The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who has had an illegitimate child. Despite being publicly humiliated by wearing a large scarlet letter 'A' on her dress, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child's father, even as the vindictive newcomer Chillingworth becomes determined to make her confess. This story explores the themes of sexual liberation, sin, and vengeance.

Hester Prynne

Main protagonist of the story, and wearer of the scarlet letter. She possesses a natural dignity unmatched by anyone else in the settlement. She is strikingly beautiful, with dark eyes and black glossy hair, and has confidence beyond compare. She is strong-willed and sometimes haughty, able to stand up under the intense scrutiny and harshest words from the sternest Puritans within the settlement. She has incredible skill in needlework, which she uses to support herself, by sewing and embroidering a variety of things, from luxurious garments for the highest officials to somber death shrouds for Puritans who have passed away. She does not use her skill to adorn herself beyond what she does with the letter, but she allows her imagination to take flight and her love of things beautiful and exotic to surface in the clothes she makes for her daughter Pearl. Hester's stubbornness and strong-will are maintained in all aspects of her life, including her devotion to Pearl and her commitment to Dimmesdale.

The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

Hester's one-time lover, clergyman, and other main protagonist. Dimmesdale is the town's well-loved and respected minister. Young and eloquent, he wins the hearts of all his parishioners who feel that he was sent to Boston by heaven itself. He was educated in Oxford and is known both in England and the New World. He has melancholy eyes and a slightly nervous disposition which makes him prone to physical frailty. He is intelligent but restrained, and lacks a real understanding of humanity, which he gains over the course of the novel. He is apprehensive about his own abilities, but aware of the high esteem with which he is held.

Roger Chillingworth

Hester's former husband, and the main antagonist of the story. Wise and sensitive, he possesses great understanding of people and the world in general. Educated in Europe, trained as a physician and very scholarly, he finally makes his way to Hester after two years of separation. His knowledge and understanding get turned to evil as his passion for information becomes the need to discover the husband of Hester's child. His mild physical deformity which makes one shoulder stand higher than the other worsens, as the state of his soul grows darker. By the end of the book he is a devil in look, deed and demeanor, thirsty for revenge and finding satisfaction only by torturing Dimmesdale.

Pearl

Pearl is Hester and Dimmesdale's daughter. She inherits her mother's beauty and is incredibly vivacious. She is capricious and mutable, and changes moods in a moment. Hester finds it impossible to discipline her because she does what she wants and is impervious to any kind of threat. She defends herself readily when threatened, whether it is children her own age, or adults who interrupt her idea of what she wants, or what is true. Isolated from other children because of her nature and her position in the community, she finds plenty of ways of occupying herself. With a vivid imagination, she is at home in the forest and along the coast. She is fascinated by the scarlet letter and possesses canny insight into the relationships of the people around her. She is not bound by the constraints of society and often seems to be from a spiritual realm. The people around her feel that her character is the result of the sin that brought her into being.

Governor Bellingham

Governor of Boston. A historical figure, Richard Bellingham emigrated to New England in 1634. He became governor for the first time in 1641 and continued until his death in 1672. In the novel, along with Rev. John Wilson, the Governor represents the top civil leader in the community. Although a colonial governor he maintains much of the characteristics of English nobility, as the inside of his house, with its grand portraits and suit of armor, attests. He has expensive tastes, which he does not allow to be restrained by the Puritan tradition of simplicity in all things. He is a civil leader of the highest level, but concerns himself with all matters of the community, including religious ones.

The Reverend John Wilson

Clergyman and teacher at the First Church, Boston, he is Dimmesdale's superior and a close friend of Governor Bellingham. Wilson is a historical figure; educated at Cambridge, he arrived in New England in 1630, received his post at the First Church, Boston and remained there until his death. Like Gov. Bellingham, he possesses a taste for finer things, which may or may not conflict with the Puritan ideal of sacrifice and simplicity. Along with Gov. Bellingham, he represents the leadership of the community, and is representative of a strict, Puritan clergyman, involved in both civil and religious affairs.

Mistress Hubbins

Governor Bellingham's sister. A historical figure, Ann Hubbins's second husband was a wealthy merchant who lived in Boston. She was accused of being a witch in 1655, and was hanged after a trial at the Grand Court in 1656. In the novel, she oversees all activity that happens in the forest, and invites people to join her for meetings with the "black man," an incarnation of the devil.

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