er’Summary of Nathaniel Hawthornes “The Scarlet Letter”
The story takes place in the Puritan village of Boston, Massachusetts, during the first half of the 17th Century. Several years before the novel begins, Hester Prynne came to the New World to await the arrival of her husband who had business to conclude in Europe. However, Hester’s husband was captured by Indians upon his arrival in New England and did not arrive in Boston as Hester expected.
While living alone in Boston and believing her husband dead, Hester committed adultery and became pregnant. The village magistrates imprisoned her for this sin and decreed she must wear a scarlet “A” on the bodice of her dress for the rest of her life. While in prison, Hester, highly skilled in needlework, elaborately embroidered the scarlet letter with gold thread.
Before her release from prison, Hester was forced to stand on the public scaffold where all the villagers could see her.
As the story opens, Hester is leaving the prison to take her position on the scaffold. She wears the scarlet letter and carries with dignity her three-month-old daughter Pearl. As Hester endures this public disgrace, Roger Chillingworth, an old man new to the village, asks members of the crowd about her and learns as much of her story as is commonly known. When he asks the identity of the child’s father, he discovers Hester has refused to divulge this information.
From the balcony overlooking the scaffold, the young Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale also asks for this information and eloquently appeals to Hester to publicly name her partner in sin. She refuses.
Upon her return to prison, Hester is distraught, and Roger Chillingworth, a self-proclaimed physician, comes to calm her and the babe. Chillingworth, who is actually Hester’s husband, refuses to publicly acknowledge her and share in her shame.
He makes Hester promise to keep his true identity secret and vows to discover and avenge himself on the man who has wronged him.
Hester and Pearl take up residence in a small cottage at the edge of the village. Using her needlework skills, Hester supports herself and Pearl by sewing for the magistrates and wealthy villagers. She also sews for the poor as an act of charity.
Although they live humbly, Hester’s one extravagance is the way she dresses Pearl. Hester fashions scarlet, elaborately embroidered dresses for Pearl. The townspeople generally shun Hester and her daughter.
Three years pass, and Hester learns the magistrates are considering taking Pearl away from her.
Hester passionately implores Governor Bellingham to allow her to keep Pearl, who is her sole joy as well as a constant reminder of her sin. The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale speaks in behalf of Hester, and Pearl is allowed to remain with her mother. As Hester and Pearl leave the Governor’s Mansion, Mistress Hibbins, the Governor’s sister, invites Hester to meet the Black Man in the forest. Hester happily declines the offer because she must take care of Pearl.
The story now turns to Roger Chillingworth. Following his secret interview with Hester in prison, Chillingworth becomes a respected member of the community and personal medical advisor to Arthur Dimmesdale, whose health is failing. Chillingworth uses his medical knowledge to treat the minister’s physical condition, but suspects some wound or trouble in Dimmesdale’s soul is contributing to his declining health. Intent on discovering the truth about Arthur Dimmesdale, Chillingworth one day comes upon the minister in his sleep, pushes aside his shirt, and reads the secret of the minister’s heartthe Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is Hester Prynne’s partner in adultery and the father of little Pearl.
Chillingworth acknowledges Dimmesdale as his enemy and thus makes him the unsuspecting victim of his malevolent revenge.
Although Dimmesdale lacks the courage to confess his sin publicly and risk ruining his reputation as a man of God, he suffers privately. In addition to his constant mental torment, he punishes himself physically with a bloody scourge, fasts to the point of weakness, and keeps nightly vigils. On one of these vigil nights, seven years after Hester stood in solitary shame upon the scaffold, Dimmesdale, thinking the rest of the town is asleep, stands on that same scaffold.