'The Scarlet Letter' Overview

Everything you need to know about the classic American novel

Hester Prynne and Pearl at the stocks, an engraved illustration from an 1878 edition
Engraved illustration of Hester Prynne at the stocks. The illustration, by Mary Hallock Foote, comes from the 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter.

Public Domain

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter, is a classic of early American literature. Written at a time when American cultural identity was starting to develop, the author portrays a believable representation of a Puritan colony during the nation’s earliest days.

The book tells the story of Hester Prynne, a woman in 17th century Boston—then known just as the Massachusetts Bay Colony—who is forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her chest as punishment for having a baby out of wedlock. Through the story of Hester, Hawthorne explores the community as a whole and the norms and mores under which it operates.

Fast Facts: The Scarlet Letter

  • Title: The Scarlet Letter
  • Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Publisher: Ticknor, Reed & Fields
  • Year Published: 1850
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Shame and judgment, public vs. private, scientific and religious beliefs
  • Main Characters: Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, Pearl
  • Notable Adaptations: The 2010 teen comedy film “Easy A,” starring Emma Stone was partially inspired by the novel.
  • Fun Fact: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s last name originally didn’t contain the “w,” but he added it to distance himself slightly from his family’s past.

Plot Summary

In mid-17th century Boston, then known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a woman named Hester Prynne is made to stand on a scaffold in the town square and endure abuse for several hours as punishment for birthing a child out of wedlock. The townspeople heckle her and implore her to reveal the child’s father, but she refuses. While this occurs, a stranger arrives in the colony and watches from the back of the crowd. When Hester is brought to her cell, the stranger visits her, and it is revealed that the man is her presumed dead husband from England, Roger Chillingworth.

Once Hester is released from jail, she lives alone with her daughter, Pearl, and dedicates herself to needlepointing. She lives in isolation from the rest of the community, which has scorned her. As Pearl grows up, she develops into a rambunctious young child, so much so that members of the town say that she should be removed from her mother’s care. Upon hearing this, Pearl makes an impassioned plea to the governor, who rules in her favor after the popular town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, speaks to support her.

While Hester is living alone with Pearl, Dimmesdale, whose health has begun to deteriorate, has found a new roommate: Chillingworth—who, as a physician, was assigned to take care of the beloved minister. This poses a problem for Dimmesdale, who is desperate to hide his shame from the rest of the community. At one point, though, the doctor sees a dark mark on the priest’s chest.

Later, Dimmesdale is out walking one night, and winds up at the scaffold, where he reflects that he cannot bring himself to admit his guilt. He runs into Hester and Pearl. They talk and Hester reveals that she will tell Chillingworth the identity of Pearl’s father. This sends Dimmesdale into an even deeper depression, and he ultimately reveals himself to be Pearl’s father in front of the town upon the scaffold, shortly after giving one of his most rousing sermons. He then dies in Hester’s arms. Hester moves back to England (though she ultimately returns) with Pearl, who receives a large inheritance from Chillingworth upon his death.

Major Characters

Hester Prynne. Hester is the protagonist and wearer of the eponymous totem. She is a very independently minded woman, as evidenced by her committing adultery and her behavior after the fact. She is also a morally upright person in general—as opposed to the rest of the townspeople who believe themselves to be but aren’t. She eventually works her way back, somewhat, into the town’s good graces through her deeds, and ultimately rejects both of her suitors in favor of blazing her own trail.

Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is the town’s beloved minister, a public role he uses to shield his private involvement in an affair with Hester. Throughout the book he feels deep guilt and inner conflict over his behavior and public deceit—which ultimately kills him.

Roger Chillingworth. Chillingworth is Hester’s older husband from England, but he did not come over with her, and is presumed dead by Hester, making his arrival quite surprising. He is a physician by trade, and is therefore assigned by the town to take care of Dimmesdale when his health begins to worsen.

Pearl. Pearl is Hester’s (and Dimmesdale’s) daughter, and, as such, is the living embodiment of Hester’s “guilt”—and of her love and goodness, too. Pearl is often referred to as devilish, and at one point the townspeople try to have her taken away from Hester as further punishment. She never learns her father’s identity, or the meaning of the “A.” 

Major Themes

Shame and Judgment. From the very beginning, the colony judges Hester and makes her feel ashamed for her actions, even though she was just following her heart and didn’t really hurt anybody. Dimmesdale, too, feels shame for his role in the affair, but he isn’t judged for it, since it remains a secret to all but him and Hester.

Public vs. Private. Hester’s role in the affair is very public, and she is, therefore, punished very cruelly for it. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, escapes punishment because his role is unknown. As a result, she must bear her burden outwardly, which is painful no doubt, but she can exorcise it, whereas Dimmesdale must keep it to himself, which ultimately kills him.

Scientific and Religious Beliefs. Through the relationship between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, Hawthorne explores the differing roles in Puritan society of science and religion. The story is set at a time just before the Scientific Revolution, so it is still a deeply religious community. This can be seen through Dimmesdale, who is quite popular and an established authority figure, as opposed to Chillingworth, who is an outsider and new to the colony. 

Literary Style

The novel is framed by an opening story, “The Custom-House,” in which the narrator, who bears many biographical similarities to Nathaniel Hawthorne, tells of his time working at the customs house in Salem. There he discovers a scarlet “A” and a manuscript that tells of the happenings in the colony a century earlier; this manuscript then forms the basis of the novel, which is written by the narrator of “The Custom-House.” The book creates a convincing representation of life in one of America’s earliest communities, and makes use of the lexicon of that time.

About the Author

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, to an old Puritan family; one of his ancestors was the only judge involved in the Salem Witch Trials who never repented his actions. Hawthorne’s work, which focused mostly on life in New England, was part of the Romanticism movement, and usually contained dark themes and love affairs, and deeply moral and complex psychological portraits. He is considered a pioneer of American literature and one of the nation’s greatest novelists.

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Cohan, Quentin. "'The Scarlet Letter' Overview." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-scarlet-letter-overview-4588783. Cohan, Quentin. (2020, August 28). 'The Scarlet Letter' Overview. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-scarlet-letter-overview-4588783 Cohan, Quentin. "'The Scarlet Letter' Overview." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-scarlet-letter-overview-4588783 (accessed May 28, 2023).