Climax of The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter,'' three different plot threads are woven throughout the story. The point at which these three things converge and crescendo is called the climax. Let's take a closer look!

Big Finish

You know that point in a book where you just can't put it down, even though it's late and you should really go to bed? That's called the climax. Before the climax, events in the story build in what is called rising action. After the climax, things tend to settle down in what is called falling action. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter there are three main plot threads which build in the rising action and then come together in a culmination during the section called 'The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter.'

Chillingworth and his Revenge

The story of Roger Chillingworth, who is really Hester Prynne's estranged husband, is one of the stories which converges in the novel's climax. When we first learn of Roger Chillingworth, we hear of all the good work he has done throughout his life. As he confronts her about her unfaithfulness, he seems to be forgiving, saying 'we have wronged each other.' But something dark lurks beneath.

Hester sees that darkness when she says 'thy acts are like mercy...but thy words interpret thee as a terror.' Chillingworth vows to discover Hester's partner in adultery, saying 'sooner or later he must needs be mine.' As the story progresses, Chillingworth is consumed both body and soul by revenge. He even admits that he was once 'a mortal man with once a human heart' but now he 'has become a fiend.' We watch as he discovers Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester's lover. He works himself in closely with Dimmesdale, slowly enacting his revenge with well placed words and suggestions.

Chillingworth seems quite content to keep up his slow, cruel revenge indefinitely. He is thwarted, however, in the climax of the novel when Dimmesdale climbs up on the town scaffold and admits, publicly, his part in Hester Prynne's adultery. A public confession robs Chillingworth of his weapons of private cruelty. It was the pain of a guilty conscience which Chillingworth constantly used against Dimmesdale. After the confession, Chillingworth is lost. He repeats over and over in despair, 'Thou hast escaped me!'

Hester and her Lover

We find out only by degrees that Arthur Dimmesdale is the one with whom Hester had an affair. When the story opens, we see Hester resolutely refusing to name her co-conspirator. At first there are but vague hints. When Dimmesdale is asked to urge Hester to tell the town who is the father of her child, he speaks rather too knowingly of the pain this anonymous father must be feeling, saying, 'what can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him--yea, compel him, as it were--to add hypocrisy to sin?'

These suspicions are confirmed the night Dimmesdale climbs up on the scaffold in the dark. When he sees Hester and Pearl passing, he asks them to come stand with him. He laments that he was not with them when the two stood at first in front of the prison in broad daylight while the town looked upon their sin. If any doubt remains in the reader's mind, it is dispelled when Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest. Hester there discloses to Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband, they talk of their past love, and they make plans together to flee the town and begin a new life.

Finally, in the climax scene, Dimmesdale climbs again upon the scaffold, but this time in the daylight and in front of the assembled citizenry. He calls Hester and Pearl to him and they three stand together, a family, acknowledged for the first time. All they have suffered separately now comes together in this scene. As Dimmesdale dies, Hester cries out, 'shall we not meet again? ... Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another with all this woe!' And thus their tale of separation and suffering comes to a close in a moment of fierce despair but also of release. All is known, and by being known, the two are somehow less separate than they were.

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