The Scarlet Letter
Novel--symbolic, historical fiction, allegorical
Book was written during the 1840's in Salem and Concord, Massachusetts
It was first published in 1850
The narrator of the story
unnamed customhouse surveyor who writes 200 years after the events that took place. He has a lot in common with Hawthorne but does not have Hawthorne's exact opinions
POINT OF VIEW
The narrator is OMNISCIENT--he analyzes the characters and tells the story in a way that shows he knows more about the characters than they know about themselves. (he is subjective, and sympathetic to Hester and Dimmesdale)
varies throughout the book
bitter in the beginning
straightforward, thoughtful, irony in the body
Middle of the 17th century
When her husband doesn't join her in Boston following immigrating from Europe, Hester Prynne has an extramarital affair with Arthur Dimmesdale. She has a child and is condemned by the community by being forced to wear a letter "A" for adulterer. When her husband arrives he joins in the vengeful wrath.
Dimmesdale stands by in silence as Hester suffers for the "sin" that he also committed. Hester's husband, Chillingworth poses as a doctor and finds out the father of his wife's child so he can reap revenge
As Dimmesdale watches a meteor trace a letter "A" in the sky, he confronts his role in Hester's sin and realizes that he can no longer deny his deed and its consequences. The key characters confront one another when Hester and Pearl join Dimmesdale in an "electric chain" as he holds his vigil on the marketplace scaffold, the location of Hester's original public shaming. Chillingworth appears in this scene as well.
at the end of the book. Here, the characters' secrets are publicly exposed and their fates sealed. Dimmesdale, Hester, and Chillingworth not only acknowledge their secrets to themselves and to each other; they push these revelations to such extremes that they all must leave the community in one way or another.
nature of evil
identity and society
Civilization versus the wilderness
night versus day
The scarlet letter
the town scaffold
the rosebush next to the prison door
Hester is the book's protagonist and the wearer of the scarlet letter that gives the book its title. The letter, a patch of fabric in the shape of an "A," signifies that Hester is an "adulterer." As a young woman, Hester married an elderly scholar, Chillingworth, who sent her ahead to America to live but never followed her.
While waiting for him, she had an affair with a Puritan minister named Dimmesdale, after which she gave birth to Pearl. Hester is passionate but also strong—she endures years of shame and scorn. She equals both her husband and her lover in her intelligence and thoughtfulness. Her alienation puts her in the position to make acute observations about her community, particularly about its treatment of women.
Hester's illegitimate daughter Pearl is a young girl with a moody, mischievous spirit and an ability to perceive things that others do not. For example, she quickly discerns the truth about her mother and Dimmesdale. .
The townspeople say that she barely seems human and spread rumors that her unknown father is actually the Devil. She is wise far beyond her years, frequently engaging in ironic play having to do with her mother's scarlet letter
Hester's husband in disguise. He is much older than she is and had sent her to America while he settled his affairs in Europe. Because he is captured by Native Americans, he arrives in Boston belatedly and finds Hester and her illegitimate child being displayed on the scaffold. He lusts for revenge, and thus decides to stay in Boston despite his wife's betrayal and disgrace.
He is a scholar and uses his knowledge to disguise himself as a doctor, intent on discovering and tormenting Hester's anonymous lover. Chillingworth is self-absorbed and both physically and psychologically monstrous. His single-minded pursuit of retribution reveals him to be the most malevolent character in the novel.
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale
Dimmesdale is a young man who achieved fame in England as a theologian and then emigrated to America. In a moment of weakness, he and Hester became lovers. Although he will not confess it publicly, he is the father of her child. He deals with his guilt by tormenting himself physically and psychologically, developing a heart condition as a result.
Dimmesdale is an intelligent and emotional man, and his sermons are thus masterpieces of eloquence and persuasiveness. His commitments to his congregation are in constant conflict with his feelings of sinfulness and need to confess.
Governor Bellingham is a wealthy, elderly gentleman who spends much of his time consulting with the other town fathers. Despite his role as governor of a fledgling American society, he very much resembles a traditional English aristocrat.
Bellingham tends to strictly adhere to the rules, but he is easily swayed by Dimmesdale's eloquence. He remains blind to the misbehaviors taking place in his own house: his sister, Mistress Hibbins, is a witch.
Mistress Hibbins is a widow who lives with her brother, Governor Bellingham, in a luxurious mansion. She is commonly known to be a witch who ventures into the forest at night to ride with the "Black Man."
Her appearances at public occasions remind the reader of the hypocrisy and hidden evil in Puritan society.
Reverend Mr. John Wilson
Boston's elder clergyman, Reverend Wilson is scholarly yet grandfatherly. He is a stereotypical Puritan father, a literary version of the stiff, starkly painted portraits of American patriarchs. Like Governor Bellingham, Wilson follows the community's rules strictly but can be swayed by Dimmesdale's eloquence. Unlike Dimmesdale, his junior colleague, Wilson preaches hellfire and damnation and advocates harsh punishment of sinners.
Like Governor Bellingham, Wilson follows the community's rules strictly but can be swayed by Dimmesdale's eloquence. Unlike Dimmesdale, his junior colleague, Wilson preaches hellfire and damnation and advocates harsh punishment of sinners.
The unnamed narrator works as the surveyor of the Salem Custom-House some two hundred years after the novel's events take place. He discovers an old manuscript in the building's attic that tells the story of Hester Prynne; when he loses his job, he decides to write a fictional treatment of the narrative.
The narrator is a rather high-strung man, whose Puritan ancestry makes him feel guilty about his writing career. He writes because he is interested in American history and because he believes that America needs to better understand its religious and moral heritage.
The Custom-House Introductory
The intro is a frame for the main narrative of The Scarlet Letter. The nameless narrator, who shares quite a few traits with the book's author, takes a post as the "chief executive officer," or surveyor, of the Salem Custom House. ("Customs" are the taxes paid on foreign imports into a country; a "customhouse" is the building where these taxes are paid.)
He finds the establishment to be a run-down place, situated on a rotting wharf in a half-finished building. His fellow workers mostly hold lifetime appointments secured by family connections. They are elderly & given to telling the same stories repeatedly. The narrator finds them to be generally incompetent & corrupt.
The narrator spends his days at the customhouse trying to amuse himself because few ships come to Salem anymore. One rainy day he discovers documents in the building's unoccupied 2nd story. He notices a manuscript that is bundled with a scarlet, gold-embroidered piece of cloth in the shape of the letter "A." The narrator examines the scarlet badge & holds it briefly to his chest, but he drops it because it seems to burn him.
He reads the manuscript. It is the work of Jonathan Pue, who was a customs surveyor 100 earlier. An interest in local history led Pue to write an account of events taking place in the middle of the seventeenth century—a century before Pue's time and two hundred years before the narrator's.
The narrator has already mentioned his unease about attempting to make a career out of writing. He believes that his Puritan ancestors, whom he holds in high regard, would find it frivolous & "degenerate." He decides to write a fictional account of Hester Prynne's experiences. It will not be factually precise, but he believes that it will be faithful to the spirit and general outline of the original.
While working at the customhouse, surrounded by uninspiring men, the narrator finds himself unable to write. When a new president is elected, he loses his politically appointed job and, settling down before a dim fire in his parlor, begins to write his "romance," which becomes the body of The Scarlet Letter.
Ch. 1 The Prison-Door
Scene is set--symbols introduced
A crowd of somber, dreary-looking people has gathered outside the door of a prison in 17th century Boston. The building's heavy oak door is studded with iron spikes, & the prison appears to have been constructed to hold dangerous criminals. No matter how optimistic the founders of new colonies may be, they provide for a prison & a cemetery almost immediately. This is true of the citizens of Boston, who built their prison some 20 yrs 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.
Ch. 2 The Market Place
As the crowd watches, Hester Prynne, a young woman holding an infant, emerges from the prison door & 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 & 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 & followed to continental Europe.
But now the present floods in upon her, & she squeezes the infant in her arms, causing it to cry out. She regards her current fate with disbelief.
Ch. 3 The Recognition
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 & Native American dress, she is struck by his wise countenance & recognizes his slightly deformed shoulders. Hester's husband gestures to Hester that she should not reveal his identity.
He turns to a stranger in the crowd & asks about Hester's crime & punishment, explaining that he has been held captive by Native Americans & has just arrived in Boston. The stranger tells him that Hester is the wife of a learned Englishman & had been living with him in Amsterdam when he decided to emigrate to America. The learned man sent Hester to America first & 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, & 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 3 hours on the scaffold & 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, & 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.
Ch. 4 The Interview
Hester & 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," & he now offers her a cup of medicine.
Hester knows his true identity—his gaze makes her shudder- 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. 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.
Ch. 5 Hester at Her Needle
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. 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, & making garments for the poor out of rough cloth insults her aesthetic sense.
Ch. 6 Pearl
Hester's 1 consolation is her daughter, Pearl. 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 and 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 & 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.
Ch. 7 The Governor's Hall
Hester pays a visit to Governor Bellingham's mansion. She has 2 intentions: to deliver a pair of ornate gloves she has made for the governor, & to find out if there is any truth to the rumors that Pearl, now 3, 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.
Ch. 8 The Elf-Child and the Minister
Governor Bellingham comes towards Hester Prynne & her child. The ministers John Wilson & Arthur Dimmesdale & physician Roger Chillingworth. When they come in the room, Hester is half-hidden by a curtain, so the men just see little Pearl. They ask her who she is & who she belongs to--they realize that she is Hester Prynne's child, whom they have been discussing
The Governor asks why they should leave the child in Hester's care. Hester points to her scarlet letter & responds that they should leave Pearl with her because of all she has learned from this. Hester says that the letter teaches her all the time the lessons she needs to impart to her child. The Rev. Wilson questions Pearl to find out how much she knows of her religion. Question #1: "Who made thee?" Pearl knows the answer, but, since she wants to be difficult, she says that her mother plucked her off one of the wild rose bushes that grew by the prison door.
The Governor is horrified by Pearl's response & wants to take her from Hester. Hester grabs her child & tells the Governor that God gave Pearl to her—Pearl is her happiness & torture, all wrapped in one. She threatens to kill herself. She begs Revered Dimmesdale to intervene. The Reverend Dimmesdale isn't looking well. He's has a habit of placing a hand over his head when he's worked up. He does speaks up, claiming that the child will be Hester's salvation.
The other men decide to leave Pearl alone, but they want to make sure she knows her religion. When Dimmesdale wanders off to a corner, Pearl creeps over to him & places his hand on her cheek. Dimmesdale responds to the innocence & affection of a child & kisses her forehead. On her way home, Hester meets Governor Bellingham's sister, who invites her to a party. The kind of party, held in honor of the "Black Man," i.e., Satan.
Hester says thanks but no & the narrator uses this as proof that Pearl is already saving her mom.