Summary of the book “The Scarlet Letter”, Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter (earlier subtitled ‘a Romance’) is a work of historical fiction by an American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. This book was published in 1850 and is set in a Puritan colony in Massachusetts over seven years beginning in 1642. It is considered a sensation in American literature and a classic moral study. The novel is a story of the main protagonist Hester Prynne who conceives a daughter through an affair outside of her marriage and then struggles to build for herself, a life of dignity. The Scarlet Letter has been adapted multiple times on television, beginning in the form of a movie in 1917. (the last one being in 1995)

The book covers themes like sin, puritan legalism, female independence, guilt, among others that have been discussed in the last part of this summary.

The novel opens with the chapter “The Custom House”, which is like a preamble about how the book came to be written. The narrator was the surveyor of a customhouse in Massachusetts, where he discovered a manuscript in the attic, that was bundled with a red, gold-embroidered patch of cloth in the shape of an “A”. The manuscript, the work of a past surveyor, detailed events that occurred some two hundred years before the narrator’s time. After losing his job, the narrator decided to write a fictional account of the events that he found recorded in the manuscript. The Scarlet Letter is that account. The book has three main characters: Hester Prynne, a woman who has committed adultery, Roger Chillingworth, her long-lost husband, and Arthur Dimmesdale, a revered clergyman.

In Boston, Massachusetts, there is a settlement controlled by the Puritans who have established a repressive theocracy, governed by strict puritan law. Adultery violates the seventh commandment and hence punishable by death. Hester Prynne is being led out of a prison carrying an infant, named Pearl, in her arms and The Scarlet Letter “A”, embroidered on her bosom. Hester’s husband is believed to have died at sea and Pearl was born out of adultery. She has been punished to stand on the scaffold for three hours, exposed to public humiliation, and to wear the scarlet “A” for the rest of her life. At the scaffold, she is harangued by the town fathers, including Dimmesdale, but she refuses to identify her child’s father. People are in awe of her beauty and quiet dignity. From the scaffold, Hester recognises an elderly looking man in the crowd as her husband.

After three hours, she is taken back to the prison where she breaks down crying. The jailer brings in a physician to calm Hester and her child. The physician is none other than Hester’s long lost husband, whom she had recognised in the crowd. His husband had taken up the alias of Roger Chillingworth and he now demanded to know who her lover is, but Hester keeps it a secret. Chillingworth threatens him to keep his identity as a physician secret or else he would destroy the child’s father. Hester accepts.

Following her release from prison, Hester settles in a cottage on the outskirts of the town and earns her bread with her needlework. She is to wear The Scarlet Letter at all times until she reveals the identity of her lover. She lives a quiet life in solitude with her daughter, Pearl, and performs acts of charity for the poor. Hester has been shunned by society, with people looking at her with scorn. This has passed on to Pearl as well, and she was becoming capricious. Community officials attempt to take Pearl away from Hester, but, with the help of Arthur Dimmesdale, a young and eloquent minister, the mother and daughter manage to stay together.

Dimmesdale is an influential person and is adored by the community. He suffers from an unknown illness that causes him sadness and heart problems. His friends suggest he seek care from Chillingworth, who had built quite a reputation in the town. Dimmesdale hires him for round-the-clock care, eventually asking him to move in into the same house with him. After being with Dimmesdale for a while, Chillingworth begins to suspect that his illness is the result of some guilt. Chillingworth also suspects that there might be some connection between him and Hester. Chillingworth, under that suspicion, starts a cruel regime of care for Dimmesdale and his health deteriorates. One afternoon, while Dimmesdale sleeps, Chillingworth discovers a strange mark on his chest which convinces him that his suspicions are correct. That mark was from Dimmesdale physically tormenting himself.

One night, Dimmesdale goes to the square where Hester had been punished and admits his guilt which he had not been able to do publicly during the day. Hester and Pearl happen to pass by and see Dimmesdale atop the scaffold trying to punish himself. He summons Hester and Pearl to join him, and the three link hands. Pearl requests Dimmesdale to rather confess his guilt publicly the next day. Just then, a meteor marks a red “A” in the sky, shedding red light on all of them.

Hester could see that the minister’s condition was worsening, and she resolves to intervene. She goes to Chillingworth and asks him to stop adding to Dimmesdale’s self-torment. Chillingworth refuses. So Hester arranges an encounter with Dimmesdale in the forest because she is aware that Chillingworth has probably guessed that she plans to reveal his identity to Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale tells Hester she is lucky she can openly address her sin by wearing The Scarlet Letter while he is being tortured by a sin every day. She tells Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her former husband and his enemy. Dimmesdale, however, forgives Hester for keeping the secret for seven years. Hester then advises Dimmesdale to return to Europe, but he refuses to leave. He is afraid to be alone, but Hester says she will go with him.

On Election Day, Dimmesdale gives the best sermon of his lifetime, gaining energy from the plan that he had hatched with Hester. But as people start leaving the church, Dimmesdale impulsively mounts upon the town scaffold and confesses his sin, of adultering with Hester, and publicly acknowledges his daughter Hester. Just after, he drops down to his knees and as Hester holds him in her arms, he dies. Pearl kisses him for the first time. Several days later, some spectators claim they saw a scarlet letter on Dimmesdale’s chest.

Frustrated in his monomaniacal pursuit of revenge, Chillingworth dies the same year, leaving for Pearl a substantial inheritance. Hester and Pearl leave Boston for Europe.

Many years later, Hester returns, alone, to her cabin on the outskirts of town. She again starts wearing The Scarlet Letter, but this time out of her own choice. She receives occasional letters from Pearl, who has married a European aristocrat. On her death, she is buried next to Dimmesdale, with a joint tombstone with The Scarlet Letter “A” inscribed on it.

The Themes

The Scarlet Letter “A” that Hester is forced to wear is finely embroidered with a gold-coloured thread. As both a badge of shame and a beautiful human artifact, it reflects the many oppositions in the novel like between good and evil, justice and harm, faith and impiety.

The Scarlet Letter deals with the never-ending theme of sin. Throughout history, people have committed all types of sins and the severity of punishment has always been a matter of debate. The experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of the original sin, of Adam and Eve, because in both cases sin results in expulsion and suffering.

There is also a theme of identity and independence that Hester personifies. Before the novel even begins, Hester has already violated social expectations by following her heart and choosing to have sex with a man she is not married to. After Hester is publicly shamed and forced by the people of Boston to wear a badge of humiliation, she is unwilling to leave the town. To her, running away or removing the letter would be an acknowledgement of society’s power over her: she would be admitting that the letter is a mark of shame and something from which she desires to escape. Instead, she starts working on embroidery to gain financial independence. The novel also ends with Hester returning to the community to live a humble life and voluntarily choosing to start wearing The Scarlet Letter again, as a symbol of pride.

Guilt is also a major theme in The Scarlet Letter and appears primarily in the psychology of Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is tormented both by guilt at his sinful act of fathering an illegitimate child, and then by the guilt of failing to take responsibility for his actions and having to hide his secret.

The theme of nature versus society is exemplified by Hester and Dimmesdale’s forbidden passion, and the product of that passion: Pearl. The relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale explores the tension between natural desires and how society tries to control human nature by imposing rules and laws. The novel’s climax, the key scene where Dimmesdale, Hester, and Pearl are finally reunited, takes place in the woods. This location highlights the tension between nature and society, a space that is still untamed and not ruled by social conventions.

It is very clear that in this novel, Hawthorne is attempting to express his feelings on Puritan life, their rigid beliefs towards transgressors, and the creation of social stigma. People should be able to leave the past behind them and start over, yet that never seems to happen, and Hester is forced to drag this guilt around with her, until her last breath of air.

My favourite Quotes:

  1. “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
  2. “She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”
  3. “Love, whether newly born or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world.”
  4. “Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along with it the utmost passion of her heart!”
  5. “…if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom…”

 

Sourav Kumar Sharma

About the author

Sourav Kumar Sharma

Hey there! I'm a PhD scholar by day and an author by the night. This website is my mind spill. I live in Chandigarh, India and I like to read and travel, big time. In my writings, I like to mix romance with genres like travel, self-help, social issues, and life-writing.

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