The Scarlet Letter Book summary

Nathaniel Hawthorne




Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Scarlet Letter is an 1850 novel of the American Romantic era set in 17th-century Puritan Boston. This was Nathaniel’s first novel, and it highlights his own family's deep connection with Salem, which is the setting for the story in the book. The author described the work as a “Romance,” rather than a novel, as he believed that a romance was something that described a work that hovered between the possible and the impossible. The work belongs to the genre of dark Romanticism because it deals with the subjects of sin, insanity, and the occult. D. The novel is a form of historical fiction since is based on the Massachusetts Bay Colony and features real figures like Governor Bellingham and Reverend Wilson. A Scarlet letter and Hester Prynne, the protagonist, have been rightly viewed as the precursor of the feminist movement. The author also uses the book to condemn the practice of witch hunting, which involved some of his ancestors, and he makes use of characters like Mistress Hibbins to do so.


Plot Summary


Hawthorne begins with a short account of his time working at the Salem Custom House, where he discovered the documents that led him to write A Scarlet Letter. The story follows Hester Prynne, a young woman who has a child out of wedlock and is forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ to symbolize her adultery. The novel explores guilt, sin, redemption, and the harsh realities of life in a Puritan community. It also deals with the themes of identity, the nature of evil, and the role of women in society. The novel is considered a masterpiece of American literature and is still widely read and studied today.

Hester is publicly humiliated for being an adulteress. She is forced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ on her clothing and stand on a scaffold every day for a few hours. On the day of her sentencing, she notices her husband, Roger Chillingworth, in the crowd. He has spent a year as a captive of the Native Americans and is well-versed in western medicine. He visits Hester in prison with the excuse of tending to her and the babe in her arms. Chillingworth assures her of his forgiveness but asks her to keep his identity secret in return even when she refuses to reveal the name of the other man.

Hester takes lodgings far away from the leading society and earns her living as a seamstress. She starts stitching dresses for various occasions, except for marriages, which are sacred ceremonies. Her daughter, Pearl, is intelligent and mischievous. Worried that Pearl's character might get tainted because of Hester's reputation, the government decides that Pearl ought to be raised by some other family. Hester retains Pearl's custody with the help of Dimmesdale. She starts to do more charitable work to improve her reputation. Chillingworth befriends the sick Dimmesdale and moves in with him to treat his illness. With time, Chillingworth is convinced that Dimmesdale is suffering from a dark secret that he is hiding. One night while Dimmesdale is asleep, Chillingworth sees a branded letter 'A' on the Minister's chest. He has proof that Dimmesdale is Hester's lover and uses that knowledge to torment Dimmesdale.

Under the pressure of guilt, Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold where Hester is shamed. Pearl and Hester are returning from a Governor's deathbed and meet Dimmesdale there. A meteor brightens up the sky with the letter A. They see Chillingworth in the same light with a weird expression on his face. Hester notices Dimmesdale is terrified and later talks to Chillingworth for Dimmesdale's good and warns him that she will reveal his truth. Hester meets Dimmesdale in the forest and sends Pearl off to play. She tries to pacify Dimmesdale and proposes that they leave the settlement and start a new life someplace away from here. She introduces him to Pearl, who rebuffs him and wipes out the kiss he placed on her forehead.

Dimmesdale gives his best-ever sermon on the day of the election and starts behaving unusually. Hester is shocked to learn from Pearl that Chillingworth has also booked the ship that she had thought would take them away from all those that knew of their sin. Before she can confront him, Dimmesdale comes out and asks Hester to help him climb the scaffold. He publicly confesses his sin and shows the letter 'A' on his chest. Pearl kisses him on his forehead, and Dimmesdale collapses in Hester's arms and dies. Chillingworth is furious at the revelation as he had wished to torment the priest for much longer.

Chillingworth died after a year of the incident leaving most of his estate to Pearl. Hester travels to Europe with Pearl, where Pearl gets married and has children. People of Salem begin to consider the scaffold and Hester's house as sacred. Hester returns to Salem after many years and continues wearing the scarlet letter as it no longer has the stigma attached to it. She continued to provide comfort for the people in need. After her death, she is buried near Dimmesdale. They share a headstone with the letter A inscribed on it.

  • Author(s)

    Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Publication date


  • Language


  • Classification

    Historical Fiction

  • Pages



Dark Romanticism 


Ticknor, Reed, & Fields