Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. Signet Classics, 2009.

Summary of Work
This book opens at the Custom House, where the author discusses how the book came to be written. The narrator is a surveyor in Salem who came across a manuscript and a tattered, crimson gold cloth in the shape of the letter A in an attic. The surveyor reads the manuscript to find that it details the events from around 200 years previous about an adulterous woman and her life. He writes a fictional account of this story, which becomes the novel.

In the 17th century in puritan Boston, Hester Prynne is led from the prison to the town square, a scarlet A emblazoned on her chest, to be punished for committing adultery. She had been sent to Boston by her much older husband, who was a scholar, but her husband never arrived after her, presumably lost at sea. She had a child much later, having had an affair; when the minister Arthur asks her to reveal her lover so he may also be punished, she refuses, taking the punishment all herself. She is publicly shamed, and must always wear the scarlet A on her breast as her punishment for adultery.

A stranger watches this entire display, and he is later invited into the community as a doctor. Roger Chillingworth is in fact Hester’s husband, and she knows this, but she and he do not reveal that to the town. He is determined to find out who her lover was and to seek revenge. Hester supports herself as a seamstress, and Pearl grows into a beautiful young child, often described as a fairy, sprite, or imp in her otherworldliness and wilfullness. They are both shunned by the community, and the townspeople seek to take Pearl from Hester, believing that an adulterous woman should not be raising a child. However, the town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, mediates and Hester is able to keep her child. Since Hester’s trial, Dimmesdale has struggled with his health, suffering from a mysterious heart condition. Chillingworth so regularly helps him that he ends up moving in with the minister to help him. He also moves in with the intention to investigate his suspicions that Dimmesdale is Hester’s lover. One day when the minister is asleep, he examines Dimmesdale and discovers a branded A on his chest, confirming Chillingworth’s suspicion.

Dimmesdale is unable to forgive himself, and finds new ways to punish himself for his sins. In contrast, as Hester has lived a life of charity and humility since her punishment was bestowed upon her, the community comes to almost admire her and forgive her for her previous sins. Pearl and Hester go to visit a townsperson on their deathbed, and on their way back in the evening, they see Dimmesdale standing on the scaffold where Hester had stood with Pearl in her arms nearly a decade earlier. He is trying to find a way to punish himself for his sins, and Hester and Pearl join him on the scaffold. The three of them join hands, and when Pearl asks Dimmesdale to greet her publicly when they are in town the next day, Dimmesdale says he cannot, and in response a meteor falls and creates a red A in the sky in its wake. Hester decides she cannot watch Dimmesdale get worse, and seeks to intervene with Chillingworth on his behalf. But despite her pleading with her husband, he refuses to stop tormenting Dimmesdale.

Later, Hester arranges for Dimmesdale to meet her and Pearl in the woods, and they go walking, with Pearl playing in the woods as Dimmesdale and Hester talk. She has guessed that Chillingworth is aware of her plan to tell Dimmesdale of his identity, and so she must act quickly. They determine that they will run away to Europe so they can live together as a family, since there is a ship scheduled to depart four days later. They feel relieved, and Hester briefly removes her scarlet letter and bonnet, letting her hair fall down her back, which scares Pearl, who does not recognize her mother without the letter emblazoned on her chest. The day before they are to set sail, Dimmesdale delivers the most eloquent sermon of his career, and after he leaves, he finds Hester and Pearl staring at the scaffold in the town square. He takes them both up onto the scaffold and tears away his shirt, revealing the A on his chest, and he confesses his sins and dies on the scaffold as Pearl kisses him.

Chillingworth is furious over the death that destroyed his plans for revenge, and he dies in that anger a year later. Hester and Pearl leave town, and no one knows where they went until Hester returns alone as an old woman many years later and resumes her charitable work, still wearing the scarlet A on her chest. Pearl has married a European and has a family of her own, and she sends Hester letters every now and then. When Hester dies, they bury her near Dimmesdale and they share a headstone with the letter A engraved upon it.

Discussion of Work
A work about Puritanism, one of the main themes in this work is a discussion of sin and the human condition. Hester and Arthur could be said to reenact the Adam and Eve story of Judeo-Christian beliefs, because they go from innocence to sin and knowledge, are punished for their sins, and must work and labor for forgiveness as they are separated from God and divinity. The A sewn on Hester’s garments allow her more knowledge of the human condition and sufferings of man than many members of the community because she is able to use it to travel into spaces and situations where other people would not be able to, allowing her to learn godly qualities of charity, humility, and long suffering. Both Dimmesdale and Hester are always contemplating sin and repentance, much as would be expected of the highly religious Puritans in Boston. They are always in search of ways to reconcile their lives with their religion, something that is a problem in a religion that focuses on predestination and punishment rather than lived experience. The Puritan city therefore becomes merely a stagnant backdrop to the personal growth and experience of Dimmesdale and Hester, with Chillingworth the only real member of the community outside of the small family that bears weight in the story because of his inability to grow and forgive leading to a regression. He is a representation of what happens when love and pure emotions are perverted and changed by envying and anger, leading to evil.

How identity is formed is also a theme in the novel, with Hester taking her punishment and using it to reconstruct her life rather than let it destroy her, while Dimmesdale, who never publicly acknowledges his sin until his death, even refusing to publicly acknowledge his own daughter, allows what others think about him to consume him. His false image of a pure and pious man warp his thinking and lead him to self-punishment and psychological pain that leads to physical illness, whereas Hester finds ways that she can show herself as a person capable of doing good despite what others may think of her, leading her to become a person full of compassion, knowledge, and kindness, able to engage in society without worry.

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