The Scarlet Letter: Characters, Symbols & Themes

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  • 0:00 The Scarlet Letter Background
  • 0:27 The Scarlet Letter…
  • 1:39 The Scarlet Letter Characters
  • 3:40 The Scarlet Letter Symbols
  • 5:00 The Scarlet Letter Themes
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

During this lesson, we will learn about Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlet Letter. After we explore the cast of the novel, we will discuss the novel's main symbols and themes. We will follow up with a short quiz.

The Scarlet Letter Background

The story of The Scarlet Letter, an American novel from 1850 about a puritan town and the fallout occurring from a woman's adultery, has endured for many centuries. Although this novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne was originally published 150 years ago, the story is widely read in American high school English classes. It was also recently remade as a movie: the 2010 film, Easy A, is a modern reimagining.

The Scarlet Letter Plot Summary

In case you are unfamiliar with the novel, it is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who is sent to America ahead of her husband. Her husband's arrival is delayed when he is shipwrecked on an island. While Hester Prynne waits for her possibly-dead husband who may never arrive, she eventually has an affair with the Puritan minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, and winds up pregnant. Hester Prynne gives birth to her child, Pearl, but refuses to give up the identity of her illegitimate baby's father. She is shunned by her town and forced to wear a scarlet A on her chest as a symbol of her shameful sin.

Meanwhile, her husband arrives, finds out that his wife has committed adultery, changes his name, and proceeds to do everything he can to unearth the identity of his wife's lover, a search that consumes him and eventually leads to his death. Arthur Dimmesdale also dies, after spending the length of the book in a tremendous amount of internal conflict due to his unconfessed sin. Finally, the novel ends with Hester and her daughter, Pearl, inheriting her husband's wealth after his death. They move away from town for awhile, but Hester eventually returns, unable to fit into life away from the town that knows her history. When Hester dies much later, she is buried next to her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, finally united in death.

The Scarlet Letter Characters

Hester Prynne

Hester Prynne is the main character in The Scarlet Letter. Her husband sends her ahead of him to New England. While she waits for her husband to arrive, Hester has an affair with the Puritan minister of her community, Arthur Dimmesdale. She gives birth to a daughter, Pearl, as a result, and is driven out of her community for her sin of adultery.

Roger Chillingworth

Roger Chillingworth is Hester Prynne's husband. Chillingworth is a name he adopts after he arrives in town and finds his wife, Hester, being publicly shamed for adultery. Using his fake name, he infiltrates the community and searches for the man with whom Hester Prynne committed adultery. He is a physician. Eventually he moves in with Arthur Dimmesdale, and it is during the course of their living together that Roger Chillingworth discovers that Dimmesdale is his wife's lover. He keeps Dimmesdale in good physical health, but tortures him mentally.

Arthur Dimmesdale

As a Puritan minister, Dimmesdale experiences a great amount of internal conflict over his affair. The biggest reason he experiences conflict is not because of the actual sin he committed, but because he cannot confess his sin and do any penance. He feels like he cannot confess because his congregation relies on him too much. He does, however, degrade himself constantly during his sermons, hinting at his own sin, but his congregation just views his sermons as nobly pious. His health deteriorates and Roger Chillingworth, who lives with Dimmesdale, tends to his health.

Pearl

Pearl is Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale's daughter. She is a mischievous child who grows up on the outskirts of her community, due to her mother being shunned. When Roger Chillingworth eventually dies, he leaves everything to Pearl in a surprising move. Pearl and Hester leave town. While her mother eventually returns, Pearl does not, using her inherited wealth to launch herself into a better social position and a better life.

Other Townspeople

While the previous four characters are the most important in the book, there are a few townspeople who are featured frequently. Governor Bellingham is the governor of the town. He is a stickler for rules, which is ironic because his sister, Mistress Hibbins, is rumored to practice witchcraft. Reverend John Wilson, the senior minister, is also an important character. He believes in a punitive God.

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