The Scarlet Letter Summary

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

     Although introductions are usually short notes that help readers understand the background of the novel, the introduction of The Scarlet letter is rather long, explaining thoroughly how the book came to be written.

     The nameless narrator working in the custom office finds a bunch of documents, a manuscript with the scarlet letter embroidered on the cloth among them. Curious to know more, the narrator reads the manuscript written two hundred years ago, describing events that marked the life of Hester Prynne. Fascinated with the story, the narrator decides to write a fictional account on Hester's life.

     The story starts in 17th century in Boston. The market-place is crowded with people, curious to see Hester Prynne at the pillory. She climbs a pedestal and stands there holding a baby in her hands, while the agitated crowd comments on her sin, imagining other various ways of punishing her. Suddenly, one face in the crowd stands out. The man who catches her attention is curious to find out who is the woman on the scaffold and he is being told that she has committed a sin by having a child with another man, although she is married for several years to a man who is yet to come from England.

     Hester seems hardy on the scaffold, standing proudly and taking the hatred and criticism of her fellow citizens without shedding a tear, but as soon as she goes back to her prison cell, she breaks and starts crying. Her child is inconsolable also, as if feeling the mother's pain. A prisoner guard decides to call a doctor before Hester hurts herself or her child. The doctor who comes to visit Hester is Roger Chillingworth, the man who observed her from the crowd and wanted to know more about her. Although his identity is not immediately revealed, it is clear, from their conversation, that they have been connected in the past. He gives her a potion that will calm her down, but Hester hesitates, doubting that he might want to do her harm. Roger assures her that no other punishment is greater than the one she is going through now, therefore, he has no intention of hurting her, nor her child. Eventually readers learn that Roger Chillingworth is Hester's former husband who is being pitied among Boston citizens, but never seen. He is curious to find out who is the father of her baby, but Hester is determined to keep it a secret. Roger promises her ominously that he will find out who is that man, and asks Hester to keep his identity in secret as well, so that her sin does not mark his life also.

     Some years have passed and Hester has served her prison punishment. However, she is obliged to carry the mark of the sin on her chest, the scarlet letter denoting "adulteress." The letter is embroidered by Hester personally. It is rather artistic and appealing, looking like a medal of honor. To start a new life all over again, Hester moves to a desolated house on the outskirt of Boston. Her daughter is now seven years old and is named Pearl, symbolizing the most precious thing her mother owns. Pearl is anything but an ordinary child. Her unearthly beauty is mixed with unconstrained wildness, making people believe that the girl is devil's servant. To constraint her character, the city officials try to separate her from her mother, claiming that Hester is unable to bring up the child appropriately. However, Arthur Dimmesdale advocates the girl's stay, assuring the officials that it is best for the girl to be with her mother, reminding her of the sin, as well as providing the consolation.

     Mr. Dimmesdale is a clergyman in the church, therefore an influential person, adored by the community. He suffers from the unknown illness that causes sadness and heart problems, so his friends suggest him to seek help from the physician who has arrived to Boston recently, Mr. Chillingworth. Roger Chillingworth accepts his role gladly and attaches to Mr. Dimmesdale, eventually moving in the same house with him. Since there is no improvement in the clergyman's health, Roger becomes suspicious that Arthur is hiding something that could be the key for his healing, and driven by suspicion, he starts digging into Arthur's psychology. Unable to learn more from Arthur himself, Roger boldly enters Arthur's room while he was sleeping, moves a vest from Arthur's chest to find out why is the clergyman always keeping his hand on the heart, only to find a scarlet letter impressed onto his chests. Roger is thrilled with this finding and his face suddenly gains an evil expression, revealing his true intentions with the clergyman.

     Mr. Dimmesdale's sufferings deepens and turns into unbearable agony. In order to ease his pain, Mr. Dimmesdale impulsively goes to the scaffold in the middle of the night, where he meets Hester and Pearl as they are returning from a visit to a deathbed. He summons them to join him on the scaffold, which they accept. While standing there in the middle of the pitch darkness, holding each other's hands, a meteor shows in the sky, forming a letter "A," shedding a light on them. Not paying much attention to the supernatural phenomenon, Hester is worried with the Arthur's state and decides to intervene, asking Roger Chillingworth to stop the torture of the poor clergyman, but Roger refuses. She then decides to reveal Roger's identity to Mr. Dimmesdale, so goes to the woods, planning to meet him in privacy. The wood is described as a dark, moody place, but Hester and Pearl are rather relaxed there. Once they notice Mr. Dimmesdale in the distance, little Pearl starts asking questions about the clergyman, believing that he is the Black Man she has heard about from the other women in the city. After the initial shock from the cognition of Roger Chillingworth's true identity, Arthur collect himself and accept Hester's suggestion to go back to Europe and live as free people. New hope for the better future brings change in Hester's behavior. Suddenly, she throws away the scarlet letter from her chest and let her hair fall down her shoulder, showing her beauty hidden for so long, but Pearl is not pleased with the sight of her mother, refusing to go back to her until she puts her scarlet letter back on her chest and hides her hair under the cap. Hester arranges their trip and informs Mr. Dimmesdale that they will go in four days.

     One day before their trip the city celebrates a holiday at which Mr. Dimmesdale is about to give a speech. People remember the sermon speech as the most inspiring ever, indicating how exited he is for the change in his life. However, during the celebration, Hester learns that Roger Chillingworth knows about their plan and is determined to ruin it by booking the same ship to Europe. Feeling unexplainable dread, the clergyman is determined to take the burden off his shoulders after the sermon and once again, this time before eyes of the city, he summons Hester and Pearl to join him. He admits his sin and exposes the scarlet letter on his chest. He becomes more weak with each minute and eventually dies in the market-place, unable to handle the pain and disgrace.

     The final chapter deals with the aftermath of previous events. Readers learn that Roger died the same year as Arthur, probably because he dedicated his life to revenge, making his life worthless with the death of his victim. To atone for his sins, he wanted Pearl to inherit his property. Although the succession would bring Pearl and Hester back among reputable citizens, they refuse to take any part in it and disappear from Boston. After several years, Hester was seen in her home, without Pearl, so it remained a mystery what happened to Pearl. However, since some people saw Hester crocheting the baby clothes, they assumed that Pearl was happily married in another town.

     As years went by, Hester's letter of shame turned into a sign of goodness, as she was always willing to help other people, especially to advice tempted women. People did not dread from her, nor did they avoid her anymore- she was finally an equal member of the community. After her death, she was buried next to Mr. Dimmesdale, under the same tomb stone, bringing the only fair closure to her life story.

     On a deeper level, the novel is a contrast between good and evil, justice and harm, faith and impiety. It is abundant of motifs and symbols that are in favor of the previous assertion. Right at the beginning of the novel, there is a description of a rose bush growing next to the prison door. This symbol is a suitable introduction for the story, as it represents two sides of life, two truths of Puritan society. The rose, depicts the nature, its intact beauty oblivious to the laws of Puritan society and goodness in general, while the prison, solemn and dark, represents the law of the ones who built it, the Puritans, as well as the corruption and restraint of the society.

     From this point on, it is easy to classify the characters and other symbols, although nothing in the novel is straightforward, but rather multilayered. The best example of the ambiguity is Pearl, the final product of Hester and Mr. Dimmesdale's sin. She is an extraordinary child who defies all conventions. Her beauty advocates the godly origin, while her unrestrained temper negate it. Unable to define her, people often consider Pearl an devil's servant, as they always do when they meet something unfamiliar and unexplainable. But the truth is that Pearl contains a bit of everything- she is a product of love, a product of sin, both joy and repentance for her mother, therefore, Pearl is an essence of life. Unlike Pearl, Hester lacks the free spirit, however, it does not diminish her strength. By accepting to wear the scarlet letter and embroidering it by herself, Hester shows that she is willing to obey the imposed social rules, but not allowing them to control her life. Banishment excludes her from the social streams, allowing her to become eccentric and take part in activities unconventional for women of the 17th century. Her pain and public disgrace teach her to be strong, unlike Mr. Dimmesdale who has no protection from the his own feelings nor from the attacks from the outside. He is the weakest link in the novel, causing the collapse of all hopes for the better future. Their love story is highly immoral for the rigid Puritans, becoming the great burden on both Hester and Arthur's shoulders.

     However, it seems that the nature approves their love. The motif of nature is common in Gothic novel, as it represents the connection between a man and the primeval. Unbounded with the rights and wrongs of society, the nature is benevolent to Hester and Arthur's love, which is symbolically represented several times during the novel, for example, in the scene on the scaffold, where a meteor appears in the sky, shedding light on Hester, Arthur and Pearl, indicating that there is nothing to hide, as their love is clear. The second time the nature shows its sympathy is the woods, during their secret meeting, when the light suddenly shines above them, illuminating the entire wood as Hester throws away her scarlet letter and shows her femininity after many years.

     However, the Gothic literature has another aspect. It often deals with the darkness and the occult, therefore, it is not out of the ordinary to have devils, witches, ghosts and other negative entities in novels. Mrs. Hibbins is the most truthful representative of the Gothic, dark side of the novel. She is the true worshiper of devil, however, her religious deviation and evil are nothing in comparison with that of Roger Chillingworth, who commits his own life to only one goal- to make Mr. Dimmesdale's life unbearable. When he dies shortly after the death of the clergyman, it becomes clear how astray he was in his moral, yet lived as the respected member of the community, questioning, thus, the righteousness of the society.

     Hester eventually gets the justice she deserves, when she finally becomes reputable in her community and buried next to Mr. Dimmesdale under the same tomb stone. However, that is not so because the society shows its mercy towards her, but because she proves, with her meekness and honesty, that they were wrong.

Related Links:

The Scarlet Letter Quiz
The custom-house introductory to 'The scarlet letter' Summary
The Scarlet Letter Quotes
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 1-3 Summary
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 1-3 Quiz
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 4-6 Quiz
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 7-9 Quiz
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 10-12 Quiz
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 13-15 Quiz
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 16-18 Quiz
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 19-21 Quiz
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 22-24 Quiz
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 4-6 Summary
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 7-9 Summary
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 10-12 Summary
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 13-15 Summary
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 16-18 Summary
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 19-21 Summary
The Scarlet Letter Chapters 22-24 Summary
The Scarlet Letter Important Characters
Literature Summaries
Nathaniel Hawthorne Facts

To link to this The Scarlet Letter Summary page, copy the following code to your site: