The Scarlet Letter, a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The book explores how religious beliefs affect all three parties to an adulterous love affair in 17th century Puritan New England – Hester Prynne, her much older husband, Roger Chillingworth, and her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale.
A primary theme of the novel is the way in which the negative emotions generated by the two men’s religious beliefs eventually drive both men to self-destruction. Hester alone survives because, unlike her husband and her lover, she questions the conventional religious beliefs that all three of them have been taught.
Essay editing techniques can uncover other themes from the novel for use in application essays, such as a feminist subtext focusing on Hester’s survival without financial or emotional support from either man. Essay editing ideas can also help structure an application essay that examines the contrast between the judgmental residents of the Puritan settlement and Hester’s relatively freer life living alone in the wilderness, symbolizing Hester’s willingness to examine new ideas.
Finally, essay editing can assist in drawing comparisons between situations in the novel and continuing problems in modern life, where adultery and divorce remain emotionally scarring experiences. Modern problems involving physicians and clergy becoming inappropriately involved with patients and church members also have parallels to the situations within the novel. Current professional conduct codes attempt to prevent such romances.
The novel’s back story
Hester is sent to Boston by her husband, who plans to follow her on a later ship. When Chillingworth disappears for several years, presumed lost at sea, Hester has a secret affair with her minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, and gives birth to his daughter, Pearl.
When the novel begins, Chillingworth returns from captivity among the Native Americans and arrives in Boston to discover Hester standing on a platform in the marketplace, holding her baby, the center of an angry crowd’s condemnation. She has been sentenced by a local court to wear a scarlet A for adultery on her chest for the rest of her life. She has refused to tell the court the identity of her child’s father.
No one in the settlement knows who Chillingworth is. He meets with Hester in her prison cell and persuades her to hide his identity. Dimmesdale, protected by Hester’s silence, continues his career as a popular preacher. Dimmesdale suffers growing shame and guilt because he committed adultery with Hester and then left her alone to bear the full weight of public disgrace. His health begins deteriorating, as he engages in self-punishing practices such as flogging himself and burning a scarlet A upon his chest.
Chillingworth opens a medical practice and uses the trust he earns among the townspeople to move into the same house with Dimmesdale, under the pretense that he will look after the minister’s failing health. He soon confirms his suspicions that Dimmesdale was Hester’s lover by examining the minister’s chest while he is sleeping. Chillingworth then deliberately increases Dimmesdale’s psychological torment by making remarks intended to lead Dimmesdale to brood upon his sin.
Hester lives in a house on the outskirts of town with Pearl, engaging in sewing to earn a living. Pearl becomes a wild little girl who fights with other children. Hester spends much of her time alone except for Pearl and comes to question the conventional definitions of sin and adultery. She views her affair with Dimmesdale as possessing a certain sacredness. After several years, Hester and Pearl encounter Dimmesdale in the empty marketplace late at night, standing alone on the platform. Hester is shocked to see how ill Dimmesdale looks and horrified to discover that Chillingworth has moved into the same house with him.
Hester and Pearl wait to meet Dimmesdale in an isolated woods area soon afterwards, and Hester reveals Chillingworth’s true identity to Dimmesdale. Hester and Dimmesdale have an emotional reunion, in which she tells him that what they did as lovers had a sanctity of its own. She suggests that they take Pearl and flee to England.
Chillingworth finds out about Hester’s plan and secretly arranges to take passage on the same ship, determined to continue tormenting Dimmesdale.Dimmesdale arranges to preach one last sermon before fleeing town, and ends it by leaving the church and mounting the public platform where Hester had stood years before.
Hester supports the dying minister in her arms as he pulls open his shirt and reveals the scarlet letter on his chest to the assembled people. As Hester and Pearl mourn Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, also on the scaffold, sees Dimmesdale die and knows that his mission of vengeance is over.
Chillingworth dies soon afterward, leaving all of his money to Pearl. Hester and Pearl leave for Europe. Hester returns many years later without Pearl, but receives frequent presents and letters with a coat of arms seal, indicating that Pearl has married a European nobleman and thinks frequently about her mother. Hester lives quietly in her old house, still wearing the scarlet letter and spends her time counseling women with romance problems. When she dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale under a tombstone carved with a large “A.”
John Grant is a professional book reviewer for several websites and UK papers.