a place of potential. There, anonymity can protect an individual and allow him or her to assume a new identity. This unexpected inversion leads the characters and the reader to question the principles of freedom and opportunity usually identified with America. Hester’s experiences suggest that this country is founded on the ideals of repression and confinement. Additionally, the narrator’s own experiences, coming approximately two hundred years after Hester’s, confirm those of his protagonist. His fellow customs officers owe their jobs to patronage and family connections, not to merit, and he has acquired his own position through political allies. Thus, the customhouse is portrayed as an institution that embodies many of the principles that America supposedly opposes.
Much of the social hypocrisy presented in the book stems from America’s newness. Insecure in its social order, the new society is trying to distance itself from its Anglican origins yet, at the same time, reassure itself of its legitimacy and dignity. It is a difficult task to “define” oneself as a land of self-defining individuals. But it is this project of defining America that Hawthorne himself partially undertakes in his novel. He aims to write a text that both embodies and describes “Americanness.”
In what ways could The Scarlet Letter be read as a commentary on the era of American history it describes? How does Hawthorne’s portrayal of Europe enter into this commentary? Could the book also be seen as embodying some of the aspects it attributes to the nation in which it was written?
The Puritans in this book are constantly seeking out natural symbols, which they claim are messages from God. Yet these characters are not willing to accept any revelation at face value. They interpret the symbols only in ways that confirm their own preformulated ideas or opinions. The meteor that streaks the sky as Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold in Chapter 12 is a good example of this phenomenon. To Dimmesdale and to the townspeople, the “A” that the meteor traces in the sky represents whatever notion already preoccupies them. To the minister, the meteor exposes his sin, while to the townspeople it confirms that the colony’s former governor, who has just died, has gone to heaven and been made an angel.
For the narrator, on the other hand, symbols function to complicate reality rather than to confirm one’s perception of it. The governor’s garden, which Hester and Pearl see in Chapter 7, illustrates his tactic quite well. The narrator does not describe the garden in a way that reinforces the image of luxury and power that is present in his description of the rest of the governor’s house. Rather, he writes that the garden, which was originally planted to look like an ornamental garden in the English style, is now full of weeds, thorns, and vegetables. The garden seems to contradict much of what the reader has been told about the governor’s power and importance, and it suggests to us that the governor is an unfit caretaker, for people as well as for flowers. The absence of any flowers other than the thorny roses also hints that ideals are often accompanied by evil and pain. Confronted by the ambiguous symbol of the garden, we begin to look for other inconsistencies and for other examples of decay and disrepair in Puritan society.
This novel makes extensive use of symbols. Discuss the difference between the Puritans’ use of symbols (the meteor, for example) and the way that the narrator makes use of symbols. Do both have religious implications? Do symbols foreshadow events or simply comment on them after the fact? How do they help the characters understand their lives, and how do they help the reader understand Hawthorne’s book?