ully weaves many themes and uses character development to format the plot of this novel. The themes of The Scarlet Letter are carried out through the
four main characters — Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingsworth, and Pearl — and also
through symbolism. In this novel, Hawthrone hoped to show that although Hester and Dimmesdale sinned,
they achieved the wisdom of self knowledge and inner growth through their suffering.
Before the novel actually starts, there is a section of the book entitled “The Custom House”.
While this is not an integral part of the novel, it provides insight into Nathaniel Hawthrone, the man. Here
it is learned that Hawthrones ancestors were strict Puritans (he was born in Salem). One of his ancestors
was considered a “hanging judge” and was actually a judge in the Salem Witch Trails. This is why
Hawthrone has an interest in the Puritan period.
Although Hawthrone did not actually participate in the Puritan period, he still felt guilty about
what his ancestors did. He was angered by the hypocrisy of the church who condemned sins, yet
committed them and was also angered by the government. This becomes apparent to the reader throughout
the course of the novel. In fact, The Scarlet Letter was a way for Hawthrone to vent his frustrations with
Brief Summary of the Novel
The Scarlet Letter is a novel revolving around a woman who committed the sin of adultery in a
small Puritan town in seventeenth-century Boston. Hester Prynne, the adulteress, refuses to reveal her
lovers name, and as a result is forced to wear a large, red “A” on her bosom. This is to tell everyone of her
sin. Hester is also forced to live isolated with her daughter, Pearl, who is the result of her sin. Meanwhile,
the small Puritan town remains very devoted to and very proud of their young minister, Arthur
Dimmesdale. What they do not know is that it is Dimmesdale who is Hesters Lover and Pearls father.
The fact that Dimmesdale keeps his sin a secret is tearing him up, both physically and emotionally. To
complicate matters even more, Hesters old and slightly deformed husband is back. He had stayed in
England for quite a while allowing Hester to settle into their new home. Her husband, Roger
Chillingsworth, comes to the town at precisely the moment that Hester is!
being presented to the world as an adulteress. Chillingsworth sees Hester with the scarlet letter upon her
breast and in the moment of Hesters greatest humiliation. He is outraged and vows that “he (the lover)
will be known.” (p. 69) He pretends to be a physician and eventually suspects Dimmesdale of the breaking
the seventh commandment. Chillingsworths mission becomes that of revenge.
Themes and Character Development
In The Scarlet Letter, the themes are played out by the characters. Hesters development, for
example, illustrates the theme that recognition of our weaknesses may make people stronger and more
sympathetic to the weaknesses of others.
The punishment that is chosen for Hester is a long and drawn-out one. It is a mental punishment,
one that will last her her entire lifetime. Like Chillingsworth stated on page 69, “A wise sentence! Thus
she will be a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her tombstone.”
Because of her great punishment, Hester grows and matures throughout the years. The letter
causes her to be an outsider in her own home and for her to have no friends. As a result, she matures much.
Whenever a person matures, he or she can look at the world through a different pair of eyes and therefore
be more perceptive to other peoples pain.
Hester, in part of a punishment imposed on herself, helps the poor. She uses her surplus to give to
the less fortunate, although they feel superior to her and show it. But due to Hesters maturity she
continues to help the poor.
Because Hester felt pain, she learned to be “warm and rich; a wellspring of human tenderness,
unfailing to every real demand…she was a self-ordained Sister of Mercy.”(p.156) In fact, it is ironic how a
person who was shunned by a town in receiving the scarlet letter was later praised by it — how the
supposed most vile person was really the kindest and most sincere. She want from Adulteress to “Able.”
Hester also shows her great emotional growth with Dimmesdale. When she is with him, it is she
who is the strong one. She is the one who made the decision to leave and it was her who bore the
humiliation of the towns justice alone, without betraying her lover.
Hesters growth can be especially seen when compared to Dimmesdales deterioration. Hester
grew because she faced her sin, while Dimmesdale slowly killed himself as a result of hiding his sin and
living with guilt.
Hester also embodies the theme that the truth can set you free. While Dimmesdale grew frailer
every day, Hester chose to overcome the punishment imposed on her by the community. The reason she
could overcome the punishment is that she had not hidden the truth as Dimmesdale did. Her salvation lied
in the truth. This is evident in chapter seventeen, where Hester and Dimmesdale met in the woods after a
separation of seven years. While Hester has made her peace, Dimmesdale is consumed with guilt of his
double life. He does not know what to do with himself. Dimmesdale goes as far as to say. “Happy are you,
Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly on your bosom! Mine burns in secret!”(p.183) This shows the
reader that the reason that Hester has been able to walk through the town and survive the seven years of
punishment is that she has allowed the truth to be told.
Dimmesdale brings about the themes that guilt can be more destructive than punishment imposed
on others and that deception and secrecy can be destructive.
Throughout the whole novel, Dimmesdales character can be seen going through many different
changes. Dimmesdale is literally killed because of his guilt and remorse and the knowledge that eats away
at his heart — that the right thing to do is confess his sin openly and to stop hiding behind his high place in
the community and church.
In chapter three, page 72, Mr. Dimmesdale is described as “a person of very striking aspect.” He
must also be very passionate to commit such a sin, especially considering the time and his position. But
from there on, Dimmesdales health and appearance start to decline. Dimmesdale can not come to terms
with the consequences of a confession and as a result he keeps his silence.
In the first scaffold scene, for example, when Dimmesdale is told to convince Hester to reveal her
lover, he is noticeably shaken. The situation “drove the blood from his cheek, and made his lips
It is on the first time at the scaffold that Dimmesdale is first seen with his hand over his heart, as
it is throughout the novel. Dimmesdale is constantly shown with his hand over his heart as if he, too, had a
Three years later, when Hester goes to the Governors house, the ministers health has “severely
Towards the end of the novel, Hester and Dimmesdale meet again in the woods after a separation
of seven years.The pastor is described as “leaning on a staff…he looked haggard and feeble.”(p.179)
When Dimmesdale meets Hester in the woods, “there was a listlessness in his gait, as if he saw no reason
for taking one step further.”(p.180)
Arthur Dimmesdales mental health also suffered as a result of his secrecy. For example, there is
Dimmesdales nightmare of the diabolic shapes that mock him, his mother turning her face away at him,
and of Hester with Pearl, walking. And Hester “pointing her forefinger, first at the scarlet letter on her
bosom, and then at the clergymans own breast.”(p.142)
As mentioned before, Dimmesdale is always seen with his hand over his heart. A question
plagues Pearls mind…why? It also plagues Chillingsworth because in chapter ten, he “laid his hand upon
his (Dimmesdales) bosom, and thrust aside the vestment.” After a brief pause, Chillingsworth turns away
with “a wild look of wonder, joy, and horror.”(p.135)
So certainly, there is something over his heart. Even little Pearl knows: she tells Hester that that
the reason that she wears the letter is “the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart.”
Finally, at the third scaffold scene Dimmesdale rips open his ministerial band from his breast and
reveals to all the scarlet letter on his chest. Speculation on how the scarlet letter got to his chest ran rampid.
Everything from a self-inflicted torture to remorse gnawing away at him from the inside to Chillingworths
revenge. At any rate, the scarlet letter on Dimmesdales chest shows that guilt is destructive.
Another way to show the theme that guilt is worse than external punishment by others and that
deception is destructive is to see the positive changes Dimmesdale goes through when he does
acknowledge Hester and Pearl.When Dimmesdale recognizes his loved ones, he is allowed to feel an
emotion other than guilt. One such time when Dimmesdale defends Hester at the governors house. Here
he speaks with an unaccustomed emotion so evident, that later Chillingsworth mentions it. “You speak
with a strange earnestness,” he said.(p.114)
There is also the second scaffold scene. The three meet late one night and Dimmesdale invites
Hester and Pearl to stand up on the scaffold with him. Here he recognizes them: “Come up hither, Hester,
thou and little Pearl,” said Dimmesdale on page 148. “Ye have both been here once before, But I was not
with you. Come up hither once again, and we will stand all three together!” The trio stood up there
together, Pearl in the middle. When Dimmesdale took Pearls hand, “…there came what seemed a
tumultuous rush of life, other life than his own, pouring like a torrent into his heart and hurrying through all
his veins, as if the mother and the child were communicating their vital warmth to his half-torpid system.
The three formed an electric chain.”(p.148) Although Dimmesdale did not openly acknowledge Hester
and Pearl, he got a taste of how good it felt to go open with his secret.
When Dimmesdale finally went open with his sin was in the last scaffold scene, where he tells the
community what he did in the daytime. The good that telling the truth did for Dimmesdale shows how the
secrecy was really hurting him. Here he is seen with a strange strength to confront his advisories (as was
seen in the governors house). Dimmesdale finally can face his actions and the consequences that the truth
has. He throws off all assistance with a “fierceness, so determined was he to speak out the whole.”(p.237)
All these changes illustrate how guilt and deception are destructive.
Roger Chilligsworth exemplifies the theme that revenge and hatred can destroy a person. When
he is first mentioned in the book, he is but a mere observer of Hesters punishment. But it is soon evident
that he is Hesters husband. From very early on the reader can soon see that Chillingsworth is a very evil
person whose goal in life is to destroy Hesters lover. From the time that “his face darkened with some
powerful emotion”(p.67) when first seeing Hester on the scaffold, Chillingsworths face has evil reflected
The hatred on Chillingworths face is seen by many. They affirmed that his aspect had undergone
a remarkable change — especially since he abode with Dimmesdale. “…the former aspect of an intellectual
and studious man, calm and quiet…had altogether vanished and had been succeeded by an eager, searching,
almost fierce, yet carefully guarded look.”(p.163)
Chillingsworth did all in his power to torture the minister. “He now dug into the poor clergymans
heart like a miner searching for gold.”(p.127)
Pearl, who throughout the novel shows a strange insight into people, calls Chillingsworth the
It can therefore be said that revenge and hatred can destroy a person.
In The Scarlet Letter, Pearl is more of a symbol than an example of a theme through character
development. She is the embodiment of Hesters and Dimmesdales sin. Pearl is the living symbol of
adultery. She is the living embodiment of the scarlet A symbol of passion. Hester recognized this and as a
result dressed Pearl in the same way her scarlet letter is adorned. She dresses Pearl in crimson velvet
abundantly embroidered with flourishes of gold thread.
Pearl is also the symbol of the illicit union between Hester and Dimmesdale. In the second
scaffold scene she is the link between the two.
But although Pearl is foremost a symbol, she does develop greatly in this book. Pearl is also
reinforces other themes in the novel. For example, in the end of the story Pearl is seen changed while
enforcing the theme that the truth can set you free. In the third scaffold scene, she finally kisses
Dimmesdale, who has finally come clean with the truth. Pearl has now broken the spell. The truth causes
Dimmesdales joy and now Pearl would “grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with
the world, but be a woman in it.”(p.238)
The plot in The Scarlet Letter is mostly developed in the three scaffold scenes. Here is where the
major characters are in conflict with themselves or with each other. In the first scaffold scene there is
conflict between Hester and the community. The town is punishing Hester and she rebels against it by
refusing to show any emotion other than indifference and pride. There is conflict with Chillingsworth and
the adulterer because it is here that Chillingsworth vows that “he will be known.”
In the second scaffold scene, Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale hold hands. But Pearl asks
Dimmesdale if he will acknowledge them the next day at noon. When Dimmesdale says no, she tries to let
go of her fathers hand. The reason is that Pearl always feels conflict with Dimmesdale whenever he does
not acknowledge her or her mother in the publics presence.
There is also conflict here between Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale in the second scaffold scene.
Chillingsworth catches the family upon the scaffold and “was not careful then, as at all other times, to hide
the malevolence with which he looked upon his victim.”(p.151)
In the third scaffold scene, Dimmesdale admits his guilt, which causes a conflict between him and
the community, which does not believe that their minister is capable of such a sin.
There is also a major climate of climatic proportions between Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale.
When the minister is about to confess, Chillingsworth comes forth to try to stop him. He does so because if
Dimmesdale confesses, he will be unable to continue his punishment and revenge towards him.
In the third scaffold scene, Pearls conflict with Dimmesdale ends because he finally confesses to
being her father. She kisses him and at last becomes human, not the little imp she has been throughout the
The major sources of conflict and character development in the three scaffold scenes show how
the plot is mostly developed there.
Nathaniel Hawthrone creates an interesting tangle of themes played out through character
development to unfold the plot of The Scarlet Letter. He marks the plot through the three scaffold scenes
that show the four main characters in conflict with each other and themselves. The many interpretations of
the novel and the rich symbolism in The Scarlet Letter have made it a classic and will continue to fascinate
both the serious literary student and the casual reader alike.