The Scarlet Letter: Summary and Analysis of an Allegory

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  • 0:05 Introduction
  • 0:36 The Characters
  • 1:27 The Custom House
  • 2:09 The Plot
  • 7:26 Analysis: Dark…
  • 10:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

See how Nathaniel Hawthorne uses allegory and symbolism to illustrate the affair and resulting guilt between a minister and a Puritan woman in his novel 'The Scarlet Letter.'

Introduction

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter has been adapted countless times for stage and film. The most current, well-known film version of the novel, which was released in 1995 and starred Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, deviates from the original story but does capture the main plot points. Other stories have played off of the themes and symbols found in Hawthorne's story, including the most recent movie, Easy A (starring Emma Stone), which takes the opposite approach - coming clean about being a virgin in the midst of rumors.

The Characters

Nathaniel Hawthorne's dark romantic novel has all of the elements for a steamy love story: a secret affair, an illegitimate child, a husband in disguise, stuffy Puritans - all pretty racy for a story taking place in Boston during the 1600s.

  • Hester Prynne is a beautiful woman who is known for her needlework. She is also an adulteress and has to wear a scarlet letter A on her dress as a punishment.
  • Arthur Dimmesdale is the town minister. No one knows it, but he is an adulterer too. He punishes himself in private about it.
  • Roger Chillingworth is Hester's husband, who has been missing (and thought to be dead) for a couple years. He is in disguise in town, hoping to take revenge on Hester's lover.
  • Pearl is Hester's illegitimate daughter. She is unique in spirit and doesn't like Puritans very much.

The Custom House

Hawthorne begins the novel with a long, drawn-out explanation from an unnamed narrator who worked at the custom house, a place where ship's traffic is monitored and customs are paid in Salem, MA. What the custom house introduction boils down to is this: The narrator found a bunch of old papers in the attic of the building, one set of which was two-hundred-years old and bundled with a scarlet, gold-embroidered letter 'A' on top. After being fired from his job at the custom house, which he is pretty happy about since it was boring and making his brain rot, he decides he needs to write a fictional story about the power of the scarlet letter explained in those papers. And he needs to do this before his brain disintegrates any further!

The Plot

The story itself then begins at the door of a prison in Boston. This is the time of the Puritans, English Protestants who were rigid in their faith and extremely un-fun. The place is foreboding with iron spikes coming out of the door, looking like it would house the worst of criminals, except for a beautiful rosebush that grows next to the door. Hester Prynne emerges from the prison wearing an elaborate, gold-embroidered scarlet letter 'A' on her dress. She is beautiful and proud as she is paraded down to the scaffold of the pillory, the place where they kept the stocks used for punishment. Hester has committed adultery - something the entire town knows because she has given birth to a child named Pearl, whom she is currently carrying in her arms, and she has no husband. Actually, she does have a husband, but he's been missing for a couple of years, so she has no present husband. As part of her punishment for having committed the sin of adultery, she has to wear a scarlet letter 'A' on her dress at all times. The townspeople, who are at the public shaming, want Hester to name the father, but she refuses to tell them.

During the ordeal, an older man in the crowd is identified by the narrator as Hester's long-lost husband. Why is he there? Well, he wants revenge on Hester and whomever Pearl's father may be. He quickly confronts Hester, and for some crazy reason she agrees not to tell anyone who he really is. He tells the townspeople that he is a physician named Roger Chillingworth.

After several years of this, Hester is no longer in jail and is free to move, but she stays in Boston working as a seamstress on the outskirts of town. She is very good and in high demand to make clothing for special occasions (though not for wedding attire). But she still remains an outcast. Pearl is described as 'impish;' she is beautiful, deep, passionate, and quite uncontrollable. She also likes to throw stones and scream at other children who look at her funny, so she doesn't make many friends. She does, however, spend a good amount of time in daydreams where she destroys mean Puritans who are her enemies. Of course, the Puritan authorities are not pleased with Pearl's behavior and want to take her from Hester. Thankfully, the nice minister, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, convinces the governor to let Hester keep Pearl.

Meanwhile, Roger Chillingworth's physician disguise works brilliantly because the nice minister, Reverend Dimmesdale, is having heart trouble. Chillingworth, who ends up moving in with Dimmesdale to help him, quickly suspects him to be Pearl's father and finds a strange red mark on the man's chest, which causes Chillingworth's face to break into 'a wild look of wonder, joy, and horror.' Chillingworth does a little dance of excitement at the sight of the mark and begins some serious psychological torture on Dimmesdale. As a result, Dimmesdale begins punishing himself for his sin of adultery by beating himself with a whip.

One night, after one of his punishment parties, Dimmesdale leaves the house and goes to the scaffold where Hester had been shamed seven years before. It just so happens that Hester and Pearl walk by - after just having left the governor's deathbed - and join Dimmesdale on the scaffold. They hold hands, with Pearl in the middle. Pearl asks Dimmesdale if he will join them on the scaffold at noon the following day. As he explains that he will join them on 'the great judgment day,' a meteor lights up the sky with a sort of red letter 'A.' In all of the confusion, they notice that Pearl points to someone standing nearby. Who else would it be but Chillingworth, who looks evilly excited? Hester still does not tell Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband.

But, Hester does see how ill Dimmesdale has become and confronts Chillingworth. She tells him that she will no longer keep her promise to keep his real identity a secret. Not long after, she waits in the forest for Dimmesdale to return from a trip so that she can tell him what is really going on. Pearl is with her and begins asking about the Black Man (also known as Satan) and believes the letter on Hester's dress is his mark. She also wonders if Dimmesdale clutches his chest to hide his mark of the Black Man. Together in the forest, Hester and Dimmesdale make a plan to get away from all of the 'iron men' Puritans and find a home elsewhere. It seems like Hester and Dimmesdale are finally going to be happy. But this is a dark romantic novel, so we know that can't be true.

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