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The protagonists of the novel are Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, both bearers of a Scarlet Letter of Adultery, one public and one private. Hester Prynne, the bearer of the scarlet letter in public, is the central character of the book. However, the suspense of the story revolves around Dimmesdale and his private mark of adultery.
The antagonist is the effort to hide the identify of the male adulterer, who is Pearl's father. Both Hester and Dimmesdale fight to keep the identity a secret, but for very different reasons. Hester wants to protect the identity of Dimmesdale as Pearl's father in order to protect the minister from the public shame of sin; hers is a totally selfless act of kindness, reflecting her inner character and strength.
Dimmesdale, in complete contrast, cowardly hides his sin to protect himself, and for his silence, he suffers inward guilt and shame that manifests itself in outward, physical deterioration. (It is ironic that Hester, who openly wears the Scarlet Letter as a symbol and confession that she is a Sinner, is freed from the inward destruction of her sin; Dimmesdale, a minister who openly represents Goodness, is the real Sinner, failing to confess and claim Pearl as his daughter and suffering both inward and outward deterioration from his double sinfulness.)
The largest threat to Hester and Dimmesdale's secret is Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband. He wants to find out the identity of Hester's lover, so he can have his revenge. When he begins to suspect that it is Dimmesdale, he tortures the minister while pretending to help him. He is the personification of evil in the novel.
The climax occurs at the second scaffold scene, when Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl, finally divulging his secret, but still in the darkness of night. Ironically, while standing there, Dimmesdale notices a large meteor in the sky that appears in the shape of the letter A. Chillingworth sees it as well, for he has been watching the three of them on the scaffold. Dimmesdale's sin is a secret no more; Chillingworth will have his revenge.
The novel openly ends in tragedy, for the secret of Hester and Dimmesdale becomes public knowledge when the minister reveals his adultery and openly accepts Hester and Pearl, who have long suffered in silence. Ironically, Hester is "freed" by the confession, no longing bearing the Scarlet Letter alone. But Dimmesdale is also freed; although he dies after the confession, he is finally freed from the guilt of unconfessed, hidden sin and the evil hold of Chillingworth over him.
Hester's story really ends in comedy. She leaves Boston to live again in England. When she returns many years later, she is welcomed in Boston and her advice is sought, showing she truly escaped.