These two chapters set the opening scene: 17th-century America, one June morning, Boston, a city in the Massachusetts Bay Colony where religion is the foundation for both law and society. The first chapter ends on the image of a rosebush and the writer suggests one of its blooms can “symbolize some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow. ” On this stage, Hester Prynne emerges from the dark prison door to make her way to the scaffold where she will be publicly condemned.
Holding a baby, she makes her way proudly through a crowd of scornful onlookers who are surprised at the brilliant letter “A” embroidered in gold thread on her chest. As she walks, she recalls her past: born to a house of “antique gentility” in Europe, married to a physically “misshapen” scholar, taken first by her husband to Amsterdam and then sent to America. She cannot believe that she is really suffering such shame. She never imagined that she would be the mother of an illegitimate child, made to wear a public token of her sin, and subject to the town’s humiliation.
In the crowd, Hester spots the husband who sent her to America and never fulfilled his promise to follow her. Though he is dressed in a strange hodge-podge of traditional clothing and native dress, she is struck by his wise countenance and recognizes his slightly deformed shoulders. The narrator also introduces us to the town fathers who sit in judgment on Hester: Governor Bellingham, Reverend Wilson, and Reverend Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale, much beloved for his eloquence, religious fervor, and soulful sermons, asks Hester to announce the name of her co-sinner.
When she refuses, he delivers a powerful sermon on sin and dwells upon the meaning of the symbol on Hester’s chest. In Chapter 4, Hester comes face to face with her disguised husband when officials call in a doctor to calm her down. Going by the name Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband offers her a cup of medicine. Without exchanging words, she knows who he is and almost refuses to drink. (His gaze makes her shudder and she thinks he might be poisoning her. ) He assures her that he wants her to live so that he can have his revenge.
In their honest conversation, he chastises himself for thinking that he, a deformed scholar, could keep a beautiful wife like Hester happy. He also makes her promise that she will not reveal to anyone his real identity. These chapters are mostly descriptive, giving the narrator a chance to analyze Hester and her daughter Pearl. In Chapter 5, Hester is released from prison and chooses to stay in the village. Hester, however, is alienated from everyone: town fathers, respected women, beggars, children, and even strangers.
She serves as a sort of walking example of a fallen woman, a cautionary tale, for everyone to see. Hester is, however, uncommonly talented at the art of needlework. Even if most people in the town look down upon her, her embroideries are fit to be worn by the Governor because she always had a taste for the beautiful. (Her handiwork does not, however, adorn innocent brides. ) Still, Hester is lonely and aware that she does not fit in at all. As shame burns inside of her, Hester looks for companionship or sympathy. Unfortunately, she does not find any.
All that Hester has is her daughter Pearl, who is described in great detail in Chapter 6. Described as a beautiful flower growing out of guilty conditions, Pearl is so named because she was “purchased with all [Hester] had – her mother’s only treasure! ” Given birth during a turbulent time in Hester’s life, Pearl has all of Hester’s moodiness, passion, and defiance. Because, “in giving her existence a great law had been broken,” it is impossible to get Pearl to follow the strict rules of Puritan society. Hester loves her child, but worries about her.
The narrator describes the child as an “outcast,” but Pearl is even more than an outcast: “An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants. ” Pearl herself knows how different she is from other people. When Hester tries to teach her about God, Pearl says, “I have no Heavenly Father! ” Knowing she is alone in this world, she fills it up with her own imagination. Moreover, the very first thing baby Pearl notices is not her mother’s smile, but the scarlet letter on Hester’s chest. Chapter 8: The Elf Child and the Minister
In Chapter 7, Hester, worried that Pearl (now three) will be taken away from her, goes to Governor Bellingham’s mansion. Her excuse is that she is delivering the fringed and embroidered gloves that he ordered. The governor’s mansion is filled with all sorts of curious and expensive furnishings characterized with a sternness and severity. The suit of armor, especially, captures Pearl’s attention. In Chapter 8, we meet Bellingham, Wilson, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth a little more intimately. In front of them, Hester protests that she will not give up Pearl, her dearest treasure and her torture.
She begs Dimmesdale to speak for them and, when he agrees that the child was meant to be both blessing and curse, wins them the right to stay together. Strangely, Pearl has taken well to the minister who always seems to have his hand over his heart. As Hester leaves, Mistress Hibbins pokes her head out of the window to invite Hester to a witches’ gathering. Hester tells her that if she had not been able to keep Pearl, she would have gone willingly. The narrator then comments, “Even thus early had the child saved her from Satan’s snare. ” Chapter 10: The Leech and His Patient
These chapters introduce us to Roger Chillingworth, the “elderly” doctor, and Arthur Dimmesdale, the young reverend. Renaming himself upon his arrival at the village, Chillingworth has hidden his past from everyone except for Hester, whom he has sworn to secrecy. Assuming a new identity, he incorporates himself into society in the role of a doctor. Because the townsfolk had very little access to good medicine, he is welcomed and valued. In addition to the European body of knowledge he carries with him, he also mixes some of “native” or “natural” remedies because he was captured by Indians and lived with them for a time.
The “leech” (doctor) has attached himself to Dimmesdale because the younger man has been suffering from health problems. Specifically, Dimmesdale has heart trouble. But because they are both intellectuals, Dimmesdale’s relationship with Chillingworth involves more than just an exchange of pills or elixirs: they also have frequent and deep conversations. The inwardly tortured minister soon becomes Chillingworth’s great puzzle; Chillingworth relentlessly and mercilessly seeks to find the root of the minister’s condition.
Though Chillingworth wants to know all about Dimmesdale (even his most private secrets), Dimmesdale has grown suspicious of all men, confiding in no one. During one of their conversations about shame and redemption, they see Pearl dancing in the graveyard and putting burrs in the shape of an “A” on Hester’s chest. When Chillingworth asks about secular and spiritual health, Dimmesdale simply, and testily, says that such matters are only between himself and God. At the end of the chapter, Chillingworth comes upon Dimmesdale asleep and pushes aside the shirt that Dimmesdale is wearing.
What he sees on Dimmesdale’s chest makes the leech rejoice. Initially, most townsfolk see Chillingworth’s arrival as a Divine deliverance. At the end of Chapter 9, however, the narrator notes that now Chillingworth appears to them to be “Satan himself, or Satan’s emissary. ” Chapter 11: The Interior of a Heart These chapters describe Dimmesdale. Chillingworth is toying with the minister psychologically, making his revenge as terrible as possible. Dimmesdale, however, does not sense that Chillingworth is causing much of his suffering, though he suspects something is awry with the old leech.
In this suffering, however, Dimmesdale delivers some of his most powerful sermons. After all, what made him a great minister was his ability to address “the whole human brotherhood in the heart’s native language. ” But, as the narrator tells us, he is limited by exactly that which makes him great: he is holy because he speaks the most evocatively about sin. He wants to confess to his parishioners, “I, your pastor, whom you reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie! ” He cannot bring himself to do so, however. As a result, his self-probing keeps him up at night, and he even sees visions.
In one sequence, he sees Hester and “little Pearl in her scarlet garb” who points “her forefinger, first at the scarlet letter on her mother’s bosom, and then at the clergyman’s own breast. ” The minister can tell that these visions are not real, of course, but because of the psychological tumult, true reality doesn’t matter to him anymore. Even the Bible, what should be for any minister the one fixed point, has shrunk “to nothing within his grasp. ” In the middle of the night, Dimmesdale thinks of some remedy: holding a vigil on the scaffold where years before Hester suffered her shame.
He screams in his pain and worries that everyone in the town will wake up and come to look at him. The narrator tells us, however, that townspeople took it for a witch’s voice. As he is standing up on the scaffold, he starts to find the things that occur at groundlevel rather humorous. He almost laughs when he sees Wilson and thinks that he calls out the older minister. The older minister, who was coming from the deathbed of Governor Winthrop, passes without noticing Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale also starts to laugh thinking about what would happen if the town woke up the next morning to find their holy minister on the place of public shame.
This laugh is answered by a laugh from Pearl, whom he hadn’t noticed coming. (Hester and Pearl, too, were at Winthrop’s deathbed. ) He asks them to get on the scaffold with him. When they are all standing there, the three of them hold hands, forming “an electric chain. ” The minister feels energized and warmed by their presence. Pearl innocently asks, “Wilt thou stand here with Mother and me, tomorrow noontide? ” but the minister says he will not, dreading the public exposure. As they are standing there together, a meteor shower brightens the sky and makes everything visible.
When the minister looks up, he sees an “A” in the sky, marked out in dull red light. At the same time, Pearl is pointing to Chillingworth who is standing at a distance watching them. Dimmesdale asks Hester who Chillingworth (“a nameless horror”) really is, but Hester, sworn to secrecy, cannot tell his name. Pearl says that she knows, mumbling something that Dimmesdale cannot understand and making Dimmesdale think that the child is making fun of his terror. Pearl responds that she does this only because Dimmesdale is not bold enough to stand with her and her mother in daylight.
Chillingworth coaxes the minister down, saying that the minister must have been sleepwalking to get up there. When Dimmesdale asks how Chillingworth knew that the minister was there, Chillingworth says that he came from Winthrop’s deathbed and just passed by. He goes home with Chillingworth and, the next day, preaches his richest sermon. After the sermon, the church sexton hands Dimmesdale a black glove that was found on the scaffold. When the sexton recognized it as the minister’s, the sexton concluded that Satan must have been up to mischief.
He and the townsfolk do not implicate the minister in Hester’s shame and the “A” they saw last night meant only “Angel,” a heavenly recognition of Winthrop’s death. Chapter 14: Hester and the Physician Seven years have passed since the book’s opening and the narrator tells us about all that has happened in Hester’s life since. Hester has not withdrawn from society but has become more active in it: bringing food to poor people’s doors, nursing the sick, helping in times of trouble. She is still often looked down upon, but more people are beginning to think the “A” on her chest means “Able.
Hester herself (not just the way people see her) has also changed. She is no more a tender woman, but has been burned by the “red-hot brand” of the letter to become only “a bare and harsh outline. ” Hester has also become more speculative, thinking about how something is “amiss” in Pearl, about womanhood in her society, and about the wrong she may have done the minister by keeping Chillingworth’s secret. She therefore resolves to talk to the leech and ask him to stop tormenting Dimmesdale. She tells Chillingworth that she has to tell the minister the truth.
The old leech, the narrator observes, has transformed himself into the very embodiment of evil. In a moment of self-awareness, Chillingworth realizes how gnarled and mentally deformed he has become. He recalls the old days in which he was a benevolent scholar; he has changed from a human being to a vengeful fiend, a mortal man who has lost “his human heart. ” Saying that it is her fault, Hester begs him to give up this revenge and become a human being again. “It is our fate,” he responds. “Let the black flower blossom as it may.
Now go thy ways, and deal as thou wilt with yonder man. ” As the leech walks away, Hester goes to find Pearl. She realizes that she hates Chillingworth, even if she once deluded herself into believing that she was happy with him. Pearl, meanwhile, has been playing with birch-bark, pools of water, and jellyfish. Deciding to make herself a mermaid, she puts eelgrass on her chest in the shape of an “A – but freshly green, instead of scarlet. ” Hester and Pearl then have a conversation on what the “A” means. Despite Hester’s explanations, Pearl is not satisfied.
Intent on telling Dimmesdale the truth, Hester goes to meet the minister in the woods. Going with her, Pearl romps in the sunshine on the way there. As they wait for Dimmesdale by a brook, Pearl asks Hester to tell her about the Black Man and his connection to the scarlet letter because Mistress Hibbins told her that Hester meets the Black Man in the woods at night. When Dimmesdale approaches, Pearl asks whether the approaching person is the Black Man. Hoping for some privacy, Hester urges Pearl to play in the woods but her daughter fears that the person in the distance is the Black Man.
Hester, somewhat exasperated and fed up with her daughter’s fatuous behavior, exclaims, “It is the minister! ” before Pearl scurries off. Chapter 17: The Pastor and His Parishioner In the forest, Hester and Dimmesdale finally meet outside of the public eye and that of Chillingworth. Hester, who cannot help noticing how his spirit is broken, confesses to Dimmesdale that Chillingworth was her husband that she had known this for seven years. This news causes a “dark transfiguration” in Dimmesdale and Dimmesdale blames her for his suffering.
Hester, unable to bear a frown from Dimmesdale though she had endured everyone else’s and God’s frown, pulls him to her chest. (His face is buried in the scarlet letter. ) She worries only about Dimmesdale’s forgiveness. Though he does eventually say that he forgives her, he confesses that he feels powerless against Chillingworth and the inner gnawing of guilt. Hester suggests an escape: going back to Europe. When he despairingly tells Hester that he has not the strength to venture into the world alone, Hester boldly states that she will go with him.
The decision energizes both of them. Dimmesdale declares that he can feel joy again and Hester throws off the scarlet letter from her chest. Having cast off her “stigma,” Hester restores her former, passionate beauty by letting down her hair and smiling. To emphasize their changed state, sunlight (which, Pearl says, stays away from her mother because it fears her scarlet letter) suddenly brightens the forest. Hester calls Pearl, who has been playing in the wilderness again, to join them. Pearl approaches slowly. Chapter 19: The Child at the Brookside
Hester calls to Pearl to join her and Dimmesdale. But, from the other side of the brook, Pearl eyes them warily. 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 before Pearl will cross the creek. Returning to her mother’s arms, Pearl kisses Hester and also kisses the scarlet letter. When Hester tries to encourage a warm relationship between Pearl and her father, Pearl asks first, “Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?
Because Dimmesdale will not, when the minister kisses her on the forehead, she runs to the brook and tries to wash it off. As the minister returns to the town, he can hardly believe that he is going through such a radical change. Their plans to escape on a ship back to the Old World have almost completely turned his outlook upside-down. Tempted to announce, “I am not the man for whom you take me! I left him yonder in the forest,” Dimmesdale finds things that were once familiar very strange, including himself. As a deacon walks by, he barely controls the urge to utter blasphemous statements.
When he encounters the eldest female member of his church who is looking for a small tidbit of spiritual comfort, he nearly blurts out a devastating, “unanswerable argument against the immortality of the human soul. ” Seeing that he might run into a young maid whom Dimmesdale had just recently won over to the church, the minister hurries by, ignoring her; he fears that he will plant some corrupting germ in her innocent heart. He also runs into Mistress Hibbins who chuckles at him, offering herself as an escort the next time he visits the forest.
Returning to his house, Dimmesdale tells Chillingworth that he has no more need of the leech’s drugs. Afraid to ask Dimmesdale outright if the minister knows Chillingworth’s real identity, the leech becomes wary. Dimmesdale, who had already started to write the sermon he was supposed to deliver on Election Day (a religious holiday about the “elect,” or “saints” of the Puritan church) three days from now, throws his former manuscript in the fire and writes a newer, better one. Chapter 21: The New England Holiday
As at the novel’s beginning, the narrator sets the scene for another public gathering in the market place. This time, the purpose is to celebrate Election Day, not to punish Hester Prynne. The celebration is, truth be told, pretty sober, but the narrator says there is slightly more joy in the air. As they wait in the market-place among an assorted group of people (townsfolk, Indians, and mariners), Pearl asks Hester whether the strange minister who does not want to acknowledge them in public will hold their hands today.
Lost in her own thinking, Hester is imagining herself escaping from all of this soon, proudly defiant. This sense of peace is shattered, however, when one of the mariners on their escape ship tells her that Chillingworth will be joining them since the ship needs a doctor and Chillingworth says he is one of Hester’s party. Hester sees Chillingworth standing across the market place, smirking at her. The majestic procession then passes through the market place. Seeing the richness and power of Puritan tradition displayed with such pomp disheartens Hester.
Hester and other onlookers notice that Dimmesdale looks very well in the procession. Dimmesdale’s apparent strength, however, only makes him seem more remote from Hester and throws doubt on Hester’s plans of escape. Mistress Hibbins, very elaborately dressed, comes to talk to Hester about the minister. Saying that she knows those who serve the Black Man, Mistress Hibbins hints that the minister’s “mark” will soon be plainly visible like Hester’s. Suggesting that the devil is Pearl’s real father, Mistress Hibbins invites the child to go on a witch’s ride with her some time.
After Mistress Hibbins leaves, Hester takes her place at the foot of the scaffold to listen to Dimmesdale’s sermon. Pearl, who was wandering around the market place, then returns to give her mother a message from the mariner: Chillingworth says he will take care of bringing Dimmesdale on board and Hester should only take care of herself and her child. While Hester is worrying about this new development, she realizes that everyone is staring at her: those who have been seven years familiar with her scarlet letter, those who have heard exaggerated stories about it, and those who are entirely unfamiliar with it.
Chapter 23: The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter At the beginning of Chapter 23, Dimmesdale is preaching his Election Day sermon on the relation between God and the communities of mankind, “with a special reference to the New England which they [are] here planting in the wilderness. ” The crowd is moved by the sermon and proclaim to each other that it is his best, most inspired, and most truthful ever. As Dimmesdale walks in the procession to the town hall for the evening feast, he sees Hester and hesitates. Turning toward the scaffold, he calls to Hester and Pearl to come to him.
Though Chillingworth tries to stop him, Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold with them. Supported by Hester, Dimmesdale begins his confession, calling himself “the one sinner of the world. ” At the final moment of his confession, he throws off Hester’s assistance and tells everyone to see that he, like Hester, has a red stigma. Tearing “away the ministerial band from before his breast,” Dimmesdale reveals the scarlet letter and sinks onto the scaffold. The crowd is shocked and Chillingworth cries out, “Thou hast escaped me! ” Only after this does Pearl finally consent to kiss him.
Then Dimmesdale and Hester exchange words: she asks him whether they will spend their afterlives together; he tells her that the God will decide how much more they need to be punished for breaking His sacred law. Then, Dimmesdale dies. The conclusion tells us what happened in the wake of the minister’s death. People at the third scaffold scene later cannot agree on exactly what they saw. Most say they saw on Dimmesdale’s chest a scarlet letter exactly like Hester’s. To their minds, it either came from his own physical self-torture, Chillingworth’s poisonous magic, or Dimmesdale’s inner remorse.
Others, though, say they saw nothing on his chest; his “revelation” was just that every man, however, high, can be as guilty of sin as Hester. (It is the narrator’s opinion that these deniers are friends of Dimmesdale who are too anxious to protect his reputation. ) Chillingworth dies within a year of the minister’s death, leaving a sizeable inheritance to Pearl. Shortly after Chillingworth’s death, Hester and Pearl disappear. In their absence, the story of the scarlet letter grows into a legend. The story is so powerful that the town preserves the scaffold and Hester’s cottage.
Later, Hester returns, without Pearl, and takes up her charity work again. By the time of her death, the “A” that she still wears has lost all of its stigma and Hester is buried in the King’s Chapel graveyard (the burial ground for Puritan patriarchs). Her grave is next to another one (Dimmesdale’s), but far enough apart that the narrator says the distance means that “their dust had no right to mingle, even in death. ” They do share one headstone, however. It reads, “On a field, sable, the letter A, gules. “