The Scarlet Letter Summary 📖

Hester, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ shows readers how she’s indeed a true protagonist of the book by taking responsibility for her sin of adultery and coming out clean and facing the consequences – while also humbling herself as she observes a humiliating public penance.

The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne

After her husband goes missing for a long time, Hester makes a costly mistake, which anyone could have easily made, by starting an affair with a charming and gentle local preacher, and this results in her having Pearl out of wedlock. In the times that she lives, such offense is highly contemptible and heavily frowned upon – so she must face the consequences by wearing ‘The Scarlet Letter’ A for adultery, publicly. 

‘Spoiler Free’ The Scarlet Letter Summary

A strong and independent young woman by the name of Hester Prynne is paraded in public with her newborn and shamed because her child is a product of wedlock. 

A few years ago, Hester had married Roger Chillingworth and they had planned a move to Boston before he abandoned her and was nowhere to be found. 

Hester’s faithfulness is tested by the popular town preacher, Arthur Dimmesdale, but she falls to his charming personality, gentility, and youthfulness.

It is a risky affair and Hester knows that. And even though the result of their relationship is one of the hated, most punishable crimes in her society, she is willing to face the consequences that await her. 

In the long run, Hester finds herself in bigger trouble than her strong and resilient personality can handle, but she never gives up, never! She must search out a way to vindicate herself and her lover, and find a happy ending, and a better life for her daughter. 

The Scarlet Letter Summary

Spoiler alert: Important details of the novel are revealed below 

The plot sets with the story of the narrator, who works for a task collector agency called ‘Salem Custom House.’  Shortly after losing his job, the narrator decides to make a novel out of some pieces of manuscripts with a bold engraving – scarlet letter ‘A’ – which he had found littering in the attic of his former work.

The story which he assembles from it is the tale of a young lady called Hester Prynne who lives around the 1600s. Hester appears to have been detained for a deplorable crime and is processioned out and made to stand over a public platform wearing a dress with the scarlet letter ‘A’ boldly written on her breast, on which she also carries her baby girl, Pearl. 

She had committed adultery. And under a puritan society such as the one she lives, public shaming and disgracing are some of the repercussions for such acts.

While she faces arguably the worse moment of her life, standing on a raised platform against the public, a man stands deep in the crowd and watches as everything plays out. His name is Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s estranged husband who had just come into town. 

On the platform with Hester is a popular preacher of the town, Arthur Dimmesdale, who openly asks her to confess who’s responsible for her baby, but Hester wouldn’t tell. She is then taken back to her cell and locked up.

Hurt and vindictive, and with a strong interest in the matter, Chillingworth seeks to find out who his wife has cheated with, so he pretends to be a doctor to gain entrance into the cell his wife is being held. He threatens her not to tell anyone he is her husband, or else he would hurt the person responsible for her baby when he discovers who they are. 

Following her release, Hester seeks to restart her life out of town, where she makes a living as a dressmaker. By this time, her baby Pearl begins to come of age and becomes obsessed with the letter ‘A’ on her mother’s dress, but her mother wouldn’t tell her what it means. 

Back in Salem, Chillingworth is still determined to find out who Pearl’s father is. He treats Dimmesdale, the popular town preacher – who has an increasingly failing health. After a keen observation of Dimmesdale’s ailment, he starts to see an unusually strange correlation between Hester’s case and the preacher’s health history.

One faithful day during Dimmesdale’s medical examination, Chillingworth finds that Dimmesdale has a similar scarlet letter ‘A’ etched in the skin of his chest. He is convinced Dimmesdale is Hester’s secret lover and probably the father of her illegitimate daughter, Pearl.

With this information, Chillingworth reels upon having his retribution on Dimmesdale by feeding him drugs and treating that complicate his condition – so much so that his health deteriorates further.

For Dimmesdale, it appears that his ailment comes as a result of his inability to admit openly to his sin with Hester, as the thought is eating him up and causing him constant emotional trauma and heartaches. His health gets even worse as he refuses to eat and chastises and whips himself for his secret sin.

One faithful day, just after dusk, disturbed by his sick conscience, Dimmesdale moves up the platform and, shortly, is joined by Hester and Pearl. Only then, Chillingworth lurks in the shadows observing them. But his hiding is exposed as a meteorite sparkles through the night sky to reveal his presence.

What follows next is an exchange of feelings. Hester asks Chillingworth to quit tormenting Dimmesdale, who argues he’s being merciful to him with all things considered. 

The next day, Hester has a secret meeting with Dimmesdale in the brush, where she confesses that Chillingworth is her husband. She asks Dimmesdale to elope with her daughter Pearl across the Atlantic to start afresh in a new, distant town. He agrees to go with her, but he must first deliver a sermon that has been scheduled. 

On a faithful day, Dimmesdale is so moved by his sermon that he decides to confess that he is Hester’s secret lover and the father to Pearl – as both of them join him on the pulpit. He takes off his shirt and exposes a scarlet mark tattooed on his chest, he had been carrying the burden for a while. Dimmesdale dies afterward after Pearl kisses him.

Following Dimmesdale’s death, Chillingworth is left without purpose, his retribution taken from him, and dies a few months later. Hester leaves town with her daughter, Pearl, who travels across Europe and marries into a wealthy home, and only occasionally comes to Boston to visit her mom.

Many years later, after leading a  happier, much better life, Hester dies, and her body is laid beside Dimmesdale’s – on a tomb that has a shared inscription of scarlet ‘A’ on the tombstone.

FAQs 

How easy a read is ‘The Scarlet Letter’ for the average reader?

The Scarlet Letter’ is a fairly decent novel to read by the average reader. Although the makes use of complex sentences and several vocabularies considered a little above the average, the book is still considered easy for anyone with a basic grasp of the English language to start and finish.

Why does Hester protect the identity of her lover?

There is no doubt that Hester truly loves Arthur Dimmesdale – despite him not being her husband. She doesn’t say why she protects his identity, but from a reader’s perspective, you could tell she’s merely trying to protect him from being embarrassed and going through the series of public torture that she goes through. 

What are the consequences of Hester’s sin of adultery in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’? 

Hester finds herself being treated as a social reject and a disgrace to womanhood for her secret sin of adultery with the preacher, Arthur Dimmesdale. The birth of Pearl also serves as a harsh consequence being that it brings upon her unimaginable hardship – including it serving as a constant reminder of her failure and sin.

Victor Onuorah
About Victor Onuorah
Victor is as much a prolific writer as he is an avid reader. With a degree in Journalism, he goes around scouring literary storehouses and archives; picking up, dusting the dirt off, and leaving clean even the most crooked pieces of literature all with the skill of analysis.
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