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Literature: The Scarlet Letter

No, not the little red "x" that means a picture link is broken.

The Scarlet Letter is an 1850 romance written by 19th-century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was adapted into a very good silent movie in 1926 with Lillian Gish, and a very bad 1995 film with Demi Moore cast as Hester.

It's 17th-century Puritan Massachusetts. Life is difficult to eke out in a strange and hostile New World. Among a community that adheres to a strict faith, Hester Prynne, a young Englishwoman sent to the colonies ahead of her much older husband (whose whereabouts are unknown), has had a child out of wedlock. Released from prison two months after the shameful birth, she refuses to disclose the name of the child's father. As punishment, the Puritans force her to wear a scarlet letter on her breast: A, for adulteress.

Humiliated and ostracized, Hester raises Pearl, the child of her love affair. Throughout the book, we receive hints that Pearl may not be entirely human. Her demonic leanings do not go unnoticed by Hester, nor by the community at large.

On the day on which Hester receives her scarlet letter, another surprise appears: Roger Chillingworth, Hester's long-lost husband. Chillingworth arrives in the settlement and takes up residence with Arthur Dimmesdale, the local minister, and begins to prey on him.

So begins a series of dark transformations in a tale of guilt, remorse, and human weakness.

The book is widely considered an early classic of American literature.


This book contains examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Chillingworth was separated from Hester for a very long time, and she figured he was dead, falling into the arms (and bed) of Rev. Dimmesdale. It turns out she was wrong; her husband is very much alive...and jealous and vengeful. (He generously forgives her, even stating that it mostly his own fault though -her lover is a completely different matter.)
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Played straight, then averted. Although Hester is never again welcomed by the community after her disgrace, she works hard and thanklessly to provide for and help anyone in need in the community, to the point where people start to say that her "A" stands for "able" or "admirable" — although Hester herself never forgets what it really means.
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: "Ignominy," "ignominious"
  • Babies Ever After: When Pearl grows up, she has a child of her own.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Played with. Hester is at her most beautiful when she's at her best spiritually. Dimmesdale becomes less and less healthy, and thus less beautiful, as he descends into madness. Chillingworth is ugly at the start, and becomes hideous by the end.
  • Cassandra Truth: At one point, Pearl suggests that Hester wears the scarlet letter for the same reason Dimmesdale keeps his hand over his heart. Hester thinks this is absurd, but later it is revealed that Dimmesdale has tortured himself by searing a letter "A" over his heart, implying that he is Pearl's father.
  • Cruel Mercy: Everyone, including the narrator and Chillingworth himself, assumes that Chillingworth is just keeping Dimmesdale alive so he will suffer.
  • Daydream Surprise: In "The Minister's Vigil", the author makes it seem like Dimmesdale had spoken to Wilson, but then he reveals it was only in his imagination.
  • Death by Despair: With Dimmesdale, the man he has been tormenting for seven years, dead but redeemed by confessing to his sin publicly, thus foiling his plans once and for all, Chillingworth loses the only thing that keeps him going — the need for revenge — and soon dies before the year ended.
  • Defiled Forever: Hester never stops blaming herself for what she did, even if she does earn the respect of the town back; Dimmesdale tortures himself physically and mentally over the guilt; even their daughter, Pearl, is described in terms of a demon or monster because she was born of sin.
  • Double Standard: Examined — Hester takes the rap for committing adultery as Dimmesdale stands free, but not from his conscience. After all, signs of adultery were... more visible in a woman.
  • Evil Makeover: Chillingworth makes an apparent transformation after Hester's cheating on him.
  • Foreshadowing: Dimmesdale's speech to Hester in the first chapter.
    • And this in the fourth chapter:
    Hester: "Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?"
    Chillingworth: (smiles) "Not thy soul... No, not thine!"
  • Forgiveness: Chillingworth forgives Hester even saying that it is mostly his own fault. Her accomplice, however, is a completely different matter...
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Loose, but it works — Hester is Phlegmatic, Dimmesdale is Melancholic, Chillingworth is Choleric, and Pearl is Sanguine.
  • Gossipy Hens: The group of women who talk while Hester is in jail.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Hawthorne uses the word "intercourse" and "ejaculate" like this several times.
  • Heroic Bastard: Pearl
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: In order to treat Dimmesdale effectively, Chillingworth must share a house with him and become "intimate" friends with him. The latter also uses it to blackmail Dimmesdale into admitting to his sin.
  • Ignored Epiphany: At one point, Chillingworth has a moment of realization as how low he's sunk in his quest for vengeance. He keeps going.
  • Last-Second Chance: Post-Ignored Epiphany, Hester to Chillingworth.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Hester taking off her bonnet in the forest scene.
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: See above.
  • Living with the Villain: Chillingworth with Dimmesdale.
  • Louis Cypher: The Black Man (as in a supernatural man who is completely black and not a man who is native to Africa or Australia).
  • Mark of Shame: The eponymous scarlet letter.
  • May-December Romance: Hester and Chillingworth had a marriage of this at the very least.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: There's a recent theory that Dimmesdale was being poisoned by Chillingworth with two poisonous plants mentioned in the novel — henbane and deadly nightshade. Both contain scopolamine and atropine, poisons used by Native Americans which can cause cardiac irregularities, hallucinations, lack of coordination and voice changes; the former causes a deep, distinctive sleep and suggestibility, while the latter causes pupil dilation and chest rashes. Coincidence? Maybe, but Hawthorne published a short story six months before this that uses atropine, and his wife was treated with scopolamine and had that sleep. Since he also had a pretty strong interest in botany, he knew what plants would've produced the poisons. Also, some people in the novel attributed the letter on Dimmesdale's chest to divine retribution; some believed that he did it to himself out of guilt, and some believed Chillingworth did it to him by means of dark magic and/or poisons. Hawthorne explicitly states that no one can know and leaves it to the reader to decide.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Pearl is named after a scripture passage which tells of a man who sells everything that he has to buy one pearl of superb value.
    • Dimmesdale's life is dimmed by his guilt.
    • Chillingworth has a very chilling personality.
  • Mind Rape: Chillingworth's modus operandi. After figuring out who impregnated his estranged wife, he adopts a fake identity, convinces the guy to move in with him and spends the next seven years messing with him psychologically (and maybe medically) to torture him with guilt, while also going to great efforts to keep him healthy enough to keep him from prematurely dying.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Chillingworth. He poisons the man he's supposed to be treating as revenge for being cuckolded, which is definitely in violation of the Hippocratic Oath.
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Roger Chillingworth. Creepy much?
  • Never Live It Down: In-Universe, this is the point of the scarlet "A" Hester has to wear and the "A" seared onto Dimmesdale's chest.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: a particularly blatant example. The antagonist Chillingworth does objectively good things: He gains great medical knowledge from the indians at considerable personal risk and uses it for the benefit of the community. When Chillingworth comes home to see his wife (and indirectly himself) publicly shamed, he comforts Hester, medicates her and her daughter and mostly blames himself for his wife's infidelity. He helps Dimmesdale medically and emotionally by correctly insisting that Dimmesdale will never fully recover until he relieves himself of whatever is weighing his heart. Despite these good acts, the Puritans of Boston seem ungrateful for having a man who has put so much effort into becoming a great doctor for them and seem to interpret everything he does in the worst possible light. Everyone, including the narrator and Chillingworth himself assumes that he is doing everything for the very worst of reasons. Just to hammer in his badness the narrator makes Chillingworth ugly and uglier as the story goes on. Protagonist Dimmesdale on the other hand does objectively bad things by ruining Hester's life and making Pearl grow up a poor paria. He is extremely hypocritcal in participating in the public shaming of Hester, even pretending to try to make her give away the name of her lover. He neither has the courage to confess and face the consequences, nor to take his secret to the grave. Choosing the most cowardly possible solution he waits until he only has seconds left to live to confess. Yet he obviously has the sympathy of the narrator, Hester and all of Boston.
  • Revenge: Chillingworth lives for revenge on Dimmesdale.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Dimmesdale neither has the courage to admit his crime nor the courage to take it with him to the grave. Taking the most cowardly option he reveals the "A" seared onto his chest, admitting to his adultery with Hester, as he finally succumbs to his heart condition so he neither has to endure the condemnation of his neighbours, nor take the secret to the grave. There's a possible case of this with Chillingworth. Although he died because he no longer had Dimmesdale to torment, he leaves Pearl a fortune.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Chillingworth
  • Retraux: 17th-century setting, 17th-century writing style, 19th-century author. A lot of American high school English classes that try to cover every major American literary movement use this book as a substitute for actual 17th-century texts.
  • Reformed, but Rejected: Double subversion. Hester does regain the respect of the community by continuously being charitable and a hard worker in spite of her sin, so much so the magistrate thought of allowing her to remove it. Even so, Hester feels that society shouldn't claim her back and that she must find her own way of dealing with her sin.
  • Sugar and Ice Personality: Hester very rarely shows emotion in day-to-day life, but that doesn't mean she's not full of passion.
  • Talk About the Weather: What Hester and Dimmesdale first do when they meet in the forest.
  • Together in Death: Hester is hinted to have been buried alongside Dimmesdale.
    (Grave inscription) "On a field, sable, the letter A gules"
  • Unreliable Narrator: According to the preface, the narrator is basing his novel is based on a historical record. Obviously he is making most of it up, including almost all of the dialogue, since all the eyewitnesses to these meetings are dead by the end of the novel.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The main narrative ends with Dimmesdale's death. A year after that, Chillingworth, forever denied his revenge, dies a shriveled shell of his old self. Hester and Pearl leave for Europe, but the former later returns to Boston to continue her charitable work, while occasionally receiving letters from Pearl, who has apparently married a European nobleman and has since inherited Chillingworth's property. Eventually Hester is finally being forgiven for her sin, and upon her death was apparently buried alongside Dimmesdale.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Pearl.
    • Although this could be simply because Nathaniel Hawthorne did not know a whole lot about children when he wrote this novel. Her unusual sense of perception is obviously deliberate, but she was also walking and talking long before she should have been. Nathaniel's first child, Una, died young, is reputed to be the inspiration for Pearl. Equally, as mentioned, it's implied that Pearl may not be completely human.
    • "Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!"
  • Your Cheating Heart: Hester was already married when she slept with Dimmesdale. The husband later shows up and finds out, and the plot unfolds from there.

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alternative title(s): The Scarlet Letter
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