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Nathaniel Hawthorne was a 19th-century American writer who remains renowned for his input in the classical literature. Some researchers even phrase him as “one of the most significant and influential writers” of his age (Lei, 2015, p. 2164). Among the legacy of Hawthorne, it is worth mentioning The scarlet letter, a work which became vital for the writer’s fame. The plot of the novel immerses the readers into the 17th century to demonstrate the environment of the Puritan era in America. The events revolve around the punishment of a young woman, Hester Prynne, who is accused of adultery. Through the main characters, Hester, her husband “Chillingworth” and her lover Dimmesdale, the author used symbolism to unveil his message about adamant will and redemption. Moreover, thanks to the historical fiction genre, Hawthorne managed to elaborate on notable aspects of social history.
Plot Summary: Love, Hate, and Guilt
Throughout the plot, the reader finds out about a fictive public scandal in 17th-century Boston. The public attention is caught by the young woman, Hester Prynne, who gave birth to an illegitimate child and is accused of adultery. As a result, Hester must regularly stand on the village’s scaffold and wear the scarlet “A” letter on her clothes. Moreover, she resides in prison, shunned by all the villagers. Despite the humiliation, Hester refuses to name her lover, the father of the child.
During one of the trials, it turns out that Hester’s husband, presumably missed, has returned to the village. Enraged by the wife’s betrayal, the husband vows to avenge his pride by destroying Hester’s love for good. The husband takes up a different persona of a doctor, Roger Chillingworth. With this play, he aims to gain the village’s trust and deduce the identity of his adversary.
Chillingworth gets closer to the head of Boston’s church, a young priest Reverend Dimmesdale, who experiences health issues. At the same time, Hester is released from the detention and lives isolated on the outskirts of the village. Her sewing skills only help her in earning money for living alone. However, she successfully defends her newborn daughter, Pearl, from the attempts to take the child away. Furthermore, she remains adamant in refusing to divulge the identity of Pearl’s father.
Gradually, Chillingworth starts to suspect that Dimmesdale could indeed be Hester’s lover. After all, Dimmesdale’s condition appears to be connected to some unresolved mental torment. Chillingworth discusses the matter with the priest several times, trying to make him confess the presumed sins. Eventually, Chillingworth confirms his suspicions when he notices the same “A” letter on Dimmesdale’s body, that his wife wears. However, he is unable to act with hostility due to the earlier promise to Hester.
In the end, Dimmesdale and Hester meet in the forest and confirm their love, while Dimmesdale contemplates about the public confession. Despite several failed attempts, he brings himself to the public reveal as Hester’s lover and Pearl’s father. This act frees Dimmesdale from spiritual suffering and allows him to die peacefully. Chillingworth, who was unable to stop the confession, dies on the next year while leaving the fortune to Pearl. Afterward, mother and daughter leave for England, only to return before Hester’s death. She wears the “A” letter to the very end, and after the demise, she is buried alongside Dimmesdale.
The Main Characters: A Triangle of Struggle
The plot and the central themes undoubtedly revolve around three leading characters: Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth. Among them, Hester should be considered the main protagonist of the whole story. She is described as a young woman who was unhappily married to an elderly husband. Thus, she could not abstain from searching for a true love, which she found in Dimmesdale. Her name is partially symbolic – according to Lei (2015), the name is derived from the Greek goddess of household Hestia, while the “Prynne” surname alludes to her adultery. However, her nature is characterized by her powerful will and refusal to give up in despair. As Elbert (2014) states, Hester is an epitome of a motherly figure who genuinely cares about her love and child. Hence, Hester managed to endure all the hardships while proudly wearing the scarlet letter.
At the same time, Dimmesdale presents a person who is shameful of his wrongdoings but painfully struggles in the attempt to confess. He is a highly revered head of the town’s church. Furthermore, according to the book, he is so “passionate about God and religion,” that the followers always cling to him (Hawthorne, 2004, p. 64). However, the sin realization slowly kills Dimmesdale since he does not live up to the declared ideals. Eventually, Dimmesdale manages to cope with the shame and release his doubts by voicing the truth to everyone. While he dies soon after, he feels relieved because he finally did the right thing.
Chillingworth represents the dark side of the characters’ past. Most researchers agree on the opinion that he acts as the novel’s villain (İsaoğlu, 2015). He sought a happy family live by marriage with Hester but feels betrayed by her sin. Thus, he is ready to use deceit so he could achieve his form of justice. On this premise, Chillingworth pressures both Hester and Dimmesdale in pursuit of his goal. However, his efforts prove to be futile because of Hester’s resolve and Dimmesdale’s newfound courage to confess. At least, Chillingworth manages to change his ways at the end of life by leaving the fortune to Pearl.
The Themes of Resolve and Confession
Among the important topics explored in the novel, one should name the unconditional and steadfast love, as well as the struggle to redeem one’s sins as the most central themes. Hester’s unwavering personality demonstrates the first aspect from the beginning to the end. Even when her life was crumbling, she abandoned nether her love for Dimmesdale, nor hope for a better future she eventually attained. Secondly, the suffering of Dimmesdale showcases how destructive one’s unconfessed sin can become. According to Lei (2015), the character serves as a parallel to the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. Nonetheless, the author shows the hardships of redemption, which still can lead to salvation.
The Society Reflection
While the mentioned themes dominate throughout the novel, one can see one more aspect highlighted by the author. In the description of the 17th century, Hawthorne presents the flaws of society, which remain actual to the present days. Particularly, Hawthorne accentuates the ostracizing of Hester to demonstrate the inability of the community to understand her conditions. Hence, one can apply a famous saying that people fear what they do not understand. Such a failure leads to the isolation of society members who are not evil and just lost their way.
In his historical fiction, The scarlet letter, Hawthorne succeeded in exposing notable moral themes. The plot is centered around the adultery of the main heroine Hester and a local priest Dimmesdale. The capacity of the former to withstand social pressure and the final resolve of the latter to reveal the sin emphasize the topics of spiritual resilience and the redemption of the mistakes. Also, Hawthorne touched the issues of society’s everlasting shortcomings, like the misunderstanding and isolation of those who break the public rules.
Elbert, M. (2014) ‘The woman’s law in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter’, in Bendixen, A. (ed.) A companion to the American novel. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Son, pp. 373-393.
Hawthorne, N. (2004) The scarlet letter. Smyrna, DE: Prestwick House Inc.
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İsaoğlu, H. (2015) ‘A Freudian psychoanalytic analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter’, The Journal of Academic Social Science Studies, 3(32), pp. 499-511.
Lei, N. (2015) ‘A brief study on the symbolic meaning of the main characters’ name in The Scarlet Letter’, Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 5(10), pp. 2164-2168.