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.

The Scarlet Letter takes place in the mid-Seventeenth century, when Boston is still a Puritan settlementstruggling to survive and make a mark in the wilderness of the New World. The novel follows the story of

Hester Prynne, a woman living in the settlement, who is forced to wear the letter "A" on her chest because she

had a baby out of wedlock. Throughout the novel she refuses to divulge the identity of the child's father. As the

first part of her punishment, she is required to sit on a scaffold in the marketplace for all the town to see.

While sitting there, her husband enters the town and finds her, a symbol of public disgrace. She had come to the

settlement ahead of her husband, who is a scholar and a doctor, in order to prepare a home, but after two years

without word from him, she had thought he was dead. When he returns, she promises not to tell anyone his true

identity. She refuses to tell him the name of the father and he vows to find out and seek revenge. He takes the

name of Roger Chillingworth and knowing much about European and Native American medicine, establishes himself as a town physician.

Hester learns to live her daily life and makes a living doing needlework. She is extremely skilled and her work is

much sought for special occasions, especially official functions. She raises her daughter, Pearl, in a cottage on the outskirts

of the settlement. Pearl is a wild child, almost not of the earth, with tendencies toward fantasy and impish

behavior. After a few years, there is talk amongst the town's leaders to remove Pearl from Hester's care and

place her with another Puritan family, since Hester's ability to raise a proper Puritan child is doubtful in their

eyes. Hester argues her case, and along with the support of Arthur Dimmesdale, the town's respected minister,

she is allowed to keep Pearl.

Chillingworth becomes a close friend and companion to the town's minister, Dimmesdale. Young and eloquent,

he is favored by all of his congregation, but he is physically weak and soon becomes ill, constantly keeping his

hand over his chest. Watched closely by Chillingworth, Dimmesdale does not grow better. Chillingworth

becomes certain that Dimmesdale is the father of Hester's child and begins his course of revenge.

Dimmesdale grows worse and worse and Hester realizes that she has a duty to him, since he is in fact the father

of her child, and that she has caused him much pain by keeping Chillingworth's true identity a secret. She

confronts Chillingworth about the damage he has been causing and tells him that she plans to unmask him. She

meets Dimmesdale in the woods one day and tells him everything. He is angry, but forgives her and asks for her

advice as to how to deal with Chillingworth. She recommends leaving Boston altogether. She offers to

accompany him and overjoyed by this prospect, they make plans to leave on a ship sailing for Bristol.

The day before they are meant to leave, Dimmesdale is to give the official sermon on Election Day, a great

honor in Boston. On the day, Hester finds out that Chillingworth has arranged passage on the same ship that she

plans to use, and that Chillingworth has arranged to accompany Dimmesdale and meet her and Pearl on the

ship. Filled with despair at their inability to escape the grasp of her husband's revenge, Hester stands next to the

scaffold where she had stood in front of the townspeople seven years prior and tries to listen to Dimmesdale's

sermon.

The sermon is a success and Dimmesdale, who had been filled with spiritual energy as never before, is at the height of success and respect. He had entered the church as if carried on a

cloud from the spirit world, but when he leaves all the energy is gone and he is as frail and weak as before.

When heading towards the town hall for additional ceremonies, he pauses at the scaffold, and against

Chillingworth's warnings, addresses Hester and Pearl before all the townspeople. He asks Hester to help him to

the top of the scaffold, where he stands with Hester and Pearl, as he should have seven years before. He

confesses to the gathered crowd and pulls aside his vestment, to reveal his chest, on which, as later stories have it, a

scarlet letter was branded. He asks Pearl to give him a kiss, gives his blessing to Hester and then dies.

After his death there is much discussion as to what was really on his chest and what really had happened that

day. Most people agreed that there had been a scarlet letter branded in his skin, though the cause of it, whether it

be by Dimmesdale's own hand, or the work of the holy spirit, was still debated. Some insisted that there had

been nothing on his chest, nor had he admitted to any involvement with Hester Prynne, and that Dimmesdale

had intended his death on the scaffold to be a parable, explaining that when compared to god's infinite purity,

everyone, even the most blameless, is still a sinner.

Soon after Dimmesdale's death Chillingworth dies and leaves a large amount of property to Hester and Pearl.

They leave Boston, and the town loses track of them. One day, Hester is spotted reentering her cottage

on the outskirts of the settlement. She returns to the town to live the life she led before, including burdening the shame tied

to the letter. Although she still wears it, the letter loses its significance and stigma and Hester becomes a kind of

advisor, sought out by unhappy young women who want advice concerning matters of the heart.

There is no word of Pearl, but most believe that she stayed behind in Europe, and is married and happy. When

Hester dies, she is buried in the town's cemetery next to Dimmesdale, and they share a grave reminding people

of the burden of sin they shared.

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