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Synopsis and Summary of the Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the mid 19th century is considered “the first great American novel and Hawthorne’s best work”(Thompson 312) The setting of the novel was in Boston in the 17th century when Puritanism was in full effect. The author of the novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, changed his name from Hathorne to Hawthorne because he was ashamed that he was in direct line of descent of Judge Hathorne who had been one of the persecutors in the Salem witch trials. It was said by Keith Nelson, a writing critic, that Hawthorne’s style of writing is contemporary, yet still old fashioned. It is contemporary because Hawthorne was fascinated by the truth, but the truth was not always recognizable.

The way in which it is still old fashioned is that he wrote in moral allegory. In this style of writing, the author assigns a value to a particular character. It has a hidden meaning and is used to present a universal lesson. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester, Reverend Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Pearl all take on specific values which we can learn from.

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Hester Prynne takes on the role of dignity. She implies restraint in conduct prompted less by obedience to the theocracy she was under, but by a sense of personal integrity. We first find her walking through the townspeople with her baby in her arm up towards the scaffold because her punishment for committing adultery was to wear the “scarlet letter” for life and stand on the scaffold for three hours to make her feel ashamed. Instead of looking down and trying to cover the scarlet letter embroidered on her bosom “, she took the baby on her arm, and with a burning blush, and a haughty smile and a glance around ….repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful smile.” She also displays another sense of irony because she decorated her scarlet letter with “fantastic flourishes of gold-thread.” Under normal circumstances, one would have no held their head high and meticulously beautified their mark which reveals that they have sinned.

Hester has the inner strength to defy both the townspeople and the local government when she confronts Governor Bellingham on the issue of Pearl’s guardianship. She defiantly pleads, “God gave her into my keeping. I will not give her up … I will die first.” As the novel progresses even the town recognizes her strength by referring to the “A” as “Able” and “Angel.” In the end, she lives on as somewhat of a legend in the colony because she went back and did many charitable deeds. The most obvious of the many symbols Hawthorne uses for her is the scarlet letter. The letter “A” represents adultery and the colour scarlet embodies many things – women of the night, sinfulness, a hot-iron, passion, guilt, and blood. These illustrations correspond with Hester because committing was considered a great iniquity.

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In addition, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale shows much remorse for his hypocrisy to the town because he was esteemed almost saint-like when he actually was the mysterious father of Pearl. Hawthorne gives the first innuendo of Dimmesdale feeling self-condemnation when Chillingworth probes him by saying he can never cure him if he is concealing anything from him. Dimmesdale cries that he has a sickness in his soul, wails he will never reveal the secret to an “earthly physician,” and runs out of the room. Chillingworth thinks to himself, “…see, now, how passion takes hold upon this man and hurried him out of himself! As with one passion, so with another! He hath done a wild thing ere now, this pious Master Dimmesdale, in the hot passion of his heart.”

At this point in the novel, Hawthorne had not unveiled to the audience that Dimmesdale is Hester’s fellow sinner. From Dimmesdale running out of the room when Chillingworth tells him he cannot hide any secrets, we can infer that whatever Dimmesdale is hiding in the depth of his heart is causing him to feel a great deal of guilt. Throughout the novel he is constantly holding his hand over his heart, symbolizing his penance is so heavy that it hurts. He even goes as far as fasting until her faints and whipping himself until he bleeds, but only in private.

In the forest, he confides to Hester that he has not found penitence. In the last scaffold scene, Reverend Dimmesdale finally does find penitence when he confesses to the townspeople that he was Pearl’s father to ensure the status of his salvation. Dimmesdale defines “human frailty and sorrow.” He is young, pale, and physically delicate. Overall, he is a symbol of hypocrisy and self-centred intellectualism because he feels bad for not confessing. However, he doesn’t do it until the end because he did not want to lose the town’s respect.

Roger Chillingworth was exhibited as being devious. He has an obsession with revenge and coldly and single-mindedly seeks it. He is a “man of science,” a man of pure intellect and has no concerns for feelings. The first time we encounter this is when he visits Hester in prison pretending to be a physician. He makes Hester promise not to make known to anyone that they were married so it would be easier for him to find her paramour. After she promises she says, “Why dost thou smile … Art thou the Black Man that haunts the forest …? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?” Then Chillingworth superciliously replies that he isn’t going to harm her, but someone else. We can infer that he is implying he will harm her fellow adulterer.

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He continues this as he becomes Dimmesdale’s personal physician and violates Dimmesdale’s heart and soul to see how he will react because he has no compassion. It is as if his very existence depends on Dimmesdale. While Dimmesdale gives his last sermon, Chillingworth smiles at Hester because he too will board the ship the two lovers plan to escape on. His obsession, vengeance, and hatred consumed him because when Dimmesdale had a heart attack after he repented, Chillingworth soon met his death because he had no other reason to live for.

Hawthorne uses a leech to symbolize him because these creatures stick to something and suck its blood. In a sense, he did this to Reverend Dimmesdale. Hester says, “You search his thoughts. You burrow and rankle in his heart! Your clutch is on his life, and you cause him to die daily a living death.” Also, he entered Dimmesdale’s heart “like a thief enters a chamber where a man lies only half asleep.” Even the name Chillingworth has a certain “chilliness” to it.

Pearl took on being free-spirited and a living embodiment of Hester’s “A.” Hawthorne describes Pearl in chapter six. He says she had a “trait of passion” and “The child could not be made amenable to rules …. Recognize her wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper.” She is portrayed as intelligent, imaginative, nosy, determined, and even pigheaded at times. Her behaviour is unusual because at times she will laugh uncontrollably, be silent, or pitch a temper in a matter of minutes. We see this is chapter fourteen when Hester wants Pearl to meet Dimmesdale. Hester had taken off the scarlet letter and let her hair down. When Hester calls her, Pearl is reluctant to go to Hester until she went back to her usual appearance. Once she did that Pearl states, “ Now thou art my mother indeed! And I am thy little Pearl!” Also when Reverend Dimmesdale gave her a kiss she quickly washed it off with water from the brook.

This shows her sense of wildness and rebellion. This sense of mutiny and being an “elf-child” came to an end in the last scaffold scene. When Dimmesdale confesses it “frees her” and makes her “human” with actual sympathies and feelings. The kiss Pearl gave Dimmesdale in the last scaffold scene was when “the spell was broken” and she is no longer a symbol of the constant reminder of Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s iniquity. Not only is Pearl a symbol of why Hester must wear the scarlet letter; her name is symbolic as well. A pearl is something that is costly, and Pearl did come at a great price because she came out of an act of sin and passion, which the Puritans looked down upon.

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It is apparent that Hawthorne’s style of writing was contemporary since he was fascinated by the truth, but it didn’t come easily, yet he is old fashioned since he uses moral allegory to teach a lesson to the reader. This lesson shows that maybe something good can be produced from something bad. To elaborate, when Hawthorne says, “some sweet moral blossom may be found along the track” he is referring to Hester’s and Reverend Dimmesdale’s act of passion, which was viewed as absolutely sinful, Pearl and true love between the two occurred.

He is also trying to convey that the truth will always set us free. He conveys the message that being true to ourselves wins in the end. In conclusion, Hester and Dimmesdale’s grave being side-by-side, but separated by a stone between two graves is symbolic. The tomb, which had a red letter “A” on a black tombstone, represents the tension between the Puritan society and their real love. This is what separates the two at the end.

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Synopsis and Summary of the Scarlet Letter. (2021, Mar 02). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from