The Scarlet Letter Chapter 13 Summary

Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

This lesson is a summary of Chapter 13 of Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter''. The lesson also contains a brief review of events leading to Chapter 13, which focuses on the Hester's increasing despondency and her changed status in the eyes of the townspeople.

Recap

In Chapter 12, Dimmesdale (a Puritan minister and the secret father of Hester Prynne's daughter, Pearl) is ill with the burden of his sin and secret. Chillingworth, (Hester's estranged husband using an assumed name) is acting as his physician and has been mistreating him. Dimmesdale is walking through the dark streets of the town one night, alone as everyone is abed or occupied indoors, when he comes to the scaffold and mounts it. He shouts out his pain in the dark and draws the notice of a few townspeople. Hester Prynne (his former lover who bears the brunt of the punishment for their sin of adultery) and their daughter, Pearl, are on their way back from the old governor's sick bed. They join him on the scaffold. While standing there together, they see a bright meteor that looks like the letter A and glows red. The next day, Dimmesdale gives a moving and powerful sermon that his congregation greatly approves of. Afterwards, the church sexton tells him about the meteor and how many townspeople think it's appearance meant 'Angel' and signified the old governor going to Heaven after he died in the night. He also returns Dimmesdale's black glove, which was found on the scaffold, and which the sexton believes was put there by the devil.

Actor depicting Dimmesdale in 1910
Actor depicting Dimmesdale in 1910

Dimmesdale and Hester Have Changed

When Chapter 13 starts, Hester is thinking how much Dimmesdale has changed since they first met, and since she was convicted of adultery. He is skittish, weak, and dispassionate now, seven years after Pearl's birth. He is growing more so each passing day, as his part in the 'crime' weighs on him. Chillingworth is also suspicious of Dimmesdale's involvement, unable to prove that Dimmesdale was involved with Hester but strongly certain of it and taking it out on Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale's health has suffered and he has grown persistently listless and weak. He is suffering a crisis of doubt as a result of withholding the truth and letting Hester carry the burden alone.

Hester, in the seven years since Pearl's birth, has lost the beauty she possessed early in the book. She is no longer akin to the prison door rose but ground down by her life and the lingering punishment. She is quiet, helpful, and industrious. And, while Pearl is not the model of a Puritan child, Hester is raising her without outside help, without asking for the community's support. Hester has removed herself from the community by virtue of her living space, but she has also made herself available to the community as a worker and accepts any and all tasks given her. She is, basically, the model of a penitent sinner. While this has earned her the respect of the townspeople, it has broken her own spirit. She is losing the will to live in Chapter 13, and has greatly changed from the bold and bright figure she presented earlier in the novel.

The New Meaning of the A

The A on Hester's clothes that once stood for 'adultery' is now no longer symbolic of her sin. It is seen as a symbol of Hester's skills as a seamstress, and of her capability to care for Pearl and herself without being a burden on the community. Some townspeople even suggest the A stands for 'Able' now. She is admired for her readiness to help those in need, her refusal to lean on the community for help, and her ability to work hard to support herself and Pearl. Her work as a seamstress is sought after and, while she is still condemned for her sin, she is not cut off from society entirely.

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