American Literature Honors
23 October 2013
Transformations of the Four Main Characters in
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
In life, people change the more one gets to know them. The same is true with the four main characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. These characters also embody four distinct themes. By the end of the novel, these characters have changed drastically, in accordance with their themes, from when the reader first was introduced to them.
Hester Prynne, the novels protagonist, earns redemption for her adulterous ways to become a revered member of the community. She came to Boston before the start of the novel, leaving her husband in Europe. Right upfront in the novel, the reader learns that Hester had been convicted of adultery, a heinous crime that was punishable by death in the gallows. She was spared because the persecutors did not know if Hester’s husband was still living or not. Instead of death, Hester’s punishment was being shamed by having to stand on a scaffold in the center of town and wear on her the bosom, in a “…fine red cloth, … the letter A” (Hawthorne 50) for the rest of her life. After her initial punishment, Hester moved into an abandoned cottage at the edge of town. There, she and her child, Pearl, who was the result of the adultery, lived a life of isolation. Being a seamstress, the only time Hester would go to town was when she had to deliver clothes she made to people. After seven years, Hester’s public image had started to change. The townspeople changed the meaning of the A, on Hester’s bosom: “They [the townspeople] said that it [the letter A] meant Able…” (46), for her charitable works in the community. At the end of the novel, Hester leaves Boston, and returns to Europe with Pearl. When Hester returned, she was no longer the scourge of society, rather a revered community member.
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is the beloved Puritan minister of Boston, whose health steadily deteriorates due to his guilt for committing adultery with Hester. Dimmesdale is a young man who studied at the “English universities, bringing all the learning of age into our wild forest-land [the New World, specifically Boston]” (62). The Reverend’s guilt of his wrongdoing weighed heavily upon his health. To repent, Dimmesdale does a few things: “the Puritan divine have plied it [a scourge] on his own shoulders… his custom to fast…rigorously until his knees trembled beneath him… [and] he kept vigils… [sometimes] night after night” (132). At this point, Dimmesdale is no longer the happy, go-lucky minister the reader is first introduced to, rather a depressed, guilt ridden man counting his days. After a sermon Dimmesdale had given for the installation of a new governor, he stood on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl, and showed the town the letter A on his chest. He then dropped dead on the spot.
Roger Chillingworth, the town physician and the husband of Hester Prynne, has abandoned his old life as a scholar to seek out the adulterer of Hester, thus becoming more diabolical and crazy with revenge. He talks to Hester while she is in the prison, and Chillingworth vows to Hester that he will “seek this man [the adulterer of Hester]… [and] I shall see him tremble” (70). Chillingworth vows to make this man Hester committed adultery with, suffer for what he had done. This man, Arthur Dimmesdale, becomes close friends with Roger Chillingworth. Chillingworth “burrow[s] into the clergyman’s [Dimmesdale] intimacy and plot against his soul” (116). To accomplish this, Chillingworth must be absolutely sure Dimmesdale is the adulterer. Roger does indeed find out the Dimmesdale is the adulterer, when Roger saw the letter A on Dimmesdale’s chest while he was sleeping. Now, knowing Dimmesdale is the adulterer, the physician can put his plan into action. The physician