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MonkeyNotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Book Notes
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SHORT PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis) (continued)

Reverend Dimmesdale, the young and much beloved Puritan minister, is suffering from ailing health and nervousness. Chillingworth believes that his illness comes from some deep sense of guilt and determines that Dimmesdale is Pearl's father. As a result, he begins his plan of revenge. He moves into the same house as Dimmesdale, pretending to be his helpful doctor. All the while he tortures the young minister, whose condition worsens daily. One day while Dimmesdale is soundly sleeping in his chair, Chillingworth checks the Reverend's chest and is shocked to find something very unusual there.

One night Dimmesdale, unable to sleep, goes out for a walk and climbs the steps of the scaffold. Ironically, Hester and Pearl walk past. He summons them to stand with him on the scaffold, hidden by the darkness of night. As the three of them stand openly together, the Reverend sees a meteor forming a monstrous A in the sky. As it illuminates the darkness, Dimmesdale spies Chillingworth, who has been watching the entire scaffold scene.

Worried about the failing health of Dimmesdale, Hester decides to approach Chillingworth. She asks him to stop being vengeful, a request that he denies. He does, however, grant her permission to reveal his true identity to Dimmesdale. Hester is anxious to tell the minister the truth and waits for him in the forest, where he often walks. She reveals to Dimmesdale that the old man is her husband, bound on revenge. To escape his hold on Dimmesdale, Hester suggests that the three of them flee Boston and start a new life elsewhere. Although he does not at first agree to the plan, Dimmesdale finally tells Hester to make the arrangements. They will depart on a ship for Bristol on the day after Election Day, an important Puritan holiday.

On Election Day, the Puritans, the Indians, and the sailors all gather to have a glimpse of the procession, which will honor the election of the new governor. Dimmesdale has a place of honor in the parade, and his appearance is much improved as a result of his meeting with Hester in the forest; he walks with a strong gait and seems at peace. After the parade, Dimmesdale delivers the best sermon of his career, and the congregation is enthralled by his words. During the sermon, Hester and Pearl stand in a corner of the town square. While there, standing next to the scaffold, they are informed that they will be accompanied to Bristol by an extra passenger on the ship. This extra passenger is Roger Chillingworth.

After the sermon, the procession begins again. This time Dimmesdale walks like a man possessed; he is feeble and his face has a strange expression. Although he almost falls to the ground, he refuses assistance from Rev. Wilson (the Church) or from the Governor (the State). Seeing Hester and Pearl near the scaffold, he turns towards them and asks them to climb the scaffold with him. With his family by his side, he confesses his guilt and bares his chest for all to see. He then collapses, asks God to forgive Chillingworth, and asks his daughter for a kiss, which she now willingly gives. Dimmesdale then dies peacefully in Hester's arms. In confessing his sin, he has won his personal victory.

In a concluding chapter, Hawthorne reveals that Chillingworth dies within a year and leaves his fortune to Pearl, Hester and Pearl spend time in Europe, Pearl is happily married and has a child of her own, Hester returns to Boston to live her last days, and she is buried next to the grave of Dimmesdale. They share a common tombstone marked by a scarlet letter A.


The central theme of the novel is that unconfessed sin destroys the soul. Hester's sin of adultery has been confessed, and as its symbol, she wears the Scarlet Letter A. As a result, the sin does not destroy her inward spirit; instead, she gathers her strength and courage, and flourishes in spite of the Letter A. In total contrast to Hester, Dimmesdale does not confess his sin until after it totally destroys him. He hides his adultery and fails to claim Pearl as his daughter; his punishment is guilt and self- condemnation, intensified by the torture of Chillingworth. As the shame over his cowardice increases, he suffers total deterioration, both mental and physical. Only when he publicly confesses his adultery and stands openly with Hester and Pearl in the final scaffold scene is there any sense of relief for him; by admitting his sin, he finally frees himself from his guilt and from Chillingworth's hold over him, which allows him to die peacefully.


The prevalent mood of this tragic novel is dark and gloomy, especially developed in the characters of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Hawthorne only prevents the darkness from touching Pearl, who is an embodiment of joy, life, and warmth. Hester, however, is allowed to rise above the gloominess on occasion, as when she throws away the scarlet letter and lets loose her hair. Thus, Hawthorne suggests how sin (symbolized in the scarlet letter) is responsible for the gloom that fills the lives of the protagonists. When the sin is unconfessed, as with Dimmesdale, the darkness turns to despair.

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MonkeyNotes-Free Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


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