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The story opens with Hester Prynne standing silently on the scaffold in the middle of a town square in 18th century Boston. Hester, holding her small child in her arms, is publicly on trial for adultery. The town people, especially the women, are not happy that Hester has been sentenced only to wear a scarlet letter and to stand on a public platform for a few hours of public humiliation. However, the judge has decided to be merciful to her because, over all, she has been a good citizen up to this point.
Even after hours of questioning by the authorities, Hester still will not reveal the name of the man who committed adultery with her. The father of her child, Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected minister, feels horrible to see her in this situation, but stands by in the crowd and says nothing. Eventually, he even joins in asking her to reveal the father's name. In a way he hopes she will confess and relieve him of his guilt.
Suddenly, Hester recognizes her husband in the crowd surrounding the scaffold. When he realizes that she is on trial for committing adultery he promises himself that he will find the father and make sure that he is also punished.
Two years before her trial, Hester arrived in a Boston harbor from Amsterdam, and she is married to an icy scholar, going by the alias Chillingworth, who is much older than she is. He had sent her alone to New England with plans to follow behind much later even though they were newly married at the time. Since then, two years have gone by and he has not even written her a letter. Hester believed that he must have gone down in a shipwreck.
Later, when Chillingworth is allowed into her jail cell as a physician, he pressures her to give up the father's name and she refuses to give in to him. In response, she is ordered never to tell anyone who Chillingworth really is and she promises him that she will not.
The next day, she is released from the prison, and she and her baby daughter, Pearl, are moved to a small, isolated cottage in the woods just outside of town. She manages to make the money that she needs to survive by sewing clothes for the people from town.
Against puritan tradition, she also sews brightly colored, extravagant looking dresses for Pearl.
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Because of these clothes, and because of Pearl's wild behavior some of the town authorities decide to interview Hester and the child to see if Hester is really fit to be a mother. The governor and the head minister are about to take Pearl away and place Pearl with a new parent when Rev. Dimmesdale suddenly intervenes. He tells them that Hester's daughter was given to her by God to be her only comfort and to serve as a reminder of the sin that she committed. Because of the love and respect that the town gives to Dimmesdale, Pearl is finally allowed to stay with Hester.
Dimmesdale, still angry with himself for lying to the town people and for leaving Hester so long without a husband, is constantly sick and nervous and continually clutches his heart. Chillingworth, who pretends to want to help him, realizes that the reverend's sickness is not medical and decides that it must come from some deep sense of guilt. He comes to the conclusion that Dimmesdale must be Pearl's father and slowly begins to plan his revenge. He begins by moving into the same house as Dimmesdale, pretending that the minister's condition has deteriorated to the point that in-home care is needed. Somehow, in a way that the book does not explain, Dimmesdale psychologically tortures the minister through his sly comments and constant presence. His methods are so subtle that even though Dimmesdale feels constantly pressured by him he doesn't really know why and he assumes his condition must be making him paranoid.
One day, while Dimmesdale is sleeping, Chillingworth opens his shirt and finds a strange wound on his chest above his heart. Some time later, Dimmesdale, who can't sleep, goes out for a walk in the middle of the night and climbs up the steps of the scaffold.
Hester and pearl just happen to walk past. Without explaining why, he calls them up onto the scaffold, and the three of them stand together openly in the darkness. As they stand there together, a meteor forms a gigantic red letter "A" in the sky. By the light of the meteor, Dimmesdale notices that Chillingworth has been watching the entire thing.
Hester goes to Chillingworth and begs him to leave Dimmesdale alone, but instead he only gives her permission to finally tell Dimmesdale who he really is. The next day, Hester waits for Dimmesdale in the forest where he usually walks. She tells him that the doctor is really her husband and that to escape him they should leave Boston and start a new life together somewhere new. At first, Dimmesdale, who secretly still wants to confess, says no to the plan but eventually tells Hester to go ahead and make the arrangements.
They plan to leave the day after Election Day, a very important holiday for the puritans.
On Election Day, everyone in town comes together to see the large parade that honors the newly elected governor. Dimmesdale has a very important place in this parade and is expected to speak publicly afterwards. After the parade, he gives his best sermon ever, while Hester and pearl stand waiting in the crowd. Hester is then informed that an extra passenger, Roger Chillingworth, will accompany them to Boston on the ship.
After the sermon, the parade starts over again. This time Dimmesdale walks like a zombie and almost collapses in the middle of the parade. Seeing Hester and pearl standing near the scaffold, he climbs onto it , with them by his side, and confesses his sin to the crowd. He bears the bleeding "A" shaped wound on his chest and collapses onto the platform. He asks his daughter for a kiss and then dies in Hester's arms.
A year later, Chillingworth also dies and leaves his entire fortune to Pearl. Hester and Pearl spend some time in Europe, Pearl gets married and has a child of her own, and eventually Hester goes back to Boston to live out her last few years. She eventually dies there and is buried next to Dimmesdale's grave. They share one tombstone marked with a scarlet letter A.
The oldest, most important minister in Boston. He also is based on an actual person, an English minister who came to Boston around 1630. At one point, he delivers a scathing sermon on the sin of adultery. He also is present during every scaffold scene, and he represents the Church in the novel.
The governor of the colony, He is based on an actual person who served several terms as governor of Boston. He is harsh in his dealing with Hester and is present during every scaffold scene. He represents the government in the novel.
The disliked and rebellious sister of Governor Bellingham, she represents everything that her brother stands against. She, like him, is based on an actual figure from history, who was executed for witchcraft. She represents the evil that Hester is ashamed of, and magically finds out about all of Hester's sins, bringing them up to her every time she can. Eventually she even invites Hester to join in her witchcraft.
The commander of the ship that will take Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl away. His only function is to help escalate the tension at the end of the novel by informing Hester that Chillingworth has also booked a ticket on his ship.
The sexton of Dimmesdale's church. Being an average citizen, like most of the townspeople he just cannot believe that the minister could be guilty of anything, especially adultery. When he sees the scarlet letter appear in the sky above the minister, he somehow knows that it represents Dimmesdale, but he's sure that it must stand for "Angel".
Hester is the main character of the novel. She is a young, strong, principled, and beautiful woman. Everything about her is oppressed by the Puritan lifestyle. She clearly represents the author's vision of vibrant, unbridled womanhood set against a back drop of grim, shadowy puritans.
Hester's character is never meant to be easy to define. She is a real, living, growing, changing women in a world of falseness and asexuality, and she cannot simply be labeled as the cold-hearted sinner the puritans make her out to be. Hester is neither a sinner nor a saint, but a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, and in love with the wrong man, living in an unforgiving society that she can never relate to. It’s obvious that no matter what choices Hester makes for herself, she will be forced to give up something hugely important to her. She can either betray her love for Dimmesdale and her own self-respect by giving in to her husband and to puritan custom, or she can choose to stick by her principles and, in turn, trade away both her freedom and her reputation. Under the harsh circumstances, Hester seems to do the best she possibly can, constantly showing both willful determination and loving kindness despite all of her mistakes.
Little by little, Hester begins to accept the life that has been dealt to her and seems to be deeply sorry for what she has done. Hester's penitence and selflessness is shown in her willingness to serve the people who have sentenced her. She eventually spends most of her life helping the poor, needy, and sick. Hester's moral transformation is reflected by her physical transformation from a gorgeous, extremely well dressed woman, to a drab quietly dressed puritan with dark, undecorated clothing and a gray covering over her thick golden hair.
Dimmesdale is a caring man in many ways but he is also a coward and a hypocrite. Even worse, he knows that he is a coward and a hypocrite. He realizes what he needs to do and he hates the man that he is becoming, but he just does not have the will to make the change. Even when he is first described in the novel, he is said to be frail and sickly.
As Dimmesdale's guilty conscience continues to eat away at him, he physically grows more and more pale and weak. Dimmesdale's physical condition is a clear representation of his internal moral struggle. Eventually, when he gains a partial victory over his doubts and gives his confession at the end of the novel his guilt finally kills him. The author seems to be suggesting that the minister's greatest sin was not his adultery, which he could have repented for, but his hypocrisy, and in the end it completely destroyed him.
Hester's old, cruel, and deformed husband. He shows his real cruelty by sending Hester alone to America from England with no way to fend for herself, and then abandoning her there for two years without even writing to her to tell her that he is alive.
At first glance, this character doesn't seem to have any of the realism or depth of the characters of Hester or Dimmesdale, but a few of his actions do reveal that he may be more than just a basic evil character pasted into the role of a vengeful husband. After all, there is no dagger or shotgun in this novel, and no barrel mustache. Instead, Chillingworth chooses to take the psychological approach. Because of the way that Chillingworth is portrayed and the impression which he makes on the reader, it seems clear that the writer intended for Chillingworth's slow psychological torture of the minister to be seen as even worse than the adultery that was committed. Even though Chillingworth really has been wronged, his personality makes anyone feel like none of Chillingworth's vengeful actions are justified.
Pearl serves as the living representation of the scarlet letter. She actually wears scarlet more than once in the novel and shows constant interest in the letter her mother wears. When her mother tries to remove the letter, she screams and cries until her mother puts it back on. Whenever she is angry, she reminds her mother of the scarlet letter even though she does not know what it means.
The relationship between Pearl and Dimmesdale is also examined in the novel. Because of comments her mother makes and the way Dimmesdale behaves toward her, she somehow understands that she is related to him in some way. She resents Dimmesdale, however, because she is jealous over her mother and, for whatever reason, she doesn't like all the mystery surrounding him. However, the author seems to point out that the lack of a father figure is a problem in Pearl's life. When Pearl finally kisses Dimmesdale at the end of the novel, it represents a turning point for Pearl and seems to say that she is starting to grow up and will go on to lead a normal life.
Sin or human weakness, and the pain that stems from it, is probably the most important theme in the novel. Dimmesdale of course is the main representative of this concept. He is intended to be a case study in the nature of guilt. Dimmesdale appears to feel deeply sorry for what he has done however, given the chance, he is willing to avoid taking responsibility for his actions and run off with Hester. Than again, even though running away with her would be avoiding the responsibility he has to the town it would also be an acceptance of the responsibility he has towards Hester. Dimmesdale really is repentant of his sin but he is more ashamed of his sin than he is desperate to make up for it. The intensity of his guilt only makes him all the more afraid of what the town would think of him if they found out.
Hester, on the other hand, has already suffered humiliation, and therefore her goal is to somehow gain forgiveness for her sins. to this end she chooses to inflict pain on herself by continuing to endure the pain and loneliness she feels in Boston even though she could easily leave town at any time. She also attempts to atone for her sins by doing good works and more closely following puritan customs. Even after Hester has finally escaped Boston with her daughter, she cannot help but return and continue to pay off the debt she still feels she owes.
Another main theme is conflict between the individual and society. Hester stands up against society from the very beginning in everything from her beliefs to her bearing.
She is a kind and considerate person who, nonetheless, finds it very difficult to trade the carefree life she had in England for the strict rules and regulations of puritan society. The reason, however, that Hester is such a rebel may have less to do with a rebellious nature and more to do with the nature of Puritan society.
When most people think of rebellion against the government they imagine laws being broken that were established to protect the rights of other people. Most of these laws have little with a person's everyday life and are not of a very personal nature normally. The puritans, on the other hand, established strict laws and harsh punishments for every aspect of life. Combined with a small close-knit community, the atmosphere would probably be smothering for almost anyone.
Since Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author, lived during the 19th century, this particular 17th century setting was chosen for a reason. I believe it was a way for him to show a person who is being crushed by the pressures of society but one who by most standards is still a good person. His everyday characters made it easier to see the different forms of rebellion against society in a realistic light.
Even though I thought Scarlet Letter was very well written, I still didn't like this book. First of all, it had unrealistic dialogue, which for me is a pet peeve. Hawthorne relies on the realism of the content of their conversation rather than the individual way they would express themselves if they were real people. The dialogue reveals just enough about the characters to give you an idea of what role they’re suppose to fill. It doesn't give them much individual personality.
Another problem with the book is the plot, which, to me, seemed very predictable and boring. This novel, instead of focusing on the plot to the detriment of the characters, like most novels do, focuses almost purely on character development which, when it is based on anything other than dialogue can be difficult to understand. All in all, the characters serve mainly as symbols created for the sake of illustrating a point, the theme of the novel.
In most stories the theme is sort of a side effect of the writing. The intent of a fiction author is usually to build up on a plot or character idea rather than taking an interesting theme and creating a story to illustrate it. Hawthorne, however is unusually aware of his theme and created the story line to best display , piece by piece, every aspect of the subject matter. In this case the focus is on sin and its effects, which at first doesn’t seem very interesting. Luckily, Hawthorne's views on the subject are enough to carry the novel on their own. The Scarlet Letter is unique and beautiful in that it basically just serves as an allegory representing Hawthorne's deep insights into humanity, which, by themselves, are what make the novel a grat piece of literature.
Without the brilliant character of a writer like Hawthorne reflected in the text, the exact same plot, characters, and dialogue would probably have not come together to form a novel which was able to become one of the best known classics.