'The Scarlet Letter' Characters

Description and Analysis

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel about Puritan Boston, then known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, tells the story of Hester Prynne, a woman who has given birth to a child out of wedlock—a grave sin in the deeply religious community.

The balance of the narrative takes place in the seven years following the public outcry over her crime and focuses mainly on her relationship with the revered town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, and the newly-arrived physician, Roger Chillingworth. Over the course of the novel, these characters’ relationships with each other and with the townspeople undergo major changes, resulting in the revelation of all they had at one point wished to keep hidden.

Hester Prynne

Prynne is the novel’s protagonist who, as the transgressor in the community, is forced to wear the eponymous totem. As the book begins with Prynne having already committed her crime, there is no way to discern her character before becoming the town pariah, but following this change in relations, she settles into an independent and virtuous life in a cottage on the edge of town. She dedicates herself to needle-pointing, and begins to produce work of remarkable quality. This, and her charitable efforts around the town, earn her back, somewhat, into the good graces of the townspeople, and some of them start thinking of the “A” as standing for “able.” (Interestingly, this is the only time, other than an off-hand joke made to Pearl, her daughter, that the letter is given a concrete meaning).

Despite her good deeds, the townspeople begin to worry about Pearl’s rambunctious behavior, even going so far as to suggest that the girl be taken away from her mother. When Prynne catches wind of this, she appeals directly to the governor, showing how protective she is of her daughter. Additionally, this moment highlights Prynne’s refusal to apologize for her crime (as the town sees it), arguing, straight at Dimmesdale, that it isn’t a crime for a woman to follow her heart.

She later expresses her independence again, when she decides to reveal to Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband from England, and to Chillingworth that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father. When these revelations have played out, Prynne decides that she wants not only to move back to Europe, but to do so with Dimmesdale, ridding herself of Chillingworth. Even when the minister dies, she leaves Boston nonetheless, striking out on her own back in the Old World. Curiously, she later decides to return to the New World, and even start once more wearing the scarlet letter, but there is little to suggest that at that point she is doing so out of shame; rather, she seems to do so out of reverence for humility and earnestness.

Arthur Dimmesdale

Dimmesdale is the young and highly respected Puritan minister in the colony. He is known and adored by all of the deeply religious community, but keeps hidden from them until the very end of the novel that he is Pearl’s father. As a result, he feels racked with guilt, so much so that his health begins to deteriorate. When this happens, it is suggested that he take up residence with Roger Chillingworth, the newly arrived physician. At first the pair—neither of whom knows of the other’s relationship with Prynne—get along well, but the minister starts to withdraw when the physician begins asking him about his obvious mental anguish.

This inner turmoil leads him one night to wander to the scaffold in the town square, where he confronts the fact that he cannot bring himself to publicize his transgressions. This is in direct contrast to Prynne, who was forced to make this fact public in the most humiliating of ways. This is also antithetical to his very powerful public persona, in that he speaks before an audience every week, and is well known to all of them. Additionally, though he does, in fact, wear a mark on his chest of personal shame, mirroring Prynne’s, it is only made public following his death, whereas Prynne’s mark was very public during her life.

At the end he does acknowledge the affair somewhat publicly and as something other than utterly sinful. And he does do right by Prynne when she visits the governor to argue that Pearl shouldn’t be taken away from her and he speaks up on her behalf. For the most part, though, Dimmesdale represents the interior, personal guilt felt by those who transgress laws and norms, as opposed to Prynne, who must bear the public, societal guilt.

Roger Chillingworth

Chillingworth is a new arrival in the colony and is not noticed by the other townspeople when he enters the town square during Prynne’s public shaming. Prynne, however, does notice him, because he is her presumed-dead husband from England. He is much older than Prynne, and sent her off ahead of him to the New World, whereupon she had an affair with Dimmesdale. They first reconnect when Prynne is in jail, after the shaming, because Chillingworth is a physician, a fact that he uses to gain access to her cell. While there, they discuss their marriage, and both acknowledge their own shortcomings.

Chillingworth—as his name implies—is not usually so emotionally warm, though. Upon learning of Prynne’s infidelity, he vows to discover and exact revenge on the man who usurped him. The irony of this is, of course, that he winds up living with Dimmesdale, but has no knowledge of the minister’s relationship with his wife.

Given his educated pedigree, Chillingworth begins to suspect that Dimmesdale has a guilty conscience, but he nonetheless struggles to figure out why. In fact, even when he sees the mark on Dimmesdale’s chest, he does not put it all together. This is an interesting moment, as the narrator compares Chillingworth to the Devil, further highlighting his lack of ability to connect with other people. Despite, his desire for revenge, this goal ultimately eludes him, as Dimmesdale reveals his secret to the entire community and then promptly dies (and in Prynne’s arms no less). He, too, dies shortly thereafter, but does leave a substantial inheritance to Pearl.

Pearl

Pearl is the product of, and as such symbolizes, Prynne and Dimmesdale’s affair. She is born just before the book starts, and grows to seven years old by the book's completion. Due to her mother’s exclusion from the rest of the community, she grows up ostracized as well, with no playmates or companions other than her mother. As a result, she becomes unruly and troublesome—a fact that, despite the mother and daughter’s isolation from the town, draws the attention of many local women who attempt to have her taken away from her mother. Prynne, however, is fiercely protective of her daughter, and prevents this from happening. Despite the pair’s closeness, Pearl never learns the meaning of the scarlet letter or the identity of her father. Additionally, even though Chillingworth leaves her a sizable inheritance, it is never stated that she learns of his and her mother’s marriage.