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Literature / The Scarlet Letter

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The Scarlet Letter is an 1850 romance written by 19th-century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Its adaptations include a 1926 silent movie and a 1995 film.

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 sentence her to wear a scarlet letter A (for adulteress) on her breast, while standing on a scaffold in the town square for three hours. After the time is up, Hester continues to wear the scarlet letter and chooses to live a kind of hermetic existence on the fringe of the community, long after the rest of the townspeople have come to admire her and are prepared to welcome her back into the community.

Tormented by her own guilt far more than by any public shame, 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 provides 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 was mostly his own fault. Her lover is a completely different matter.)
  • Affair? Blame the Bastard: Defied. While Chillingworth wants revenge for the affair, he makes it clear that he won't be going after Pearl, since it wasn't her fault for being the result of it. When he dies in the last chapter he leaves all his properties to his stepchild, making her an heiress.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: 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 something like "able" — although Hester herself never forgets what it really means.
  • Anti-Villain: Chillingworth. While he wants revenge, he also has used his knowledge of medicine for the benefit of the people, forgives Hester, heals her and her child in the prison and then saves Dimmesdale's life. However, he attacks Dimmesdale to torture him in revenge.
  • The Atoner: Hester successfully atones (settling on the outskirts of the village, patiently wearing her letter, and nevertheless managing to earn a living and forgive herself for her sin). Her onetime lover Rev. Dimmesdale tries to atone privately, with tragic results.
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: "Ignominy," "ignominious". To be fair, this was written in the 19th century.
  • Babies Ever After: When Pearl grows up, she has a child of her own.
  • Beard of Evil: Roger Chillingworth's long beard is emphasized, and he is seeking revenge.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Played with. Hester is at her most beautiful when she's at her best spiritually. The ugliest of the gossipy women is the most merciless (and it’s likely that her being so merciless is the result of jealousy that Hester was so beautiful.)
  • Bittersweet Ending: Dimmesdale comes to terms with his sin too late before death. For all the difficulties Hester faced, she still managed to have a positive effect on her community and offer comfort and advice to its outcasts. Despite considering herself far-from-saintly upon death, she discovered satisfaction in life.
  • Burn the Witch!: Mistress Hibbins dies executed as a witch.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Dimmensdale's decaying health is due to his failure to confess his sin and tarnishing his saintly reputation forever.
  • Captain Obvious: "The moment when a man's head drops off is seldom, or never, I am inclined to think, precisely the most agreeable of his life."
  • 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, meaning that he is Pearl's father.
  • Creepy Child: Pearl, most definitely. She acts in a very weird way.
  • Cruel Mercy: Everyone, including the narrator and Chillingworth himself, assumes that Chillingworth is just keeping Dimmesdale alive so he will suffer.
  • Cue the Sun: When Hester and Dimmesdale are talking in the forest and the former throws aside the scarlet letter, the sun lights up the forest.
  • 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.
  • Evil Makes You Ugly: Dimmesdale becomes less and less healthy, and thus less beautiful, as he descends into madness due to not confessing his sin. Chillingworth is ugly at the start, and becomes hideous by the end.
  • 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 her adultery is mostly his own fault and he may well be right. 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.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Pearl. At one point a bunch of animals all act affectionately to her. At the point when a wolf walks up to her and nuzzles her, the narrator interrupts to say that this part is probably an exaggeration.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Zigzagged between these opposites. Hester is made a pariah for her sin of adultery, but she's not executed because with her husband missing for years, she was virtually a widow and the judges understand that a young and lonely woman can be easily tempted. On the other side, her husband doesn't hold it against her for the aforementioned reason, and because they were a mismatched couple.
  • Gossipy Hens: The group of women who talk while Hester is in jail.
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: Arguably a huge theme of the book. Despite its reputation for not portraying Puritans in a good light, Hawthorne goes out of its ways to depict the Puritans, even the obstructive bureaucrats, to be complicated misguided people and fully capable of changing their mind about Hester Pyrnne and rethinking their social beliefs (enough that it's implied they allowed Hester to be buried with Dimmesdale). Even Roger Chillingworth, although depicted as the most evil character, is not without sympathetic edges (also see Redemption Equals Death entry).
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Hawthorne uses the word "intercourse" and "ejaculate" like this several times.
  • The Hero Dies: Hester dies at the end.
  • 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.
  • Historical Domain Character: Mr. Bellingham, Mrs. Hibbins and Governor Winthrop were real. It is unknown whether the real Mistress Hibbins was Bellingham's sister.
  • Ignored Epiphany: At one point, Chillingworth has a moment of realization as to how low he's sunk in his quest for vengeance. He keeps going.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Hester's family in England is this.
  • Last-Second Chance: Post-Ignored Epiphany, Hester to Chillingworth.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Hester taking off her bonnet in the forest scene.
  • 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).
  • Mal Mariée: Hester is young and beautiful, while her husband was several years older and deformed. Her husband says that marrying her was foolish, and the current situation was a foregone conclusion.
  • 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. Considering that this is not his real name (he is the husband of Hester Prynne, after all) and given some of his narration, it seems that he understood it himself and chose a name accordingly.
  • Metaphorgotten: Lampshaded by the narrator in the opening, when he goes on about him being removed from office in the custom-house being like having his head cut off. Eventually, he just says "So much for my figurative self".
  • Methuselah Syndrome: The Inspector of the Customs-house is 80 years old, but completely healthy and only dies later in a horse accident.
  • 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?
  • New England Puritan: This trope naturally shows up, as the novel explores Puritan society and its harsh treatment of those who they believe don't live up to their ideals.
  • No Name Given: Our narrator who finds the manuscript has no name, but he's basically an Author Avatar of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who heavily based "The Custom House" on his time working in such an establishment.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: This is the point of the scarlet "A" Hester has to wear and the "A" seared onto Dimmesdale's chest.
  • Parents as People: Plenty of scholars pointed out that Hester was capable of boarding a ship away from the Puritan society and maybe find Pearl a much loving environment, though her strange spiritual obligation to stay near her Puritan village (and lover) is a bit self-serving. Though she does her best taking care of Pearl and creating a loving environment within her home, even if society shuns them.
  • The Penance: Dimmesdale punishes himself with whippings, fasts and vigils.
  • Prolonged Prologue: "The Custom House". Taking up about a quarter of the book, this account details the narrator's finding of the manuscript and a long-winded description of his job and coworkers, as well as his thoughts on transcendentalism and the nature of sin. Most readers today just skip it to get to the main plot.
  • Public Execution: Mistress Hibbins' eventual execution.
  • Revenge: Chillingworth lives for revenge on Dimmesdale.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Dimmesdale finally reveals to the townspeople that he was Hester's lover by exposing the red "A" on his own chest. His heart immediately gives out and he dies. 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's eyes eventually become red.
  • 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 that the magistrate urged her to remove the scarlet "A," which she had been under no obligation to keep wearing anyway. Even so, Hester feels that society shouldn't claim her back and that she must find her own way of dealing with her sin.
  • Self-Punishment Over Failure: One of the pastors whips himself with a Cat of Nine Tails to punish himself for sinning.
  • Slut-Shaming: Hester is punished and discriminated toward by the people because of her adultery.
  • 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"
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Hester is beautiful, while both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth aren´t.
  • Unreliable Narrator: According to the preface, the narrator is basing his novel 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.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Chillingworth has a rather subdued one when Dimmesdale dies. He's spent years trying to subtly torment the man who impregnated his estranged wife, and finally gets to see Dimmesdale confess his infidelity in front of the entire community. The problem is that Dimmesdale dies almost immediately after, leaving Chillingworth with the realization that such a master plan is rather pointless when the target denies you the luxury of savoring the payoff.
    Chillingworth: (Standing over Dimmesdale) Thou hast escaped me…thou hast escaped me!
  • "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!"