The Scarlet Letter
A crowd of people has gathered outside the door of a prison in seventeenth-century Boston. The building’s door is studded with iron spikes, and the prison appears to have been built to hold people who broke the law. As the crowd watches, Hester Prynne, comes from the prison door and makes her way to a scaffold where she is to be publicly shamed. The women in the crowd make comments about Hester; they particularly criticize her for the badge on her chest which is a letter “A” stitched in gold and scarlet. We can assume that she has committed adultery and has gave birth to a baby, and that the “A” on her dress stands for “Adulterer.”
In the crowd that surrounds the scaffold where she is gonna be shamed, Hester spots her husband, who sent her to America but never fulfilled his promise to follow her. Hester’s husband who is now going by as Roger Chillingworth gestures to Hester that she should not reveal his identity and expose him. He asks a stranger what her crime was and that he was captured by Native Americans and just returned to Boston. He then asks the stranger who the baby’s father is but the stranger said she would reveal his name. The town fathers who sit in judgment of Hester: Governor Bellingham, Reverend Wilson, and Reverend Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale demands 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 but when she refuses he does not press her further. Hester says that her child will seek a heavenly father and will never know an earthly one and then Hester is led back into the prison.
After a few months, Hester is released from prison. Even though she is free to leave Boston, she chooses not to but instead she settles in an abandoned cabin 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 sinner and bad person. Even though she is pushed away Hester is able to support herself due to her talent in needlework. Pearl is named because she was “purchased with all Hester had, her mother’s only treasure!” Pearl’s very being seems to be against the odds with the strict rules of Puritan society.
Hester pays a visit to Governor Bellingham’s mansion. She wants to deliver a pair of gloves she has made for the governor, and to find out if there is any truth to the rumors that Pearl, who is now three, may be taken from her. Some of the townspeople, 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 her own good and given to a “better” parent than Hester Prynn. On their way to see the governor, Hester and Pearl are attacked by a group of children, who try to throw mud at them. Pearl becomes angry and scares the children off.
By renaming himself upon his arrival in Boston, Chillingworth has hidden his past from everyone except Hester, whom he has promised to secrecy. He says he is a doctor, and since the townsfolk have very little access to good medical care, he is welcomed and valued. Dimmesdale has been suffering from severe health problems and he frequently grabs at his chest as though his heart is hurting him. Because Dimmesdale refuses to marry any of the young women Chillingworth urges the town leadership to insist that Dimmesdale allow the doctor to live with him. The townspeople were initially grateful for Chillingworth’s presence and said his arrival was a divine miracle. As time has passed, rumors have spread concerning Chillingworth’s personal history. 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 take Dimmesdale’s soul. The doctor relentlessly seeks to find the root of his patient’s condition. Chillingworth shows great persistence in getting the most private details of Dimmesdale’s life, but Dimmesdale has grown suspicious of all men and will open up to no one. Chillingworth devotes all of his time to his patient.
One day Dimmesdale questions his doctor about an unusual-looking plant. Chillingworth says 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 as they speak, they hear a cry from outside. Through the window, they see Pearl. 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 chest. Dimmesdale’s behavior has again confirmed Chillingworth’s suspicions. The minister apologizes for his behavior, and the two become friends again. A few days later, Chillingworth sneaks up to Dimmesdale while he is asleep and moves the shirt that Dimmesdale is wearing. What he sees on Dimmesdale’s chest causes the doctor to celebrate.
Chillingworth continues to play mind games with Dimmesdale, making his revenge as terrible as possible. The minister often doesn’t trust his doctor but because he can’t show any evidence or any proof , he dismisses them and continues to suffer. Dimmesdale’s suffering, does inspire him to deliver some of his most powerful sermons that focus on the topic of sin. His struggles allow him to empathize with human weakness. Although the reverend is deeply passionate to confess the truth of his sin to his people, he cannot bring himself to do so. As a result, it keeps him up at night, and he even begins sees visions. In one vision, he sees Hester and Pearl, 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.
Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold. The pain in his chest and heart causes him to scream and he worries that everyone in the town will wake up and come to look at him. The few townspeople who heard the cry took it for a witch’s voice. As Dimmesdale stands upon the scaffold, his mind turns to weird thoughts. He almost laughs when he sees Reverend Wilson. Wilson, coming from the deathbed of Governor Winthrop who was the colony’s first governor, passes without noticing the sorrow. Having come so close to being sighted, Dimmesdale begins to think about what would happen if everyone in town were to see their minister standing in the place of public shame. Dimmesdale laughs out loud and is answered by a laugh from Pearl, whose presence he never noticed. Hester and Pearl had also been at Winthrop’s deathbed. Dimmesdale invites them to join him on the scaffold, and which they do. The three hold hands, forming an “electric chain.” Pearl asks, “Wilt thou stand here with Mother and me, tomorrow noontide?” but the minister replies, “Not now, child, but at another time.” When she asks him to name that time, he answers, “At the great judgment day.” A meteor brightens the dark sky. 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 is standing in the distance and watches them. It is Chillingworth. Dimmesdale asks Hester who Chillingworth really is, but Hester, sworn to secrecy, and cannot reveal her husband’s identity. Pearl says that she knows, but when she speaks into the minister’s ear, she says nothing to tell him his true identity. Dimmesdale asks if she intends to mock him, and she replies that she is punishing him for refusing to stand in public with her and her mother. Chillingworth approaches Dimmesdale, saying that the minister must have sleep walked his way up onto the scaffold. When Dimmesdale asks how Chillingworth knew where to find him, Chillingworth says that he was making his way home from Winthrop’s deathbed.
Hester goes 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 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 from her chest. Hester says 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. A change comes over Chillingworth’s face, and has transformed himself into the very embodiment of evil. In a spasm of self-awareness, Chillingworth realizes how mentally deformed he has become. As Chillingworth walks away, Hester goes to find Pearl. She realizes that 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.”Intent to tell Dimmesdale the truth about Chillingworth’s identity, Hester waits for the minister in the forest, because she heard that he will be passing through on the way back from visiting a Native American settlement.
In the forest, Hester and Dimmesdale are able to escape both the public eye and Chillingworth. They join hands and sit in a covered spot near a brook. Hester tells Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband. This news causes a “dark transfiguration” in Dimmesdale, and he begins to yell at Hester, blaming her for his suffering. Hester 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 both of them. The minister now worries that Chillingworth will reveal his secret and will expose them publicly. Hester tells the minister not to worry. She insists, though, that Dimmesdale free himself from the old man’s power. They plot to go on a ship to Europe, where they can live with Pearl as a family. Hester throws the scarlet letter from her chest. Hester regains some of her former, passionate beauty, and she lets down her hair and smiles.
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 herself before Pearl will cross the creek. In her mother’s arms, Pearl kisses Hester and 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 asks “Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?” As the minister returns to town, he can’t believe the change that is happening. He and Hester have decided to go to Europe, since it offers a better environment for Dimmesdale’s 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 plan to secure passage on the ship. In the end Hester is buried in the King’s Chapel graveyard. Her grave is next to Dimmesdale’s but they do, however, share a headstone.