The Scarlet Letter Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 61-page guide for “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 24 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Sin, Punishment, and Forgiveness and The Self in Society and in Private.
The Scarlet Letter is an 1850 novel by writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. The work, Hawthorne’s first full-length novel, is a classic of the American Romantic era. More specifically, its treatment of topics like sin, insanity, and the occult make it a work of Dark Romanticism—a movement related to the Gothic genre that includes works by Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. The Scarlet Letter is also a piece of historical fiction; it is set in the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and refers to real historical figures like Governor Richard Bellingham and Reverend John Wilson. This study guide references the 2003 Penguin Classics edition of the work.
In the Introduction, Hawthorne describes how he came to write The Scarlet Letter. While working at the Salem Custom House—a job he found unbearably dull—he claims to have found some old papers about a woman named Hester Prynne, along with an embroidered letter A. This captured Hawthorne’s imagination and, after losing his job at the Custom House, he set out to write a novel based on his discovery.
The narrative proper opens outside a prison in mid-17th-century Salem, Massachusetts. A young woman named Hester emerges from the town jail carrying her infant daughter, then passes through the assembled crowd to a scaffold. She wears a red letter A that marks her as an adulteress, which she will be required to wear for the rest of her life.
While atop the scaffold, Hester is alarmed to notice her husband in the crowd. The man, who now calls himself Roger Chillingworth, spent the last year as the prisoner of a Native American tribe and is familiar with both Western and indigenous medicine. Under the guise of tending to Hester and the baby, he visits her in her prison cell the same evening, assuring her of his forgiveness but asking that she keep his identity a secret. Hester agrees.
For the next couple of years Hester makes her living as a seamstress while raising her daughter Pearl. Pearl is a flighty, intelligent, and mischievous child, and Hester at one point must beg Governor Bellingham not to place her in another family’s care. Hester successfully retains custody of Pearl and over time begins to win a more favorable reputation for herself because of her various charitable works.
Meanwhile, Chillingworth has befriended and moved in with a young but sickly minister named Arthur Dimmesdale. He does so ostensibly to treat Dimmesdale’s illness, but as time goes by Chillingworth becomes increasingly convinced that Dimmesdale’s suffering stems from an undisclosed dark secret. One day while Dimmesdale is sleeping, Chillingworth glimpses something—later revealed to be a branded letter A—on the minister’s chest. Now certain that Dimmesdale was Hester’s lover, Chillingworth uses his knowledge to covertly torment the minister.
Wracked with guilt, Dimmesdale goes one night to the scaffold where Hester was punished. There he is joined by Hester and Pearl (now seven), who are returning home after keeping vigil in a sick house. As the three watch, a meteor lights the sky in a way reminiscent of a letter A. At almost the same moment they notice Chillingworth watching Dimmesdale with a vindictive expression. Noting Dimmesdale’s obvious terror, Hester later approaches Chillingworth on his behalf. She is unable to persuade Chillingworth to give up his vengeful schemes but warns him that she will tell Dimmesdale the truth about who he is.
Hester accordingly plans to meet Dimmesdale in the forest. Sending Pearl off to play, Hester tries to comfort and reassure Dimmesdale, eventually urging him to start a new life somewhere else. She promises to accompany him and tries to introduce him properly to Pearl, who rebuffs him.
Hester and Dimmesdale plan to sail for Bristol the day after Dimmesdale gives a sermon in honor of Election Day. While attending the festivities, however, Hester learns from the ship’s captain that Chillingworth has also booked passage. Before she can decide what to do, Dimmesdale emerges from the church. Seeing Hester, he asks her to help him up the scaffold, where he publicly proclaims his guilt and reveals the letter on his chest. He then dies in Hester and Pearl’s arms as Chillingworth watches furiously.
In an epilogue the narrator explains that Chillingworth himself died shortly after Dimmesdale, leaving his wealth to Pearl. She and Hester then traveled to Europe, where it’s assumed Pearl eventually married. Hester later returned to Salem, where she continued to wear the scarlet letter, and provided comfort and advice to those in need. She died as an old woman and was buried near Dimmesdale; they shared a headstone inscribed with the letter A.