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Character Analysis in The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne employs a third-person omniscient narrative, which means the narrator is unnamed and ambiguous. Though the narrator is not specified, it is still possible to detect partiality, particularly in the sympathetic way Hester and Dimmesdale are described. Within the novel there are three central characters: Hester Prynne is the protagonist, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is her lover, and Roger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband and the villain of the story.
Character Analysis Examples in The Scarlet Letter:
"for a man who has dreamed of literary fame..." See in text (The Custom-House)
This is the first time the narrator directly states that he dreams of being a writer. It can be inferred up to this point, considering that he spends time with famous authors, but this declaration gives this essay its purpose as the prologue to The Scarlet Letter. It builds some suspense by making the reader wonder how this person’s desire to be a writer will affect the story.
"Hester Prynne..." See in text (The Custom-House)
This is the first mention of Hester Prynne in the entire essay. Finally, as readers we understand why this story preludes the The Scarlet Letter: the A was Prynne’s almost 200 years ago and the story, is her story.
"it would be quite as reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged checkerboard..." See in text (The Custom-House)
Here the narrator explains why he has spent so much time away from Salem. Although this text is meant to be a fictional story/essay, there are many characteristics of the narrator that parallel the actual life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For example, they were both born in Salem and they both spent time working in the Custom-House. This essay can be read as a fictionalized account of Hawthorne’s three-year stint working as a Custom-House Officer.
"Chippewa..." See in text (The Custom-House)
The Chippewa, or Objiwe, is an indigenous tribe in North America. The Objiwe allied with France because of a mutual trading alliance during the Seven Years’ War against the British. Then they adjusted to British colonial rule and allied with them against the United States in the War of 1812. This reference suggests the old age of General Miller, with this story being written in 1850.
"Mr. Surveyor Pue..." See in text (The Custom-House)
This is a reference to Jonathan Pue who was a Surveyor in the Custom-House over a hundred years ago. He would have written about incidents 100 years before that, and 200 years before Hawthorne wrote. This character offers the reader a lengthy historical timeline of events.
"On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A...." See in text (Chapter II)
Hester Prynne was found guilty of adultery, as evidenced by the birth of her daughter, and has been sentenced to wear an embroidered letter "A" at her breast for the rest of her life. Hester doesn't initially know how to handle the shame that's been bestowed upon her; she tries to obscure the letter "A" with her infant, but resolves to wear her shame with pride. The "elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold" symbolize her refusal to hide her sin.
"Hester Prynne the entire track along which she had been treading..." See in text (Chapter II)
Although the idea of the scaffold is to have the punished looked upon with disdain by the townspeople, here Hester is able to examine her past. She has a flashback of the track of her life, and through this we learn a little about the main character’s history.
"Papist..." See in text (Chapter II)
A Papist is a Roman Catholic. Hawthorne uses this to provide the reader with a contradictory representation of Hester. First, Hester is described as a sinner on a scaffold meant to be shamed by her friends and neighbors. However, here Hawthorne mentions her appearance as similar to that of the Virgin Mary. This contradiction symbolizes a disagreement with the rigid laws of Puritan Society.
"the young woman—the mother of this child..." See in text (Chapter II)
When introduced to Hester Prynne, it is important to notice Hester's strength even as she stands in front of all the Puritan townspeople in such malicious judgement. In fact, she can even be considered incorrigible for creating a beautiful and ornamental "A" out of what was supposed to be her punishment. There is no doubt that this is a strong young woman who, forced to admit her sins, is no longer afraid of what others think of her.
"Goodwives..." See in text (Chapter II)
The “goodwives” is a term used to describe a specific group of married women in the town. The term itself holds irony because, as we will notice in the story, they tend to not be good, kind, or understanding. They prefer to gossip as they stand in judgement of Hester while she emerges from the prison. They slander her name and even claim that she should be sentenced to death.
"Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale..." See in text (Chapter III)
A great deal of attention is given to the description of Reverend Dimmesdale when he is introduced to the story, much more so than the other town leaders. This indicates that he will likely be a main character. Also, notice how different he is described from the other, older leaders; he is portrayed as “childlike” and a man who affects people with “the speech of an angel,” whereas another religious leader, John Wilson, has a “genial spirit” that is more of a “matter of shame than self-congratulation.”
"Governor Bellingham..." See in text (Chapter III)
Historically, Governor Bellingham was a wealthy political leader in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In Hawthorne’s fictional story, Governor Bellingham fulfills the role he played in real life as a wealthy political leader, working alongside the church magistrates due to the influence the church has on government.
"It was whispered, by those who peered after her, that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way of the interior..." See in text (Chapter III)
We have noticed Hester’s strength many times in this chapter, and here the chapter ends with a metaphor for her goodness. Lightness and darkness are classic symbols for good and evil in literature, and by ending this chapter with Hester’s Scarlet Letter shining light in the dark, Hawthorne is suggesting that not only is Hester strong, but she is also, perhaps, holy.
"And my child must seek a heavenly Father; she shall never know an earthly one!..." See in text (Chapter III)
This is an ironic stance for Hester to take because it indicates that she has more religious devotion than the townspeople who believe they are doing the will of God by giving her an earthly punishment. Hester knows Puritanical law well enough to know that her only judgement can come from God. This is another instance where Hester’s strength shines in the face of great adversity.
"And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine..." See in text (Chapter III)
Notice how she looks into the “deep and troubled eyes” of Reverend Dimmesdale when she says this, rather than Mr. Wilson, the person speaking to her. We don’t know why so much attention is being drawn to Reverend Dimmesdale, but it is important to note because it likely foreshadows later events in the story.
"It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off..." See in text (Chapter III)
This is another instance where Hester shows a great deal of strength in a difficult time. She acknowledges her sin as her own, and she offers up the matter of her repentance to God rather than the townspeople. She says that the scarlet letter on her chest means nothing, but it is a symbol for a crime that she will never be able to undo.
"with a young man's over-softness, albeit wise beyond his years..." See in text (Chapter III)
This is a description of Reverend Dimmesdale, the young leader of the Puritan Church in Boston. Dimmesdale is the only person standing up for Hester to keep quiet on the matter of who fathered her child. The clergyman claims that it is because of “over-softness,” but perhaps there is more to it than that.
"civilised and savage costume..." See in text (Chapter III)
Although this describes what the “white man” is actually wearing, this description is a symbol that foreshadows his character traits. Notice going forward how this character has two personas: one that is actually him and the act he puts on to appease the townspeople.
"saw that she appeared to recognize him..." See in text (Chapter III)
At this point, we don’t know how they recognize one another. It seems like he could either be her husband or the man she had her child with. If he turned out to be either of these, he would likely be ashamed to be associated with her because of the ongoing judgements of the townspeople. The way he puts his finger to his mouth to keep Hester silent gives the reader the idea that no matter who he is, he has some sort of power over her.
"“Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay...." See in text (Chapter IV)
Chillingworth admits that he was wrong in marrying Hester, who is much younger and of an inferior social class. He brushes off their sins (though perhaps unconvincingly) in favor of seeking revenge against the father of Pearl.
"Roger Chillingworth..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Notice how this man’s name holds suggestive character traits about him. Hawthorne possibly chose the name “Chillingworth” to foreshadow the actions of this haunting character.
"Breathe not, to any human soul, that thou didst ever call me husband!..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Hawthorne draws a direct literal and figurative line between the two characters here. Hester is the talk of the town, and she will be a public figure of shame, whereas Chillingworth will be the devil in plain sight. She is a symbol of repentance and forgiveness, and he is a symbol of the evils of revenge.
"But thy words interpret thee as a terror!..." See in text (Chapter IV)
This is another instance where the theme of everything not being what it seems comes into play. Although everything Chillingworth has done up to this moment seems to show him being merciful to Hester, his words about revenge make her fearful that she cannot trust him at all.
"But, Hester, the man lives who has wronged us both!..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Recall earlier in the chapter when Chillingworth gave Hester’s baby the medicine, and thus gained a bit of our trust as readers. Here is where that action pays off. Now, when Chillingworth says that he only seeks revenge against the man Hester had sex with, we are apt to trust him for his word.
"It soon proved its efficacy, and redeemed the leech's pledge..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Chillingworth is being honest when he offers medicine to the baby, and it actually soothes her from her current ailment. Hawthorne gives Chillingworth opportunity to gain both Hester and the reader’s trust because it is important that Chillingworth isn’t pure evil, so that his actions won’t become predictable.
"Wouldst thou avenge thyself on the innocent babe?..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Remember Chillingworth has studied alchemy, so even though he says he is offering Hester’s child medicine, Hester has great reason to believe that what he is giving her is actually poison. Hester does not know what type of retribution Chillingworth wants yet, and she doesn’t want to put her baby at risk, even though the baby represents a living version of Hester’s scarlet letter.
"It was my folly, and thy weakness..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Here, Chillingworth blames himself for Hester's actions of infidelity and adultery. Instead of putting all of the fault on Hester’s shoulders, he shows Hester compassion by saying that it was his fault she was unfaithful because he was not the person she should have married. Hawthorne does this so that the reader sees two sides to Chillingworth: his good and his evil.
"the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom...." See in text (Chapter V)
Hester's refusal to leave Boston may also relate to the fact that Pearl will always be her "scarlet letter." Though Hester may easily escape Boston (and her harsh punishment), she can't really return to a life of honor; Pearl's existence will always provide evidence of her sins.
"the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom...." See in text (Chapter V)
Hester refuses to leave Boston because she seems to believe that severe punishment will cleanse her soul. She may also wish to stay because she is in love with Arthur Dimmesdale, the (alleged) father of her daughter Pearl. He hasn't confirmed his paternity, so he experiences none of the consequences Hester has endured; however, he seems to remain an object of love for her.
"a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne's..." See in text (Chapter V)
In this way, Hester has become a symbol of martyrdom for the townspeople. She wears the scarlet letter for all of the unknown townspeople's sins. If everyone had to wear a mark for their sin, many more people would walk around with symbols on their chests.
"half of her agony were shared..." See in text (Chapter V)
Although Hester receives all of the public shaming, because she has internalized much of the guilt, she can take solace in the fact that half of the ridicule is not truly hers, but the still unknown man she slept with.
"it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts..." See in text (Chapter V)
Hawthorne uses this evidence to demonstrate Hester’s growth, and it shows how Hester is a symbol for good in this story. Instead of viewing others with jealousy, Hester feels sympathy for all of the guilt that people hold in their hearts.
"she never responded to these attacks..." See in text (Chapter V)
This says a lot about Hester’s character: through all of the judgement she faces she stays calm and true to her own way of finding peace within herself. It seems like her path to redemption is more for her own personal sake, rather than for the acceptance from the townspeople.
"Like all other joys, she rejected it as sin..." See in text (Chapter V)
This is evidence of the metaphorical burn mark the scarlet letter has left on her mind. She has been made to feel so bad about her sin that she feels like she should not feel joy from life. This is a new theme emerging in the novel: the internal pain and regret caused by wrongdoing outweighs any of the repulsion felt from the townspeople.
"sterile for cultivation..." See in text (Chapter V)
Hawthorne uses this as a metaphor for Hester. After bearing the mark of the scarlet letter, in this religious society, men will be unlikely to want to marry her. Hester has chosen to live a quiet life and wear the scarlet letter to save herself in the eyes of God.
"and so would the next..." See in text (Chapter V)
Puritans believed that even though God can forgive anything, people are only permitted to forgive if they have witnessed a change in behavior. For Hester, this will mean living a quiet life and taking all the animosity against her with a degree of patience until she has shown that she lives a life of God.
"It is thou that must tell me!..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Notice how Pearl doesn’t even know her own father, meaning Hester’s secret has not yet been revealed. By keeping her secret, we understand Hester still values forgiveness from God rather than forgiveness from the townspeople.
"to cover her bosom..." See in text (Chapter VI)
This metaphor shows how Hester may sometimes try to hide her past sin. However, it is important to note that Hawthorne goes on later to say that she resists the impulse. This could be for two reasons. First, hiding her sin is a way of displacing the blame from herself, which would make forgiveness from God a harder task. Second, with Pearl in her life, there is no hiding the affair that put the scarlet letter on her breast.
"did little Pearl look into her eyes, and smile..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Hester’s fear of Pearl smiling after catching her eye on the scarlet letter leads her to believe that perhaps there is something very wrong with her daughter. However, this is likely just the result of Hester’s anxiety leading to an overreaction. It would make sense that any baby would be intrigued by a glowing spectacle such as Hester’s scarlet letter.
"She never created a friend..." See in text (Chapter VI)
In this chapter, Pearl’s description reiterates multiple times how misunderstood she is by Hester and the townspeople. They interpret her unconventional ways of being as a result of Hester’s sin; however, it may also be a result of the fact that she represents the freedom of choice in a society that scolds such an idea.
"made her mother more doubtful than before..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Again, Pearl’s humanity is brought into question by Hawthorne because she is a symbol of the natural world that is stuck in a strict, law-abiding society. If Pearl were to live in a society that allowed more freedom of choice, she would not be considered such an anomaly.
"to be swayed by her own impulses..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Hawthorne alludes to the story in the Book of Genesis, where God tells Adam and Eve what they are not allowed to do, but does not prevent them from doing it. In this way, Hester is a symbol of God by allowing Pearl, a symbol of freedom of humanity and freedom of choice, to listen to her natural “impulses.”
"that little creature..." See in text (Chapter VI)
This is an odd description to use for a young girl. The word “creature” dehumanizes her in a way and is used perhaps to distinguish the difference between her and the other children in town. However, she is then called a “lovely and immortal flower.” Pearl is a living dichotomy, a reflection of the natural world in a society that conforms to strict laws and standards.
"Pearl..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Pearl is Hester’s daughter. Her name signifies how unique and precious she is. Pearl is a living representation of Hester’s sin, so her beauty is comparable to the extravagant scarlet letter worn on Hester’s breast. Although Pearl is beautiful, her attitude is questionable in the strict Puritan society, which represents a parallel to the sin that created her.
"Pearl, seeing the rose-bushes, began to cry for a red rose, and would not be pacified..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Since Pearl is a symbol of the natural world, she cannot be contained by any laws or standards. In this instance, Hawthorne suggests the desire for beauty and good are innate, and because Pearl embodies freedom of choice, she will not stop until her thirst for those desires are satisfied.
"she seemed absolutely hidden behind it..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Notice how the scarlet letter has consumed Hester’s reflection in the mirror, a metaphor for how it has consumed her own view of herself. We have noticed how Hester’s greatest goal is personal salvation, rather than forgiveness from the townspeople, but in this process she has created a diluted image of herself that consists mostly of the darkness of the scarlet letter.
"to create an analogy between the object of her affection, and the emblem of her guilt and torture..." See in text (Chapter VII)
By making “an analogy between the object of her affection, and the emblem of her guilt” Hester expresses her degree of ownership of her sin. This shows Hester’s level of emotional maturity and strength of character.
"the token..." See in text (Chapter VII)
By dressing Pearl up like her scarlet letter, Hester makes an unsaid statement to the priests that even if they were to take Pearl away, Hester’s sin would still not be absolved. Hester wants to keep her daughter, so she wants to make it obvious that Pearl is as much a scarlet letter as the one they made her to wear on her breast. To get rid of only one would make no difference to achieve her salvation.
"crimson velvet tunic..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Crimson is a color very similar to scarlet, and both Hester’s scarlet letter and Pearl’s velvet tunic have gold trim. It has been implied before, but here it is made abundantly clear that Pearl is a living representation of Hester’s scarlet letter. The fact that Hester chooses to dress up Pearl to match her scarlet letter signifies Hester’s courage in taking full responsibility for her sin, and not choosing to hide it or cover it up, even years after she committed it.
"signed my name in the Black Man's book too, and that with mine own blood!..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Remember when Hester says, “Pearl keeps me here in life!” In this instance, we notice that Hester only seeks the lord because of her love for Pearl and has seemingly given up on all else. This is where Hester’s sin becomes her salvation: without Pearl she would run to the forest to join Mistress Hibbins in her witchcraft.
"I will not lose the child! Look to it!..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Hester’s demanding appeal to Reverend Dimmesdale seems interesting because of their roles as sinner and priest, respectively. As readers we wonder how she has the authority to demand this action from him, because such a command would normally be out of place for someone to make to a priest in this Puritan society.
"Ye shall not take her! I will die first!..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Again Hester’s strength of character shows in the face of adversity. Here she is in a debate with the most powerful people in the town, yet she does not yield to their desires. For Hester, Pearl is a symbol of her own good and evil and a reminder of God’s love.
"The shadow of the curtain fell on Hester Prynne, and partially concealed her..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Again Hawthorne uses shadows to symbolize the difference between good and bad, light and darkness. Hester is only “partially” concealed by the shadow because she has repented for her sins. The darkness on her most likely represents the secret she still holds: the identity of Pearl’s father.
" to judge from the gloom and terror in the depth of the poor minister's eyes, the battle was a sore one, and the victory any thing but secure..." See in text (Chapter IX)
We know that the minister does not fear death, so we understand that the “terror” in Dimmesdale’s eyes comes from something else. Perhaps the story alludes to his terror; he is afraid that Satan has some sort of control over him; however, we have not been informed of any harmful things he has done, so as readers we are left wondering what Dimmesdale is so terrified of.
"the one Physician of the soul!..." See in text (Chapter X)
Hawthorne capitalizes the “P” in “Physician” because the “Physician of the soul” is God. It is interesting that Dimmesdale would admit that he needs God to cure his sickness because this suggests that he knows something that could be contributing to his failing health that hasn’t been shared with the readers.
"Come away, mother! Come away, or yonder old Black Man will catch you! He hath got hold of the minister already. Come away, mother, or he will catch you! But he cannot catch little Pearl!..." See in text (Chapter X)
The “Black Man” is another term for Satan that was common during this period in New England. Pearl probably interprets the dwindling physical health of Dimmesdale as Satan's influence on him; however, we wonder if there is more to it than simply his health.
"Trust me, such men deceive themselves!..." See in text (Chapter X)
Chillingworth claims that people who try to repent for their sins in private and don’t face the repercussions of public shame are lying to themselves about the state of their relationship with God. Chillingworth uses these religiously and morally grounded examples against Dimmesdale, because he believes Dimmesdale is the sinner he wants to expose. He also knows that Dimmesdale seeks a pure and holy relationship with God, so he uses that knowledge to exploit the Reverend Dimmesdale.
"Why should not the guilty ones sooner avail themselves of this unutterable solace?..." See in text (Chapter X)
Chillingworth’s intelligence has been noted several times up to this point, which encourages readers to think of him as a character of great intellect. Here, Chillingworth appears to combine his intellect and bad intentions to try to guilt the sick Reverend Dimmesdale into admitting a sin that he may, or may not, have committed: sleeping with Hester Prynne.
"like a miner searching for gold; or, rather, like a sexton delving into a grave..." See in text (Chapter X)
These two similes are meant to express the manner in which Chillingworth attempts to discover who Hester had her affair with. The first simile represents Chillingworth as a miner, looking for something valuable without negative consequence of action. However, the second simile, that compares him to a sexton stealing jewels from a grave, has much darker and more negative connotations.
"And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist..." See in text (Chapter XI)
Dimmesdale “shows himself in a false light” by letting himself be revered as a symbol of spiritual authority and good, but he hides the truth of his sins. Dimmesdale's actions reveal how he symbolizes shadow because of the unholy and sinful life he is leading.
"The victim was for ever on the rack; it needed only to know the spring that controlled the engine..." See in text (Chapter XI)
This line embodies Dimmesdale’s perpetual guilt, as well as the unwavering and unknown control that Chillingworth has over him. Chillingworth has identified Dimmesdale as Pearl’s father, but he does not want his revenge to be blatant. Instead, Chillingworth wants to wear down the young pastor and let his own guilt tear him apart.
"I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!..." See in text (Chapter XI)
This line exemplifies the difference in character between Hester and Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale knows that coming clean to the people will help set him free of his guilt, but he is far too afraid at this point in the story to take responsibility for his actions. So while he is being loved and cared for by all the townspeople, Hester continues to wear the mark of shame for all to see.
"when poor Mr. Dimmesdale was thinking of his grave, he questioned with himself whether the grass would ever grow on it, because an accursed thing must there be buried!..." See in text (Chapter XI)
This sentiment recalls the last chapter when Chillingworth tells Dimmesdale about how the weeds in his hands were all that grew from an unmarked tombstone. Dimmesdale knows that he is a weed, and wonders if he will ever be cleansed of his sins.
"a quiet depth of malice, hitherto latent..." See in text (Chapter XI)
We knew of Chillingworth’s ill intentions early on in the story; however, we have just seen, in the previous chapters, the pathways he will use to get his revenge on the man who slept with Hester. Chillingworth will not offer blatant retribution because he does not want his identity as Hester’s husband to be revealed. Rather, he will use patient and slow tactics of destruction to achieve revenge: Chillingworth symbolizes true evil.
"Not so, my child. I shall, indeed, stand with thy mother and thee one other day, but not to-morrow!..." See in text (Chapter XII)
Again Dimmesdale avoids taking responsibility for his actions. Because he has not been proven as a character that can be relied upon, we wonder if he will ever actually go atop the scaffold and receive the public ridicule he let Hester receive. However, even though he has not proven himself as a character to necessarily be trusted, we do notice how his guilt changes him and he is making steps towards, perhaps, revealing his secret.
"Come up hither, I pray you, and pass a pleasant hour with me!..." See in text (Chapter XII)
Dimmesdale is disillusioned by his guilt. As a smart man he should know that the punishment of the scaffold is not simply climbing and standing on top of it; it is instead the judgmental eyes of the townspeople. His fear is once again brought to light when he calls upon Hester and Pearl to join him on the scaffold, ignoring the fact that they have endured the public shame and he wants nothing more than to be able to forgive himself. Again, Hester and Pearl’s characters are symbols of strength as they decide to come up once again and stand with him.
"WALKING IN THE SHADOW of a dream..." See in text (Chapter XII)
Shadows have been a recurring symbol for the effects of evil throughout the story. In this context, “the shadow of a dream” likely refers to a dark dream that finally pushed Dimmesdale out of his isolated self-punishment and forced him up to the scaffold. Although the dream has brought him to the scaffold, he still chooses to go when no one will see him, which shows how his fear still has control over his desire to be free of guilt.
"the letter A,—which we interpret to stand for Angel..." See in text (Chapter XII)
This sentiment embodies how different people interpret things based on their state of mind. Because Dimmesdale lives a life of guilt and shame, he saw nothing but the scarlet letter. Perhaps if he lived true to the way he presents himself, he too would have seen the A for Angel.
"meteors, which the night-watcher may so often observe burning out to waste..." See in text (Chapter XII)
The meteor flashing through the night sky and “burning out to waste” is a metaphor for how sometimes goodness can last for only a short while. This is a metaphor for Dimmesdale who starts out as a holy and respected man, but he has quickly burned out from sickness and guilt in the years since Hester stood upon the scaffold.
"with whom she was well known to make excursions into the forest..." See in text (Chapter XII)
Mistress Hibbins interprets Dimmesdale’s outcries as “the clamour of the fiends and night-hags,” to draw a parallel between Dimmesdale and the hated witches of the forest. Hibbins is familiar with sounds of evil, and the fact that she compares Dimmesdale’s cries to those sounds speaks to how Satan has began to take control of Dimmesdale.
"there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain..." See in text (Chapter XII)
This suggests that Dimmesdale has given himself a scarlet letter directly on his own flesh. While this may seem like a brutal punishment, it does not compare to Hester’s scarlet letter because it is hidden from the judgemental eyes of the townspeople. Dimmesdale’s scarlet letter is a symbol of his cowardice and unwillingness to confess and bear the brunt of public ridicule and shame.
"made a plaything of the sound, and were bandying it to and fro...." See in text (Chapter XII)
Note what happens to Dimmesdale here when he stands on the symbol of Puritan oppression, the scaffold. He is so affected that he actually shrieks aloud. Dimmesdale, even under the greatest pangs of guilt and under his own scourge, has never actually shrieked until now. This can be seen as foreshadowing that Dimmesdale cannot survive under that same oppression that Hester endures. In truth, he is not as strong of a person as Hester.
"they would have discerned no face above the platform, nor hardly the outline of a human shape, in the dark grey of the midnight..." See in text (Chapter XII)
Hawthorne chooses to dehumanize Dimmesdale to suggest the depths of his sin. In this way, Dimmesdale is perhaps one of the worst characters in the story because he had decided to sit by while Hester deals with years of shame. The darkness of night hides his face, perhaps drawing a parallel between him and the “Black Man.”
"At times, a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl at once to Heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
The despair she feels from the constriction of inequality in society has driven her, at times, to contemplate killing both Pearl and herself. She does not consider this out of bad intention; however, instead she believes this would ensure that Pearl goes to heaven. For herself, she believes that whatever would come of her after her death couldn’t be worse than life on earth.
"nothing in Hester's bosom to make it ever again the pillow of Affection..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
This paragraph tells us how Hester’s beauty has faded since the scaffold scene. Hawthorne includes this to show how the laws of man hardened and destroyed Hester’s natural beauty. She once was driven by “Passion” and sought “Affection,” but now she lives according to the laws of her society.
"All the light and graceful foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and had long ago fallen away..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
This represents the cycle of sin that Hester has gone through, but Dimmesdale has not. She made a mistake, took her punishment, and with time has grown and been forgiven. Hester represents how forgiveness is given to those who take the steps to seek it while Dimmesdale represents how guilt can eat away at the dishonest and destroy someone.
"not of that one sin, for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
In the beginning, the townspeople came off as unforgiving, ruthless individuals who wanted a more intense punishment for Hester. Now, they have grown to the point that they have not only pardoned Hester’s sin, but they also look to her as a symbol of good. This contributes to the theme that the innate goodness of humans can outweigh injustices in a corrupt society.
"Abel..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
This alludes to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve. Cain kills Abel out of jealousy, and Abel traditionally represents the righteousness of being a martyr. Hester is compared to Abel as a martyr because of her wearing the scarlet letter for her own and the townspeople’s sins.
"The letter was the symbol of her calling..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
In this way, Hester represents an ideal way for people to deal with their mistakes. Hester is a symbolic sacrifice for all the townspeople who sin and don’t face public consequence. She has grown because of the scarlet letter, becoming a symbol of good in her community.
"Hester's nature showed itself warm and rich; a well-spring of human tenderness..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
Hester symbolizes the natural and inherent goodness of humanity. In the beginning, she accepts the consequences of her sins with integrity. Now, Hawthorne exemplifies her as “a well-spring of human tenderness,” showing how humans can make mistakes, but they can also be good-natured and holy.
"Knowing what this poor, fallen man had once been..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
Hester has grown considerably since the scaffold scene. She has learned about what it means to be strong and compassionate. Here, we see Hester feeling an obligation to come to the aid of Reverend Dimmesdale, even though his refusal to go public with his part of the affair caused Hester more ridicule than she would have otherwise received.
"Another View of Hester..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
This chapter shows the progress Hester has made over the past seven years since she had to stand upon the scaffold. She earned back the respect of the townspeople through her good deeds and holy way of life, but she has had to sacrifice her youth and beauty to do so. Hawthorne uses this chapter to comment on the unequal treatment of men and women in society.
"unfortunate physician..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
Hawthorne reinforces his theme on revenge by using the adjective "unfortunate" to highlight how hate and the desire for revenge grow like weeds in the goodness of people. Hawthorne makes it clear that Chillingworth is aware of his transformation to show how these evil traits can change not only the actions of people, but their very core and mindset as well.
"Who made me so?..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
Recall in chapter VIII when Mr. Wilson asks Pearl, “Who made thee?” This rhetorical question represents Chillingworth's belief that Hester and Dimmesdale are the sinners “who made [him] so.” This creates an interesting link between Chillingworth and Pearl: While Pearl is literally created by Dimmesdale and Hester as a symbol of light, Chillingworth is bred anew as a symbol of darkness.
"still he knows you not..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
Over the past seven years Dimmesdale’s guilt has increasingly took over his life, and he believes it’s due all to his sin. However, Dimmesdale doesn’t know Chillingworth’s actual identity or the fact that he keeps Dimmesdale alive to torture him as a punishment for his sin. In this way, Chillingworth symbolizes the belief of how Satan subtly influences people towards evil purposes.
"transforming himself into a devil..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
Chillingworth was once a studious, good man, but his desire for revenge has changed him completely. Hawthorne uses the term “transforming himself into a devil” to give the reader the idea that hate has so much consumed him, that he has become as evil as Satan himself.
"his blackness all the better for it..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
Chillingworth has two opposing identities, one of which only the reader and Hester know. His identity to everyone else is a studious physician who stumbled upon Boston and decided to set up a life there because he saw that the townspeople needed a physician. However, Hester and the readers know that Chillingworth stayed in Boston to seek his revenge on Dimmesdale for having an affair with Hester. His “blackness” grew from his hate, and he symbolizes the darkness of those who seek revenge.
"it would fall away of its own nature..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
Hester’s actions represent a belief in nature and God's power rather than the laws of Puritan society. She would rather let the scarlet letter fall on its own accord (rather than remove it from the magistrates that put it there) because she has more faith in God, than any man, no matter how powerful.
"forthwith..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
“Forthwith” means immediately, so Chillingworth tells Hester that he encourages the magistrate to call for the removal of the scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom. Notice that while Chillingworth has been a man of his word to Hester, he has been deceitful to everyone else. Since Hawthorne has made Chillingworth a two-faced and treacherous character, it is difficult to know whether he tells the truth here, or is simply encouraging Hester with a lie.
"because it grieved her to have done harm to a little being that was as wild as the sea-breeze, or as wild as Pearl herself...." See in text (Chapter XV)
Pearl represents both the innate good and bad aspects of humanity in this paragraph. The desire to cause harm is in her, but she also shows a side of human compassion that does not seem to come easily to the townspeople.
"ominous shadow moving along with his deformity..." See in text (Chapter XV)
Shadows have continued to serve as symbols for evil throughout the story. In this context, the “ominous shadow moving along with his deformity” means that Chillingworth is never without the evil mindset that has been born through his hate and desire for revenge.
"brook..." See in text (Chapter XVI)
The brook is a symbol that runs parallel to Pearl’s character. The tree debris that falls into and impedes the free-flowing brook symbolizes the social obstacles Pearl must face. Pearl’s changes in disposition are mirrored by the way the current of the brook changes in its different parts.The brook mirrors Pearl throughout the story.
"Will not it come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?..." See in text (Chapter XVI)
Pearl sees the scarlet letter, the mark of sin, as a natural part of life. It is important to notice how Hawthorne includes the word “woman” in this statement to show Pearl’s view of sin as being particular to women. Since Pearl has never seen a man wear a scarlet letter, and she knows that Dimmesdale has a similar black mark (not indicated by the scarlet letter), perhaps this is Hawthorne again bringing to light the issue of inequality between man and woman.
"I wear nothing on my bosom yet..." See in text (Chapter XVI)
It is interesting that Hawthorne chooses to use “yet” at the end of this claim. This indicates that This suggests that Pearl understands on some level that even though not everyone wears a scarlet letter, everyone has a sin that deserves one. The concept of sin is a natural part of life to Pearl.
"the contrast between what I seem and what I am..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
The conflict between what is real and perceived is a persistent theme in the story, most notably through Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Dimmesdale believes that his false projection as an honest and holy man is one of his greatest sins; however, he fears the townspeople’s ridicule too much to reveal his sin and scarlet letter, and his internal conflict and struggle continues to eat away at him.
"Thou shalt not go alone!..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
Dimmesdale choses not to directly ask Hester, because he is unwilling to bear the burden of their sin alone. Hester once again has to be the one to stand up for their love. She wants to go with him to escape the town that has changed her and chase the horizon she has looked at for seven years.
"Woman, woman, thou art accountable for this! I cannot forgive thee!..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
In his shock, Dimmesdale continues to let fear consume him. Hester has shared the truth with him, and his immediate response is continue to point his finger with blame.
"still so passionately loved..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
The love between Dimmesdale and Hester has been suggested by Hester’s actions throughout the story; however, this is the first time that Hawthorne directly states this to the reader. Hester’s strength of character once again shine and her efforts to hide his identity become more validated.
"“Let us not look back,”..." See in text (Chapter XVIII)
Hester has managed to move on from the guilt of her sin because of the punishment she has endured, but Dimmesdale’s unwillingness to confess his sin has made him unable to. While Dimmesdale lets fear blind his hopes for the future (the horizon), Hester looks forward, hoping she can break free from the constraints of Puritan society.
"that this brook is the boundary between two worlds..." See in text (Chapter XIX)
Dimmesdale finally declares the dilemma that he has faced for the past seven years. On one side stands Pearl, a symbol of innocence and human nature. On the other side, Dimmesdale and Hester represent the pain of societal construction and human restraints. Dimmesdale fears the different worlds cannot combine.
"the melancholy brook would add this other tale to the mystery with which its little heart was already overburdened..." See in text (Chapter XIX)
Remember that since the brook represents Pearl, this closing line describes how much confusion Pearl has been forced to endure. Pearl lives her life as freely as she can, and she continues to avoid the obstacles that have been put in front of her by, like a brook, moving around them with natural fluidity.
"Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?..." See in text (Chapter XIX)
Pearl’s persistence indicates her strength of character. She will accept Dimmesdale only if he decides to accept himself because she does not love him like Hester does.
"Pearl stretched out her hand, with the small forefinger extended, and pointing evidently towards her mother's breast..." See in text (Chapter XIX)
Pearl does not recognize her mother without the scarlet letter on her chest. Perhaps this is because Pearl seeks truth, and without the scarlet letter on her bosom, Hester does not present herself in the light of truth that she has since Pearl’s birth.
"wild eyes on her mother, now on the minister..." See in text (Chapter XIX)
Hawthorne uses “mother” and “minister” side by side, instead of “mother” and “father.” He does this to show us that Pearl does not perceive Dimmesdale as her father, because he has failed to tell her the truth.
"drop into her tender bosom a germ of evil that would be sure to blossom darkly soon..." See in text (Chapter XX)
Dimmesdale’s urge to spread evil results from the evil he feels has been done to him. His innocence has been tainted by learning of Chillingworth’s ill intentions, and he is losing control of the dark passageways of his mind. What has been consistently a metaphor for good in the novel (the growing of flowers) now grows with evil connotations.
"Did I make a contract with him in the forest, and sign it with my blood?..." See in text (Chapter XX)
Since it has been so long since Dimmesdale has felt free, he is overwhelmed by his desire to give in to the dark thoughts of his mind. He begins to think that the devil has crept into his brain and forces him to think evil things.
"Another man had returned out of the forest; a wiser one..." See in text (Chapter XX)
For the first time, it seems, Dimmesdale allows human nature to guide him, rather than the rules of the religion he has committed himself to. This offers him a new perspective, so in a way he is reborn with this new understanding and guidance.
"to drop down dead, at once, as by the effect of an intensely poisonous infusion..." See in text (Chapter XX)
Dimmesdale’s bizarre actions in this part of the story can be attributed to the inner conflict he experiences in the forest between wanting to follow his religious path or his love for Hester. For the first time since his affair with Hester, he is following the passion of his heart and not his passion for God. He lashes out in these strange ways to represent how repressing a person’s desires breeds a sort of madness.
"No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true...." See in text (Chapter XX)
Hawthorne chooses to step away from storytelling writing and moves to fiction, and write a sort of short essay to introduce this chapter. This line represents one of the most enduring themes of the novel. Notice the characters that have been transformed by the lies they tell: Chillingworth sought revenge, and he has evolved into a kind of devil. Dimmesdale hopes to maintain his good reputation and hide his lie, and so he dwindles at a young age into a tortured and sick man who hates himself.
"Yet a little while, and she will be beyond your reach!..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
Hester’s hope for happiness being just beyond her reach has been prevalent throughout the novel, and it has always been just beyond her grasp. Now that she has plans to go to England she believes she is finally getting there, moving past the gloom of Boston.
"a sort of magic circle—had formed itself about her..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
This description creates an image of Hester with a halo around her head, symbolizing her holiness amidst the townspeople. In the beginning of the story she is ridiculed upon the scaffold, presented as a sinner, but now she is presented almost as an angel.
"wild men of the ocean, as the Indians were of the land..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
These men symbolize the natural world: wild waters and lands. They “gaze wonderingly and admiringly at Pearl” because they understand that she is wild like them, free of the cares and problems of the puritanical world.
"at the foot of the scaffold..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
This symbolizes how Hester has changed and developed over the years. While she was once an image of sin and shame, she has stoically done penance for her crime and is no longer viewed as someone to be publicly judged.
"utterly beyond her reach..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
Again Hester feels that happiness is just out of reach, and again Dimmesdale chooses not to acknowledge their relationship in public. Hester fears they may not leave for England because her hope for happiness continues to be ruined by circumstance.
"May God forgive thee!” said the minister. “Thou, too, hast deeply sinned!..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
Right before he dies, Dimmesdale finally shows true compassion for another person. He wants God to forgive Chillingworth, in some ways redeeming the strength of Dimmesdale’s character.
"The Devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
In this instance, Dimmesdale claims that Chillingworth is the devil himself. Although Chillingworth has made his life miserable, it is interesting to note that Dimmesdale never acknowledges why Chillingworth decided to torture him. Fear so consumed Dimmesdale over the past seven years that he lost the ability to think about the other people involved in the situation.
"Come, Hester, come! Support me up yonder scaffold..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
Hawthorne has not shown Dimmesdale to be a character of strength, and so Hester joins him on the scaffold. Even with his intent to confess his sins, he is still not brave enough to endure the same ridicule that Hester faced alone.
"“Hester,” said he, “come hither! Come, my little Pearl!..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
Recall the times earlier when Pearl plead with Dimmesdale to profess why he holds his hand on his heart to the public. He finally feels ready, and because of the innocence Pearl represents, she instantly goes to him to show him her love.
"waxing dimmer and brighter, and fading at last into the light of heaven..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
People are surprised by Dimmesdale’s moral weakness; they truly believe he is a product of Heaven. In this scene, Dimmesdale’s true self and the saintly personage he has taken on with the townspeople combine on the scaffold for all to see.
" he bequeathed a very considerable amount of property, both here and in England, to little Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
Chillingworth’s character achieves a small amount of redemption with this. There have been a number of times where Hawthorne includes images of light coming from darkness (both metaphorically and literally), and this instance shows that metaphorical light of compassion coming from darkness of Chillingworth’s character.