The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 - 1864)

The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
(1804 - 1864)

Type of Work:

Impressionistic fiction

Setting

Boston, Massachusetts; seventeenth century

Principal Characters

Hester Prynne, a condemned adulteress

Pearl, her daughter

Arthitr Dimmesdale, one of the community's
ministers

Rodger Chillingsworth, Hester's estranged
husband (his assumed name)

Story Overveiw

Condemned to wear a bright red "A" over
her breast wherever she went, Hester Prynne had been convicted of adultery
by Boston's Puritan leaders; a child had been born to her during her husband's
long absence.

Emerging from the prisonhouse under the
gaze of her neighbors, Hester surprised the townsfolk with her air of aloof
and silent dignity Led to the town square, she ascended a scaffold, her
babe cradled in her arms. There on the scaffold she suffered scorn and
public admonishment. One "good woman" loud ly decried the elaborate letter

Hester had embroidered into her frock: blazing scarlet, ornately fashioned
and bordered with prominent gold stitching - the requisite token of her
deed. A minister in the crowd denounced her crime and called on her to
reveal the identity of her partner. Another minister, Arthur Dimmesdale,
pled with her more gently. He, in compassion, also begged her to unmask
her lover. Unknown to the multitude, however, Dimmesdale himself was that
lover; his gentle prodding was in fact a distraught and convoluted effort
to urge a confession from Hester which he knew she would never make-and
which he could not find the courage to make for himself.

From her place on the pulpit, Hester's
eyes met with those of a hunched, wrinkled man in the crowd, a stranger
in the town but well known to her. He was Hester's husband, a scholar and
a physician of sorts, who had spent years away, exploring the western wilderness.

Now he had reappeared under the name of "Roger Chillingsworth."

Visiting Hester in her prison cell later
that day, Chillingsworth expressed his rage that she should betray him
and made her swear not to expose him as her husband. Furthermore, he vowed
that he would discover the identity of his wife's lover.

Finally released, the adulteress took up
residence in a lonely cottage by the sea. Her chief employment, for which
she demonstrated a prodigious talent, was sewing. She managed to win the
business of nearly everyone in the community. Still, despite the acceptance
she won as a seamstress, Hester was forced to bear social ostracism: children
jeered as she passed, other women avoided her, and clergymen pointed to
her as a living example of the consequences of sin. Rumors circulated that
she was a witch, and that the scarlet letter she bore on her clothing glowed
a deep blood red in the dark. Still Hester withstood this abuse without
complaint.

Hester felt much more concern for her daughter,

Pearl, than for herself. She cringed when the illegitimate girl was pushed
aside by other children. In contrast to Hester's remarkable dignity, Pearl
displayed a wild, undisciplined character, seemingly incapable of natural
affection. The governor of Boston and all the clergy publicly proclaimed
their doubts that the spritelike, curious child could develop the capacity
to enter Christian society. Even more tragically, the townspeople looked
on Pearl as a kind of evil spirit - the perverse offspring from a moment
of unholy passion. Even Hester little understood her daughter, who served
at once as both a comfort and a painful reminder of her past.

In the meantime, Roger Chillingsworth had
taken lodgings with Minister Dimmesdale. Chillingsworth immediately suspected
that the clergyman had been his wife's once-guilty partner in lust, and,
posing as a true friend, he managed, over the course of months, to wring
his roommate's conscience with subtle hints and comments about the dire
strait of hypocrites in the eyes of God. Soon it became clear that Dimmesdale
was indeed Hester's lover; but, rather than expose him then, Chillingsworth
chose to continue torturing the preacher's moral sanity. Dimmesdale's sense
of guilt grew, ultimately causing his health to wane. He took to holding
his hand over his heart, as if he felt some deep pain. Yet he failed to
recognize the treachery being perpetrated on him, blaming only himself
for his growing infirmity.

To make matters worse, the weaker and more
guilt-ridden Dimmesdale became, the holier he appeared to his congregation,
whose members regarded him as unequaled in piety. Every sermon he preached
seemed to be more inspired than the last. More than once the minister resolved
to confess his hypocrisy and take his place beside Hester, but he was too
afraid of the shame open confession would bring.

And so it was that the years passed: Hester,
suffering in disgrace and isolation, devoting her life to charitable service
and winning the hidden any