Hester is the book’s protagonist and the wearer of the scarlet letter that gives the book its title. The letter, a patch of fabric in the shape of an “A,” signifies that Hester is an “adulterer.” As a young woman, Hester married an elderly scholar, Chillingworth, who sent her ahead to America to live but never followed her. While waiting for him, she had an affair with a Puritan minister named Dimmesdale, after which she gave birth to Pearl. Hester is passionate but also strong—she endures years of shame and scorn. She equals both her husband and her lover in her intelligence and thoughtfulness. Her alienation puts her in the position to make acute observations about her community, particularly about its treatment of women.
Hester’s illegitimate daughter Pearl is a young girl with a moody, mischievous spirit and an ability to perceive things that others do not. For example, she quickly discerns the truth about her mother and Dimmesdale. The townspeople say that she barely seems human and spread rumors that her unknown father is actually the Devil. She is wise far beyond her years, frequently engaging in ironic play having to do with her mother’s scarlet letter.
Dimmesdale is a young man who achieved fame in England as a theologian and then emigrated to America. In a moment of weakness, he and Hester became lovers. Although he will not confess it publicly, he is the father of her child. He deals with his guilt by tormenting himself physically and psychologically, developing a heart condition as a result. Dimmesdale is an intelligent and emotional man, and his sermons are thus masterpieces of eloquence and persuasiveness. His commitments to his congregation are in constant conflict with his feelings of sinfulness and need to confess.
Governor Bellingham is a wealthy, elderly gentleman who spends much of his time consulting with the other town fathers. Despite his role as governor of a fledgling American society, he very much resembles a traditional English aristocrat. Bellingham tends to strictly adhere to the rules, but he is easily swayed by Dimmesdale’s eloquence. He remains blind to the misbehaviors taking place in his own house: his sister, Mistress Hibbins, is a witch.
Boston’s elder clergyman, Reverend Wilson is scholarly yet grandfatherly. He is a stereotypical Puritan father, a literary version of the stiff, starkly painted portraits of American patriarchs. Like Governor Bellingham, Wilson follows the community’s rules strictly but can be swayed by Dimmesdale’s eloquence. Unlike Dimmesdale, his junior colleague, Wilson preaches hellfire and damnation and advocates harsh punishment of sinners.
Hester’s husband in disguise. He is much older than she is and had sent her to America while he settled his affairs in Europe. Because he is captured by Native Americans, he arrives in Boston belatedly and finds Hester and her illegitimate child being displayed on the scaffold. He lusts for revenge, and thus decides to stay in Boston despite his wife’s betrayal and disgrace. He is a scholar and uses his knowledge to disguise himself as a doctor, intent on discovering and tormenting Hester’s anonymous lover. Chillingworth is self-absorbed and both physically and psychologically monstrous. His single-minded pursuit of retribution reveals him to be the most malevolent character in the novel.
Ch 1 summary- for background info on characters’ lives
his first chapter contains little in the way of action, instead setting the scene and introducing the first of many symbols that will come to dominate the story. A crowd of somber, dreary-looking people has gathered outside the door of a prison in seventeenth-century Boston. The building’s heavy oak door is studded with iron spikes, and the prison appears to have been constructed to hold dangerous criminals. No matter how optimistic the founders of new colonies may be, the narrator tells us, they invariably provide for a prison and a cemetery almost immediately. This is true of the citizens of Boston, who built their prison some twenty years earlier.The one incongruity in the otherwise drab scene is the rosebush that grows next to the prison door. The narrator suggests that it offers a reminder of Nature’s kindness to the condemned; for his tale, he says, it will provide either a “sweet moral blossom” or else some relief in the face of unrelenting sorrow and gloom.
Ch 2 summary- for background info on characters’ lives
As the crowd watches, Hester Prynne, a young woman holding an infant, emerges from the prison door and makes her way to a scaffold (a raised platform), where she is to be publicly condemned. The women in the crowd make disparaging comments about Hester; they particularly criticize her for the ornateness of the embroidered badge on her chest—a letter “A” stitched in gold and scarlet. From the women’s conversation and Hester’s reminiscences as she walks through the crowd, we can deduce that she has committed adultery and has borne an illegitimate child, and that the “A” on her dress stands for “Adulterer.” The beadle calls Hester forth. Children taunt her and adults stare. Scenes from Hester’s earlier life flash through her mind: she sees her parents standing before their home in rural England, then she sees a “misshapen” scholar, much older than herself, whom she married and followed to continental Europe. But now the present floods in upon her, and she inadvertently squeezes the infant in her arms, causing it to cry out. She regards her current fate with disbelief.
Ch 3 summary- for background info on characters’ lives
In the crowd that surrounds the scaffold, Hester suddenly spots her husband, who sent her to America but never fulfilled his promise to follow her. Though he is dressed in a strange combination of traditional European clothing and Native American dress, she is struck by his wise countenance and recognizes his slightly deformed shoulders. Hester’s husband (whom we will learn, in the next chapters, is now calling himself Roger Chillingworth) gestures to Hester that she should not reveal his identity. He then turns to a stranger in the crowd and asks about Hester’s crime and punishment, explaining that he has been held captive by Native Americans and has just arrived in Boston. The stranger tells him that Hester is the wife of a learned Englishman and had been living with him in Amsterdam when he decided to emigrate to America. The learned man sent Hester to America first and remained behind to settle his affairs, but he never joined Hester in Boston. Chillingworth remarks that Hester’s husband must have been foolish to think he could keep a young wife happy, and he asks the stranger about the identity of the baby’s father.The stranger tells him that Hester refuses to reveal her fellow sinner. As punishment, she has been sentenced to three hours on the scaffold and a lifetime of wearing the scarlet letter on her chest. The narrator then introduces us to the town fathers who sit in judgment of Hester: Governor Bellingham, Reverend Wilson, and Reverend Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale, a young minister who is renowned for his eloquence, religious fervor, and theological expertise, is delegated to demand that Hester reveal the name of her child’s father. He tells her that she should not protect the man’s identity out of pity or tenderness, but when she staunchly refuses he does not press her further. Hester says that her child will seek a heavenly father and will never know an earthly one. Reverend Wilson then steps in and delivers a condemnatory sermon on sin, frequently referring to Hester’s scarlet letter, which seems to the crowd to glow and burn. Hester bears the sermon patiently, hushing Pearl when she begins to scream. At the conclusion of the sermon, Hester is led back into the prison.
Ch 4 summary- for background info on characters’ lives
Hester and her husband come face to face for the first time when he is called to her prison cell to provide medical assistance. Chillingworth has promised the jailer that he can make Hester more “amenable to just authority,” and he now offers her a cup of medicine. Hester knows his true identity—his gaze makes her shudder—and she initially refuses to drink his potion. She thinks that Chillingworth might be poisoning her, but he assures her that he wants her to live so that he can have his revenge. In the candid conversation that follows, he chastises himself for thinking that he, a misshapen bookworm, could keep a beautiful wife like Hester happy. He urges her to reveal the identity of her lover, telling her that he will surely detect signs of sympathy that will lead him to the guilty party. When she refuses to tell her secret, he makes her promise that she will not reveal to anyone his own identity either. His demoniacal grin and obvious delight at her current tribulations lead Hester to burst out the speculation that he may be the “Black Man”—the Devil in disguise—come to lure her into a pact and damn her soul. Chillingworth replies that it is not the well-being of her soul that his presence jeopardizes, implying that he plans to seek out her unknown lover. He clearly has revenge on his mind.
Ch 5 summary- for background info on characters’ lives
The narrator covers the events of several years. After a few months, Hester is released from prison. Although she is free to leave Boston, she chooses not to do so. She settles in an abandoned cabin on a patch of infertile land at the edge of town. Hester remains alienated from everyone, including the town fathers, respected women, beggars, children, and even strangers. She serves as a walking example of a fallen woman, a cautionary tale for everyone to see. Although she is an outcast, Hester remains able to support herself due to her uncommon talent in needlework. Her taste for the beautiful infuses her embroidery, rendering her work fit to be worn by the governor despite its shameful source. Although the ornate detail of her artistry defies Puritan codes of fashion, it is in demand for burial shrouds, christening gowns, and officials’ robes. In fact, through her work, Hester touches all the major events of life except for marriage—it is deemed inappropriate for chaste brides to wear the product of Hester Prynne’s hands. Despite her success, Hester feels lonely and is constantly aware of her alienation. As shame burns inside of her, she searches for companionship or sympathy, but to no avail. She devotes part of her time to charity work, but even this is more punishment than solace: those she helps frequently insult her, and making garments for the poor out of rough cloth insults her aesthetic sense.
Ch 6 summary- for background info on characters’ lives
Hester’s one consolation is her daughter, Pearl, who is described in great detail in this chapter. A beautiful flower growing out of sinful soil, Pearl is so named because she was “purchased with all Hester had—her mother’s only treasure!” Because “in giving her existence a great law had been broken,” Pearl’s very being seems to be inherently at odds with the strict rules of Puritan society. Pearl has inherited all of Hester’s moodiness, passion, and defiance, and she constantly makes mischief. Hester loves but worries about her child. When the narrator describes Pearl as an “outcast,” he understates: Pearl is an “imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants.” Pearl herself is aware of her difference from others, and when Hester tries to teach her about God, Pearl says, “I have no Heavenly Father!” Because Pearl is her mother’s constant companion, she, too, is subject to the cruelties of the townspeople. The other children are particularly cruel because they can sense that something is not quite right about Hester and her child. Knowing that she is alone in this world, Pearl creates casts of characters in her imagination to keep her company. Pearl is fascinated by the scarlet letter and at times seems to intentionally torture her mother by playing with it. Once, when Pearl is pelting the letter with wildflowers, Hester exclaims in frustration, “Child, what art thou?” Pearl turns the question back on her mother, insisting that Hester tell her of her origins. Surprised at the impudence of a child so young (Pearl is about three at the time), Hester wonders if Pearl might not be the demon-child that many of the townspeople believe her to be.
Ch 7 summary- for background info on characters’ lives
Hester pays a visit to Governor Bellingham’s mansion. She has two intentions: to deliver a pair of ornate gloves she has made for the governor, and to find out if there is any truth to the rumors that Pearl, now three, may be taken from her. Some of the townspeople, apparently including the governor, have come to suspect Pearl of being a sort of demon-child. The townspeople reason that if Pearl is a demon-child, she should be taken from Hester for Hester’s sake. And, they reason, if Pearl is indeed a human child, she should be taken away from her mother for her own sake and given to a “better” parent than Hester Prynne. On their way to see the governor, Hester and Pearl are attacked by a group of children, who try to fling mud at them. Pearl becomes angry and frightens the children off.The governor’s mansion is stuffy and severe. It is built in the style of the English aristocracy, complete with family portraits and a suit of armor, which the governor has worn in battles with the Native Americans. Pearl is fascinated by the armor. When she points out her mother’s reflection in it, Hester is horrified to see that the scarlet letter dominates the reflection. Pearl begins to scream for a rose from the bush outside the window, but she is quieted by the entrance of a group of men.