The Scarlet Letter

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Summary of The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter is a classic romantic novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, originally published in 1850. The book is historical in nature, and is set during the colonial period in Boston, MA, at the height of Puritan ideals during the years 1642-1649.

Nathaniel Hawthorne begins the book with the now infamous opening lines:

scarlet letter settingA throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.

These sentences not only set the scene for colonial Boston, but provide an interesting juxtaposition of the cemetery and prison, imlying that, even in a Puritan, heavily Christian and moral society like Boston, the outliers will inevitably succumb to crime, and that crime should be punished, perhaps by death.

audio book scarlet letter quoteThis sets the stage for the novel, as we then turn to focus on the story of Hester Prynne, a woman who committed adultery and thus forced to wear a scarlet “A” to announce her crime to the rest of the population, as she is forced to stand on a scaffold in the center of town.

While being publicly shamed, she sees a man in the crowd she believes is her husband, a mariner previously thought to have been lost at sea.

Hester, who also has an infant child as a result of her crime, refuses to disclose the identity of her lover, and her husband assumes a new name, Roger Chillingworth, in order to attempt to hunt the man down and punish him as well.

The town authorities attempt to take Pearl, Hester’s daughter, away from her, but thanks to the help of Arthur Dimmesdale, a minister, they are able to stay together. The minister, however, is not well, and seems to be torturing himself for an unnamed sin.

This leads Chillingworth to believe that there is a connection between Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale. Chillingworth becomes ever more suspicious, and the connection between Hester and Dimmesdale is gradually revealed.

Hester and Dimmesdale arrange to leave the colony, but Chillingsworth gets word of the lovers’ departure and arranges to travel on the same ship. Hester learns of this, and goes back to the town scaffold, where Dimmesdale soon joins her and confesses his sin, opening his shirt and revealing a large A seared into his chest, just before he falls dead from his anguish.

Chillingworth dies soon after, and Hester and Pearl leave Boston. Years later Hester returns, and when she dies is buried next to her former lover, Dimmesdale, with a single “A” inscribed on their tombstone.

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