What is the price we pay for our sins? We explore this question in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne like you've never seen it before. Here's a rap video that details all of the key plot points in Hester Prynne's tale of woe: everything from adultery to the burden of our secrets to the struggle between good and evil.
She steps from jail, lady-like,
Head high, holds her baby tight
Name’s Hester, dressed in dark clothes like the rest,
With a big red A across her chest
Stands for the sin she committed: adultery
While her husband was away, maybe lost at sea
And this is Boston, colonial
The way they punish the crime
will be blowing your mind.
So as Hester Prynne stands in front of the crowd,
She spots a face, she's shocked, oh wow.
It’s her long-lost husband, she doesn’t tell
The crowd who he is, he doesn’t as well.
Calls himself Chillingworth
, that’s a made up the name,
He becomes the town doctor
, alleviating pain.
In time he’s going to act insane and crazy,
Trying to figure out who made this baby.
But Hester won’t share the secret with the world,
She’s giving love and care to her Pearl
But the townsfolk don’t want a single mom
Raising a kid, they think she’ll turn out wrong.
Until a minister with the gift of gab
Defends Hester from the villagers’ pressure.
Could it be this minister is Pearl’s dad
Chillingworth thinks that it is a fact.
The minister’s name is Dimmesdale
But his heart’s
weak, and it’s making him frail.
So he moves in with Chillingworth
, the doctor,
Who messes with his mind, 'cause he’s sort of an impostor
Late one night while the minister rests,
Chillingworth sneaks in, and sees a mark on his chest
Yes! He smiles so devilish, a blood-sucking creep,
This dude is a leech
The symbol of sin, the A on my chest,
I’ve been punished for love and hated for less.
My girl just wants a dad,
Could it be the one thing that she’ll never have? (x2)
Years pass, Hester is getting liked
Helping like a Samaritan
, she’s that nice
One night, that’s cold
- no Tabasco,
She and Pearl see Dimmesdale on the scaffold
He’s alone, contemplating his sins,
Hester and Pearl join him, and the three hold hands
lights up an A in the night sky,
But Dimmesdale looks weak
, like he might die.
Later he and Hester meet in the woods
They plan to flee over to Europe
Free to be a family, that’d be better,
For a minute Hester removes
the red letter.
"Until she felt the freedom, she hadn’t known the weight
Pearl doesn’t recognize
her mom with no "A".
But Chillingworth learns what they plan to do,
So the leech books
a ticket on the same ship too.
Dimmesdale delivers his last speech
The people love
it so much, they practically freak.
But then he spots Hester and Pearl,
And he knows he must confess
his sins to the world.
Dimmesdale, you see he got-got-got-ta,
Tell the whole town he’s the papa
Then he rips his shirt away, Hulk Hogan,
On his chest is a red
", I’m not joking.
Was it man-made or a sign
Either way the whole town is in shock and awe.
But before they can get in through their heads,
Dimmesdale falls down dead
And years later when Hester Prynne dies
right by his side, that’s no lie.
The two lovers share a solitary grave,
A tombstone marked with a scarlet A
The symbol of sin, the A on my chest,
I’ve been punished for love and hated for less.
My girl just wants a dad,
Could it be the one thing that she’ll never have? (x4)
Our story opens on a religious and moral scandal. Hester Prynne has had an affair, and with a new baby, there's no way to hide it. And in the time period of The Scarlet Letter, Hester's affair was particularly scandalous.
The Scarlet Letter is set in seventeenth-century Boston during colonial times. Back then, women were considered to be the property of their husbands and had to follow their orders at all times. Religion was a crucial part of colonial life and the Puritans held themselves to a strict moral code. Despite the community's hatred for her and her sins, Hester holds her head high, defiant of the Puritan expectations of women. As you read, consider how the Puritan values of truth, honesty and punishment help shape the actions of these characters.
Puritans dressed somberly and uniformly in dark colors like black and grey. This style was in keeping with their conservative and religious way of life. So when Hester is forced to wear a bright red A upon her chest, she really stands out from the crowd. And not in a good way.
Hester has committed the sin of adultery, which is when a person is unfaithful to his or her spouse. In other words, cheating. As a form of punishment, Hester is forced to wear a scarlet A on her chest so that everyone knows she's had an affair. At the beginning of the story, we don't know whom Hester has had an affair with. But as the story develops, we learn who her lover was and how their actions have affected all the important characters.
If Hester is a cheater, she must have had someone to cheat on. Enter: the husband. Hester's husband was famous scholar in Amsterdam before he decided to immigrate to America with his young wife. He sent her ahead while he settled his affairs in Europe. But before he could join her, he was captured by Native Americans.
Hester has not heard from her husband for over two years, and in that time she engages in the affair that resulted in her daughter. Soon after Hester gives birth, her husband reappears under a false name. He's in town to seek revenge against his estranged wife and her unnamed lover.
The Puritan way of life was very strict, and their forms of punishment followed suit. If you broke the law, many gruesome punishments could be coming your way. Lawbreakers were often put in the stocks, a small device with foot holes that you were locked into. Another form of punishment was the pillory. But instead of your feet being locked up, your head and your hands were. You could also be whipped, tied to a stool and dunked under water, or sentenced to indentured servitude, hanging, branding or maiming. Next time you do something naughty, be glad you aren't living in colonial times!
Hester is forced to stand on the town scaffold while the community stares and makes fun of her. As she looks out on the crowd, Hester sees her long-lost husband, but she doesn't call him out. Later he visits Hester in jail and makes her swear not to tell anyone who he is. Hester keeps his identity a secret and the two live apart for the rest of the story. Why do you think that Hester agrees to keep their marriage a secret?
Hester's husband renames himself Roger Chillingworth. Hester notes that he's become "much uglier," too. He's described as having a "slight deformity of the figure" with a "figure more misshapen since the days when she had familiarly known him." His new name, Chillingworth, suits his cold personality. His disfigured outer appearance mirrors his inner soul, which is cruel and vengeful.
Hester chooses not to leave Boston or the community that is so cruel to her. Instead she raises Pearl amongst the people who shunned and jailed her. Why do you think that is? What do you think that says about Hester's character?
When Pearl is about three years old, Hester hears people in the community saying that she is an unfit mother. They want Pearl to be taken away from Hester and given to foster parents. Hester takes Pearl to the governor's mansion to appeal her case. In addition to the governor, Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale are there. Pearl acts wildly, which makes the governor think Hester is a bad mother. But Dimmesdale convinces everyone that Pearl was given to Hester to save her mother's soul. Pearl is allowed to stay with Hester. Who's this Dimmesdale fellow who came to the rescue? Read on.
Arthur Dimmesdale is a scholar and a beloved minister in town. He speaks very well and he uses his gift of speech to defend Hester and Pearl against the judgmental community. The whole community looks up to him and enjoys his sermons. But the town doesn't know his big secret: Dimmesdale is Hester's secret lover and the father to Pearl. The good guy that he is, Dimmesdale feels tortured because Hester is the one who has to take all the blame for their sin. As the novel progresses, Dimmesdale feels so guilty that he harms himself physically by starving and whipping himself.
Dimmesdale becomes very sick. Because he is single, he doesn't have a wife to care for him. The whole community notices his illness, and they become very concerned for his health. Chillingworth steps in and tells the town leaders that he may be able to cure Dimmesdale if he lives with him and provides round-the-clock care. But as we will soon see, Chillingworth is up to no good.
Dimmesdale moves in with Chillingworth. Instead of caring for him, Chillingworth mentally tortures Dimmesdale and gives him false remedies. The two have many conversations about sin, confession, redemption and the notion of "burying" one's secrets. Chillingworth is convinced that Dimmesdale is Hester's former lover. He thinks that Dimmesdale's guilt is killing him and he spends a lot of time trying to get the truth out of him. When Dimmesdale is asleep, Chillingworth sneaks into his room and catches a glimpse of his chest. Although the reader does not know what Chillingworth sees, Chillingworth is triumphant, as though he was right about something. What do you think Chillingworth saw?
We're calling Chillingworth a leech because he's acting a lot like the blood-sucking animal of that name. He is sneakily drawing out, or leeching, information and health from Dimmesdale. But there's another reason, too. Doctors were often called leeches in colonial times, a reference to the practice of putting leeches on a sick person to suck out the "bad blood" that was causing illness. Since that time, leeching has been disproved as a dangerous and ineffective practice. Phew.
Let's check back in with our girl Hester. She's still wearing the scarlet A and is still getting shunned by polite company, but things are starting to change for her. She is slowly earning the admiration of the community by caring for the sick and the elderly. Hester is also known as an excellent seamstress. She embroiders everything from burial shrouds to christening gowns to officials' robes. But people are still afraid to ask her to sew bridal gowns. They think it is bad luck and inappropriate for brides to wear anything touched by Hester.
The story takes place during the first seven years of Pearl's life. We get to see her grow up into an uncommonly bright and perceptive child. Because of her mother, Pearl is also shunned by the community. But Pearl doesn't seem bothered, and her innocent child's perspective actually helps adults see more clearly. She often provokes the adults of the novel by asking them questions and drawing attention to the denied truths and complicated relationships of the adult world.
Pearl and Hester are walking along one night and see Dimmesdale on the scaffold. They join him and the three hold hands. Pearl asks Dimmesdale why he won't acknowledge them in public. Dimmesdale replies, "Not now, child, but at another time...At the great judgment day." Then, a meteor flashes across the sky, and Dimmesdale sees a red A. He believes this to be a sign of his sins. Other townspeople see it, but they believe it stands for "angel" because the governor died that night.
Hester has realized that Chillingworth is the cause of Dimmesdale's torment. She confronts Chillingworth and asks him to stop. He refuses, saying he can't forgive and forget. Hester says she is going to tell Dimmesdale the truth about Chillingworth being her husband.
Hester plans to meet Dimmesdale in the woods and reveal Chillingworth's true identity to him. Pearl walks with her mother and tells her that "the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom." Hester tells Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is actually her long-lost husband. He says that Chillingworth is a worse sinner than the two of them. They plan to move away to Europe with Pearl, so that the three of them can be a family. Why do you think they waited seven years to make these plans?
Once Hester and Dimmesdale make plans to run away together, Hester takes off her scarlet A. By doing this she also casts off its heavy symbolic burden. She lets down her hair and smiles. The light touches her once again, but Pearl does not recognize her mother without the A upon her chest. Hester is forced to put the A back before Pearl will approach her. Dimmesdale tells Pearl he still won't acknowledge her publicly so she pushes him away.
Dimmesdale goes back into town with a huge weight lifted off his shoulders. When he encounters Chillingworth, Dimmesdale tells him he no longer needs treatment. This makes Chillingworth suspicious. Do you think Chillingworth will try to stop them?
Dimmesdale gives one final sermon on Election Day, a holiday for the town. Pearl and Hester stand with the rest of the community to hear Dimmesdale's speech. A sailor in the crowd reveals to Hester that Chillingworth has booked passage on the same ship back to Europe. Hester's hope and happiness for a better life is shattered, and she questions their plans to run away together.
After his speech, Dimmesdale calls Hester and Pearl to him and the three stand once more on the scaffold. He confesses to the community that he was Hester's unnamed lover and that he is the father of Pearl. Then he opens his shirt to reveal a mark. Though it is never actually stated what the mark is, we can infer that it is much like Hester's scarlet A--a mark of sin. Chillingworth cries out "Thou hast escaped me!" Because he confessed, Dimmesdale can no longer be tortured by Chillingworth.
Dimmesdale is finally released of his guilt in this moment. His spiritual release becomes a physical one and he dies. Having nobody left to torture, Chillingworth dies sometime later. He has been feeding off of Dimmesdale's energy and the energy he got from torturing him. When he dies, Chillingworth leaves all his money to Pearl. Hester and Pearl move away from Boston. Pearl eventually marries a rich European aristocrat and is never seen again.
Hester eventually moves back to Boston without Pearl. She continues her charity work and continues to wear the scarlet A upon her chest. People no longer regard her as a sinner, however. They accept her into the community and think of the A as standing for "able" and not "adulteress." When Hester dies, she is buried near Dimmesdale. During their lives, both Dimmesdale and Hester struggled with their sins, Dimmesdale privately and Hester more publicly. Do you think that Hester and Dimmesdale were appropriately punished for their sins?