The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Type of work Impressionistic fiction
Setting Boston, Massachusetts; 17th century
Hester Prynne, a condemned adulteress
Pearl, her daughter
Arthur Dimmesdale, one of the community’s ministers
Roger Chillingsworth, Hester’s estranged husband (his assumed name)
Condemned to wear a bright red “A” over her breast wherever she went, Hester Prynne had been convicted of adultery by Boston’s Puritan leaders; a child had been born to her during her husband’s long absence.
Emerging from the prisonhouse under the gaze of her neighbors, Hester surprised the townsfolk with her air of aloof and silent dignity. Led to the town square, she ascended a scaffold, her babe cradled in her arms. There on the scaffold she suffered scorn and public admonishment. One “good woman” loudly decried the elaborate letter Hester had embroidered into her frock: blazing scarlet, ornately fashioned and bordered with prominent gold stitching – the requisite token of her deed. A minister in the crowd denounced her crime and called on her to reveal the identity of her partner. Another minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, pled with her more gently. He, in compassion, also begged her to unmask her lover. Unknown to the multitude, however, Dimmesdale himself was that lover; his gentle prodding was in fact a distraught and convoluted effort to urge a confession from Hester which he knew she would never make – and which he could not find the courage to make for himself.
From her place on the pulpit, Hester’s eyes met with those of a hunched, wrinkled man in the crowd, a stranger in the town but well known to her. He was Hester’s husband, a scholar and a physician of sorts, who had spent years away, exploring the western wilderness. Now he had reappeared under the name of “Roger Chillingsworth.”
Visiting Hester in her prison cell later that day, Chillingsworth expressed his rage that she should betray him and made her swear not to expose him as her husband. Furthermore, he vowed that he would discover the identity of his wife’s lover.
Finally released, the adulteress took up residence in a lonely cottage by the sea. Her chief employment, for which she demonstrated a prodigious talent, was sewing. She managed to win the business of nearly everyone in the community. Still, despite the acceptance she won as a seamstress, Hester was forced to bear social ostracism: children jeered as she passed, other women avoided her, and clergymen pointed to her as a living example of the consequences of sin. Rumors circulated that she was a witch, and that the scarlet letter she bore on her clothing glowed a deep blood red in the dark. Still Hester withstood this abuse without complaint.
Hester felt much more concern for her daughter, Pearl, than for herself. She cringed when the illegitimate girl was pushed aside by other children. In contrast to Hester’s remarkable dignity, Pearl displayed a wild, undisciplined character, seemingly incapable of natural affection. The governor of Boston and all the clergy publicly proclaimed their doubts that the sprite-like, curious child could develop the capacity to enter Christian society. Even more tragically, the townspeople looked on Pearl as a kind of evil spirit – the perverse offspring from a moment of unholy passion. Even Hester little understood her daughter, who served at once as both a comfort and a painful reminder of her past.
In the meantime, Roger Chillingsworth had taken lodgings with Minister Dimmesdale. Chillingsworth immediately suspected that the clergyman had been his wife’s once-guilty partner in lust, and, posing as a true friend, he managed, over the course of months, to wring his roommate’s conscience with subtle hints and comments about the dire strait of hypocrites in the eyes of God. Soon it became clear that Dimmesdale was indeed Hester’s lover; but, rather than expose him then, Chillingsworth chose to continue torturing the preacher’s moral sanity. Dimmesdale’s sense of guilt grew, ultimately causing his health to wane. He took to holding his hand over his heart, as if he felt some deep pain. Yet he failed to recognize the treachery being perpetrated on him, blaming only himself for his growing infirmity.
To make matters worse, the weaker and more guilt-ridden Dimmesdale became, the holier he appeared to his congregation, whose members regarded him as unequaled in piety. Every sermon he preached seemed to be more inspired than the last.More than once the minister resolved to confess his hypocrisy and take his place beside Hester, but he was too afraid of the shame open confession would bring.
And so it was that the years passed: Hester, suffering in disgrace and isolation, devoting her life to charitable service and winning the hidden admiration of many of her peers; Pearl, maturing into a lovely girl but still showing no signs of outgrowing her eccentricities; Dimmesdale, weighed down by unbearable remorse even as his reputation for holiness increased; and Chillingsworth, daily tampering with Dimmesdale’s fragile conscience. Frequently the four of them crossed paths. However, no momentous event transpired – until one day seven years after Hester’s initial public censure. While Hester and Pearl were strolling in the woods, they came upon Dimmesdale, and he and Hester finally savored a long-awaited and emotional reunion. Speaking of their long-kept secret, Hester attempted to assure the minister that his good works and humility had gained him penance. But the priest cried, “Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret!” In sorrow and pity, Hester admitted that Chillingsworth, Dimmesdale’s own valued friend, was in fact her estranged husband; and he the nurturing demon behind the minister’s living hell. Then she convinced her dear Dimmesdale to escape with her to Europe, where they could enjoy a new, unfettered life together. Their plan was to depart after the minister had delivered his final sermon.
The day of departure came, and Hester waited anxiously outside the church. Nearby, the captain of the ship on which they would sail mentioned to her that Roger Chillingsworth was also booked as a passenger on his vessel. So, the evil man intended to follow them, she thought in horror. Their plans were dashed!