First published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter reflects Hawthorne’s Puritan background while pondering how guilt and moral evil affect individual members of society. The actual letter ‘A’ sewn into Hester Prynne’s dress symbolizes her guilt and sin. Sent ahead from England by her husband to settle in the colonies, her adultery is apparent and she is imprisoned. She has a child, whom she names Pearl after the Biblical reference to ‘Pearl of great Price,’ and the child, more than the scarlet letter on her chest, is a symbol of her guilt. Hester is able to cope, however, fancily embroidering the letter, and carrying her burden with grace. Through it all, she refuses to name the father of her child.
A strange man shows up in the community and watches her shame on the scaffold. It is her disguised husband, the doctor, Roger Chillingworth, who has made it his goal to discover who the father of Pearl is. He spends his spare time tormenting his wife who does not reveal to the populace who Chillingworth really is. The community believes her husband has been involved in a shipwreck and drowned.
The town’s reverend, Arthur Dimmesdale is her lover, but because of his position cannot reveal the true nature of their relationship. His guilt in internal and he torments over what he has done day and night. Pearl, by contrast, seems to have no guilt whatsoever. She is fascinated by the lovely letter ‘A’ her mother wears. When Hester tries to throw the letter away, Pearl refuses to acknowledge her until the initial is replaced. She becomes wild and rebellious, the exact opposite of a ‘Puritan,’ and Hester constantly worries about her, believing that the child’s behavior is somehow a result of her sin.
Years pass by and Hester works as a seamstress to make ends meet. Always there to help her is Dimmesdale. The town’s preacher, a strange ailment seems to be sucking the very life from him. Chillingworth, suspicious, becomes the young minister’s doctor, and one evening opens his shirt while he sleeps to reveal that the Dimmesdale has carved a scarlet letter on his own chest.
Hester tries everything in her power to force her estranged husband to stop tormenting Dimmesdale, but the doctor is consumed by jealousy and revenge.
Hester informs Dimmesdale that Chillingworth will stop at nothing and the two agree to flee to Europe together. Chillingworth discovers their plans and decides to book a passage on the very same ship. Dimmesdale preaches his last sermon, and suddenly calls to Hester and Pearl and orders them to mount the scaffold with him. He tears open his shirt and a collective gasp can be heard from the congregation as they dramatically discover who Hester’s lover really was. Dimmesdale confesses his sin and dies, finally at peace.
Hester and Pearl leave for several years and Chillingworth dies. After Pearl marries, Hester returns, the scarlet letter still in place. She is determined to pass her last years where she was tormented before. Things are different now, and the town comes to admire her for her kindness and common sense. When she dies, Hester is buried next to Dimmesdale, an ‘A’ marking each of their tombstones.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of America’s most beloved authors and grew up in Salem, Massachusetts. After years of writing short stories, he finally produced Twice Told Tales, but still suffered financial hardship. After renting a house in Concord he brushed elbows with some of his famous Transcendentalist neighbors, the most noted being Emerson and Thoreau, but later rejected their ideas having little faith in artists and intellectuals, though he, like they, was inspired by the power of nature. Hawthorne pondered the spiritual and his Puritan background and finally produced the brooding and symbolic Scarlet Letter which is considered one of the greatest American novels.