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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel HawthorneSETTING
The Scarlet Letter is set in the seventeenth century, puritanical, New England colony of Massachusetts. The complete action is set in the town of Boston with the scenes shifting within it. The crucial scaffold scenes are set in the market place, while the decisive meeting of Hester and Dimmesdale is set in the forest. The novel, however, opens with a prison setting, foreshadowing the future seclusion, gloominess and condemnation of the protagonists.
LIST OF CHARACTERS
The protagonist of the novel who is an English woman and the wife of Roger Chillingworth. She is tried and condemned for her sin of adultery with Dimmesdale and charged to wear the scarlet letter, "A", an indication of adultery, on the bosom of her gown forever. Even though she has a daughter out of wedlock, she refuses to reveal who the father is. As a young woman, her youthful beauty, luxuriant hair, and excellent features are diminished by her self-effacing puritanical way of dressing. As an older lady, she returns to Boston where she is finally accepted for her kindness and service.
The young, handsome, and unmarried pastor of Hester's church. Apart from committing adultery with Hester, he is guilty of hiding his sin. His intense suffering and remorse, however, are reflected in his rundown physical appearance. He emerges as the tragic figure of the novel around whom revolves the plot's suspense and on whom the reader's attention is centered. Thus, he is also considered a protagonist, like Hester.
A scholarly physician who has sent his wife ahead of him to America. He fails to join her quickly, for he is captured by Indians from whom he gathers a knowledge of herbal medicine. He is an old, evil, vicious, ugly, and deformed man. His diabolical vengeance on Dimmesdale, while pretending to treat him, makes him the personification of evil.
The beautiful daughter of Hester and Dimmesdale. She is the living symbol of the scarlet letter and has peculiar traits that make her sometimes appear as a demon. Her love for nature and freedom, her vivacious spirit, her alienation, her rebelliousness, her inquisitiveness, and her innocent but symbolic comments reveal her distinct personality. She is, however, a product of the difficult situation into which she is born.
The governor of the colony. He is based on an actual person who served as the governor in Boston for several terms. He first appears during the scaffold scene and addresses Hester. Later, Hester approaches him to seek his help in retaining Pearl. During the second scaffold scene, he hears Dimmesdale's scream and wakes up, but does not recognize his voice or see him. He is present in the procession on the Election Day and witnesses the final revelation of Dimmesdale's guilt during the third scaffold scene. He represents the 'state' in the novel.
The eldest clergyman in Boston in the novel. He is also based on an actual person, an English minister who came to Boston in 1630. He convinces Dimmesdale to appeal to Hester to reveal her lover's identity. Later, he delivers a sermon on the sin of adultery. Like Governor Bellingham, he is present during all three scaffold scenes. He represents the puritanical attitude and stands for the Church in the novel.
The ill-tempered sister of Governor Bellingham in the novel. She is based upon another actual figure from history, who was executed for witchcraft. Because the fictional character is also believed to be a witch, she is given special powers. She appears to be conscious of Hester and Dimmesdale's adultery and their secret meeting in the forest. She alone dares to meet Hester in the open and invites her to join in the festivities when Hester goes to the Governor's house.
A worker in Dimmesdale's church. When he finds Dimmesdale's glove on the scaffold, he returns it to the minister and blames the devil for having dropped it there. He refers to the appearance of the scarlet letter in the sky and takes it to represent Angel.
The commander of the ship that is to take Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl away. He plays an important role in escalating the tension of the plot by informing Hester on Election Day that Chillingworth has also booked passage on his ship bound for Bristol.
In the "Custom House," written as an introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne gives an autobiographical
description of his life and times. The detailed descriptions of the scenes and
people not only prepare the reader for the author's style, but also aim at
recreating the author's past. The preface concentrates on the author's period of
service at the Custom House during which time he came into contact with several
people and had the opportunity to study human behavior. The description of his
co- employees and others shows the author's deft hand at characterization, which
is revealed during the novel. Further, the preface serves the purpose of
giving a background to the novel and introduces America's Puritanical ancestors.
Through the novel, by taking a favorable view of Hester and Dimmesdale and by
drawing Chillingworth in evil proportions, Hawthorne
attempts to undo the wrong and injustice done by his ancestors. The reference to
the discovery of the scarlet letter and some papers referring to the incident of
a woman condemned like Hester is to strengthen the author's claim of the
authenticity of the story.
The first chapter gives a description of the dark and gloomy nature of the
prison that was established in the "vicinity of Cornhill" by the early settlers.
The prison is described as an "ugly edifice" and "black flower of civilized
society". Weeds grow in front of the gloomy structure, where a group of
Puritans, dressed normally in their dull clothing, has gathered. The only
positive image in the whole setting is a single rosebush that stands beside the
weeds. It foreshadows that there will be some brightness amidst this "tale of
human frailty and sorrow."
A number of people gathered in front of the prison door are eagerly waiting for the appearance of Hester Prynne. Through the gossip of some of the women, the reader learns about Hester, to whom they refer as a "hussy". She has committed the sin of adultery and has been punished to a sentence of wearing the letter "A" on her dress as a symbol of her sin. It is also through their discussion that Reverend Master Dimmesdale, the pastor of Hester's church, is introduced.
As the prison door is thrown open, Hester is led out by a prison official. She is described as a tall, young, proud, and beautiful woman with good features. As she steps out of the prison clutching her three-month-old baby to her, she appears dignified and protective of her daughter. What attracts the attention of the crowd is the letter "A", now elaborately embroidered in gold thread and attached to her dress. Hester has obviously steeled herself for this public encounter, for the condemnation and humiliation do not seem to have any affect on her.
(First Scaffold Scene) From the prison, Hester is led through the unsympathetic crowd to the market place. There, she is placed on a scaffold in order to disgrace her and to reveal the letter "A" on her dress. The Governor, his counselors, a judge, a general, and the ministers are amongst the assembled crowd, which has turned "somber and grave". Hester strengthens herself to bear her disgrace.
From the scaffold, Hester spies a small deformed man in the crowd and obviously recognizes him. The man also recognizes her and is horrified at the scene. When the man inquires about Hester, he is told that about two years ago she arrived in Boston from Europe without her scholarly husband, who was to join her later. She has not heard from him in the interim, a fact that probably helped her cause and lightened her sentence. Her punishment is a period of imprisonment, a public display on the scaffold for three hours, and the necessity of wearing the Scarlet Letter for the rest of her life, "a living sermon against sin." After telling how he has been held captive by Indians, the deformed man comments that "the partner of her iniquity should...stand on the scaffold by her side." He then exclaims several times, "He will be known!" It is not until later in the book that the reader realizes that this misshapened man is Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband.
Bellingham, the Governor of Boston, and Rev. John Wilson, the oldest minister, are also in the crowd. The senior churchman asks Rev. Dimmesdale, Hester's minister, to try and convince her to confess the name of her partner in sin, which she adamantly refuses to do. Rev. Wilson then preaches a long sermon about sin during which Hester tries to quiet the screams of her baby. Afterwards, she is led back to prison.
For the first time, Chillingworth is introduced by name when he is brought as a physician to treat Hester in her prison cell for her nervous agitation. His relationship to her as a husband is also presented.
When the chapter opens, Hester's traumatic nervousness is apparent, and a contrast is drawn between her public maintenance of dignity, as revealed in the previous chapter, and her painful suffering in private.
Hester's "turmoil" and her "anguish and despair" also negatively affect the infant Pearl, who is in painful misery. Chillingworth medicates the infant, and she grows quiet and falls asleep. He then examines Hester and administers her a sedative. Hester does not fully trust her husband and wonders if his intentions are more to kill them than to cure.
After mother and child have grown calmer, Chillingworth settles down to "interview" Hester to learn the identity of Pearl's father. When Hester refuses to disclose the information to him, Chillingworth vows he will discover the man who has violated his wife; he clearly wants vengeance. Further, he makes Hester promise not to reveal his true identity or relationship to her. She does not feel good about the promise and says her silence about Chillingworth may cause the ruin of her soul. Chillingworth warns that if she breaks the promise, he will inflict harm on Pearl's father.Both Chillingworth and Hester confess that they have wronged one another. He says his greatest fault was ignoring his age and deformity and marrying a much younger woman. That this has been a loveless marriage is obvious to the reader.
After her release from confinement in prison, Hester is free to go anywhere she chooses, but she decides to remain near Boston. She begins to lead a secluded life on the outskirts of town. She moves, with her daughter, into an abandoned cottage set on infertile land near the ocean. She rarely goes into town and avoids contact with the outside world; in her seclusion, "she stood apart --- like a ghost." The author suggests that Hester may have decided to remain near Boston so that the "scene of the guilt" remains "the scene of her earthly punishment," or perhaps she wants to be near Pearl's father.
Hester lives an austere existence, spending little money to survive. Ironically, she tries to give something out of her meager existence to charitable causes. Her ability to provide for Pearl and herself depends solely on the needle-work that she does for the rich as well as the poor. Although many wealthy people employ her to sew for important occasions, no one has asked her to work on a wedding gown, as if she might taint it. Hester's banishment from the world of humans, although she interacts with them for her livelihood, is an extension of her imprisonment. She is treated like an outcast and made to endure constant insults. She suffers daily when someone stares upon her scarlet letter, but she accepts the humiliation like a "martyr".
As Hester suffers, her lover remains free of public humiliation. His freedom makes her realize that other honorable people in town may have committed adultery without others knowing about it. She begins to feel that her scarlet letter "gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts". This loss of belief in others is, to Hawthorne, "the saddest results of sin".
A lengthy description is given of Hester's daughter, who is named for the first time. Pearl's name was chosen by her mother, for she was "purchased with all she had, her mother's only treasure". In this chapter, she is three years old. She is a lively and beautiful child that Hester dresses in lovely, hand- sewn clothes of bright colors that match her fanciful nature. In spite of her radiant being, the child lives in seclusion with her mother, as an outcast. The presence of Pearl, instead of providing comfort to Hester, is a constant source of worry.
Pearl's impishness, her waywardness, her stubborn nature, and her refusal to observe rules fill Hester with a sense of dread. She feels it is her sin that has affected Pearl's birth and upbringing, and she has a deep sense of grief about it. Hester's attempts at controlling the child fail frequently and she is often reduced to tears that also fail to bring sympathy from the child.
Pearl's solitude is reflected in two ways. She avoids all contact with other children, never mingling with or talking to them. At times, Pearl even attacks them. Normally, however, Pearl spends her time playing by herself and often imagines she is fighting enemies.
Pearl's attraction to her mother's scarlet letter is also described. The child is fascinated with it, often touching it or tossing flowers at it. She is also curious about her birth, often questioning Hester about it and her lack of a father. Because of her behavior, Hester increasingly begins to question Pearl's inner nature and her doubts are further strengthened when Pearl denies God.
Hester Prynne's visit to the Governor's house is presented here. Hester is going there with the dual purpose of delivering a pair of gloves she has sewed for him and imploring him to stall the transfer of Pearl to a guardian. Hester has heard that some important townspeople, including Governor Bellingham, are recommending that Pearl be placed under the guardianship of some worthy person who is able to lead the child to salvation. Hester is incredulous that they could be thinking of taking her child, her only treasure, away from her. Out of love and concern for Pearl, Hester is determined to plead her case.
Hester dresses Pearl in a crimson dress adorned with gold thread for the trip to the Governor's house. The child is a visual, living symbol of the scarlet letter of Hester's dress. Hester's red "A" and Pearl's radiance attract attention, and mother and child are both ridiculed along the way. Upon their arrival, Pearl is fascinated by the size and elaborateness of the Governor's house, for she is unaccustomed to seeing anything outside her small thatched cottage. Inside, the child notices the many objects-de-art. She is particularly fascinated with a suit of armor whose polished metal reflects an enlargement of everything, including Hester's scarlet letter and Pearl's impish smile.
As Governor Bellingham emerges from the garden, accompanied by Reverend John Wilson, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth, the men first notice Pearl and her crimson dress. Because of her flamboyant appearance, they wonder if she is a Christian child or a supernatural being.
On noticing Hester and realizing that Pearl is her child, the Governor informs her that the men have been discussing the propriety of placing Pearl under the guardianship of some responsible person so that Pearl will be "clad soberly and disciplined strictly." Hester argues that she is best suited to teach and care for Pearl.
Reverend John Wilson is asked by the Governor to examine the three-year-old child's religious knowledge. Pearl refuses to cooperate and acts as if she knows nothing, even though Hester has taught the three year old child much religious information. Both Wilson and the Governor are horrified to learn that Pearl does not attribute her birth to Christ. Instead, she replies that she has been plucked off the rose bush near the prison. At these utterances, the governor considers the matter settled; he strongly believes that a child who can not suitably answer 'who made her' does not deserve to remain with her mother.
Hester grows agitated and declares that she will never allow Pearl to be separated from her. She appeals to her own minister, Rev. Dimmesdale, to intervene on her behalf. Dimmesdale appears shaken by the interchange. He is pale and holds his heart; but he successfully pleads Hester's case, saying that God has given the child to Hester as a blessing and as a reminder of her sin. Chillingworth comments on the minister's earnestness in the matter and again raises questions about Pearl's father. Hester feels great relief to know that Pearl will stay with her, and Rev. Dimmesdale gives the child a kiss on the head.
With the matter amicably resolved, Hester leaves the mansion with Pearl. On her way out, Mistress Hibbins, another historical figure who was executed as a witch in 1656, approaches Hester and invites her to join in some witch merriment in the forest. Hester refuses her and turns for home.
This chapter depicts the growing familiarity between Roger Chillingworth, the physician, and the ailing Arthur Dimmesdale. The townspeople feel that Providence has brought Chillingworth to Boston to care for their young minister, whose health is failing. Dimmesdale protests Chillingworth's concern for him and says he does not need a doctor; the church elders disagree and give Chillingworth permission to treat Dimmesdale. The two men begin spending much time together and finally set up residence in the same house.
Chillingworth's growing interest in learning the truth about Dimmesdale's ill-health is pointed out in detail. He applies all the resources at his disposal to learn more about the young pastor. The harder he works at uncovering the details of Dimmesdale's life, the uglier and more evil he appears. Before long the townspeople notice the change in Chillingworth's face and begin to have suspicions about him. Some think that he practices the black art of magic, and others think he is Satan's emissary sent to torture Dimmesdale. No matter who he is, Chillingworth is obviously not helping the young minister, who seems to grow sicker and gloomier with each passing day
As Roger Chillingworth spends more time with Dimmesdale, he becomes more obsessed with learning his patient's secrets. He is compared to a miner searching for gold and to a sexton digging a grave in search of some ornament. Dimmesdale notices his curiosity and begins to grow suspicious of Chillingworth.
During one conversation, Chillingworth mentions a person who died with an unconfessed and hidden secret in his heart. Dimmesdale suggests that the man might have desired to confess but failed to act.
He further adds that at times the guilty heart is compelled to hide secrets until the day of reckoning. Chillingworth points out that it is always better to confess sin while one is still alive. Dimmesdale agrees, but adds that some people fail to do so because of their reserved nature or because of a sense of despair; instead, they choose to live in "their own unutterable torment". As their conversation proceeds, their attention is ironically diverted by the sight of Pearl playing on the graves outside. Then they watch her decorate her mother's scarlet "A" with sticker burrs.
Chillingworth and Dimmesdale discuss Pearl's strange behavior. The child, upon hearing the men's voices, spies the two. She tells her mother that they must leave or "yonder old Black Man will catch you! He hat got hold of the minister already." Pearl's words are often wise and beyond her age.
Chillingworth, who is convinced he knows Dimmesdale's secret, becomes more malicious and starts tormenting the minister discreetly. Ignorant of the doctor's background or motives, Dimmesdale simply begins to fear him as an evil man. Since he cannot understand the reason for his own "distrust and abhorrence" of Chillingworth, he attributes it to his own guilty conscience.
Dimmesdale yearns to confess his sin to his congregation, but he can never gather the courage to openly speak about it. Instead, through his sermons, he indirectly projects himself as a sinner. The congregation, however, believes he him to be a holy man incapable of committing sin. They interpret his discreet confessions as a sign of humility; therefore, their respect and reverence for their minister are increased. Dimmesdale now feels even more hypocritical, and his misery swells. In an effort to purge himself of his sins, Dimmesdale whips himself in private and fasts for long periods of time. He also keeps all- night vigils during which he sees frightening visions of demons, his parents, and Hester with Pearl painting the letter "A" at Dimmesdale's heart. During one such night of vigil, Dimmesdale carefully dresses and prepares to go out in his clerical robes.
Dimmesdale reaches the scaffold and climbs to where Hester has stood with Pearl some years ago. The dark night offers him enough cover to remain unseen, but he involuntarily lets out a scream of pain and torture. He immediately covers his face, fearing disclosure. Governor Bellingham and his sister, Mistress Hibbins are awakened by the noise. They look out their windows, but fail to see Dimmesdale on the scaffold due to the darkness. Relieved that there has been no public exposure, Dimmesdale spies Rev. Wilson walking past with a lantern. He has an urge to speak out to him, but once again cowardice prevents him from confession. His words remain unspoken as Rev. Wilson walks away.
Dimmesdale begins to imagine how, standing on the scaffold and exposed to the cold wind, he might be discovered in a frozen state the next morning with his shame revealed to all. His vision brings a laugh to his lips, and there is an immediate response from Pearl, whose laughter he recognizes. He invites Hester and Pearl to join him on to the scaffold.
The three of them remain standing on the platform holding hands, with Pearl in the middle. United with his family, Dimmesdale has a peaceful moment; but it is broken when Pearl asks him if he would stand with them again on the next noon. Dimmesdale replies in the negative and states that they will all stand together on the Day of Judgment. An offended Pearl breaks free of his hold.
Just then a flash of meteoric light brightens the sky; when Dimmesdale looks upward, he perceives the shape of a scarlet letter "A" illuminated in the darkness. He also notices Roger Chillingworth standing near the platform. An evil scowl covers the doctor's face, making him resemble Satan.
Dimmesdale confesses his fear of Chillingworth and asks Hester if she knows his true identity. Hester wants to tell him the truth, but she remembers her oath to Chillingworth and remains silent. Chillingworth comes nearer and convinces Dimmesdale to return home with him.
Hester is horrified at the change she sees in Dimmesdale's appearance and behavior. He is a shell of his former self; he looks tired and defeated, and he is extremely nervous. Hester resolves to help him in any way she can.
Hester has also changed over the last seven years. Her attitude to life and the peoples' attitude towards her are presented in this chapter. She has lived an austere and uncomplaining life, accepting her situation without malice towards anyone. Her liveliness and charm have been replaced by seriousness and practicality. Her beautiful hair is hidden under a cap. She has learned to ignore the humiliating remarks and looks of the townspeople and proudly go about her business. She renders selfless service to the poor, needy, and sick, without expecting anything in return. Her goodness is noticed by the people of Boston, who gradually begin to consider her scarlet letter as representing Able and not Adultery.
The chapter also shows Hester's genuine concern for Dimmesdale and Chillingworth's proximity to him. She worries about what the evil Chillingworth is secretly inflicting on him and about having kept Chillingworth's secret from the minister. She knows things are not good for Dimmesdale because of his physical appearance and behavior.
Finding Chillingworth alone, Hester approaches him. He greets her kindly, compliments her behavior, and says he has heard talk about allowing her to remove the scarlet letter. Hester says that if she were worthy not to wear the letter, it would fall off of its own accord or be transformed into something different. In truth, it has been transformed, for when the townspeople look upon it now, they never think about its standing for Adultery.
Hester informs Chillingworth that she would like to break the vow given to him and reveal the truth of his identity to Dimmesdale. She implores Chillingworth to stop tormenting the minister and leave him to divine retribution. Hester truly feels that Dimmesdale has been made to suffer much more than the wrong he did to Chillingworth. At the same time, Hester accepts that Chillingworth has been wronged by her and that his changed situation from a calm and wise person to a demented demoniac is due to her. Just as she was shocked at Dimmesdale's situation, she is horrified at the evil transformation she sees in her husband. His face is cruel and fierce and his eyes glow red with his thirst for revenge.
As Hester leaves Chillingworth, she reflects on her past relationship with him and concludes that he has wronged her more than she wronged him. He should never have convinced an innocent, young girl to marry him in his old age. Even though she knows it is a sin, she states that she hates him.
The chapter then switches to a description of Pearl, who plays on the beach while her mother visits with Chillingworth. Pearl adorns herself with seaweed and uses it to form a green letter "A," which she proudly wears on her chest, in imitation of her mother. When Hester notices it, she asks Pearl if she knows what her scarlet "A" means. Pearl, once again wise beyond her years, states that her mother wears the scarlet letter for the same reason that Dimmesdale always holds his heart; but Pearl demands three times to know the meaning of the scarlet "A" and why the minister keeps his hand on his heart. When the child is not given an answer to the questions, she pesters Hester about the questions for the rest of the day. Hester threatens to lock Pearl in a closet if she does not quit badgering her.
Hester is anxious to tell Dimmesdale about Chillingworth's true identity. She decides, however, not to go to his residence, where she might see Chillingworth. She waits for a chance to meet him on one of his solitary walks. She often takes Pearl in the forest, hoping to find Dimmesdale. One day, Pearl notices that the sunshine comes and goes due to heavy clouds. Pearl playfully says that the sunshine is trying to run away from her mother's scarlet letter.
Pearl also questions her mother about the Black Man who supposedly stalks the forest tempting people. She has heard that Hester's scarlet letter is a mark of the Black Man. When Pearl questions her mother about it, Hester finally admits to her child that she once met the devil and "this scarlet letter is his mark!" Pearl then questions why Dimmesdale, who always clutches his heart, does not wear his scarlet letter on the outside.
Pearl and Hester sit beside a babbling brook and listen to its sounds. The quiet is interrupted by the footsteps of the approaching Dimmesdale. Hester sends Pearl away to play nearby after assuring the child that it is not the Black Man coming. Dimmesdale enters, walking with a cane and appearing feeble, tired, and listless; his hand clutches his heart.
After several tries, Hester finally manages to meet Dimmesdale, who is weak and despondent. At first sight, both doubt the existence of the other; then, reassured by a touch of their cold hands, they converse about their past love and its consequence. Dimmesdale admits his misery and despair, telling Hester that while she openly wears the scarlet letter, "mine burns in secret."
Hester reveals to Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband and seeks his forgiveness for having kept it a secret. Dimmesdale is horrified to learn the truth and feels that he has been exposed before the one who could never sympathize with him. He, at first, holds Hester responsible for his wretchedness, but later forgives her. He then declares that Chillingworth is more sinful than either of them.
Amazed at Hester's devotion and willingness to go with him, Dimmesdale reconsiders her suggestion to leave Boston. It will not be an easy thing for him to do, for he is a Puritan minister closely tied to the city where he has always preached. If he leaves Boston, he will be leaving behind everything that he knows and a congregation that is very supportive of him. A move will be much easier for Hester, for she has no real ties to the city. She was born in England, not a Puritan, and transported to Boston, where she has been forced to live outside the Puritan society. Hester is also more flexible and stronger than Dimmesdale.
Like Hester, Dimmesdale longs for a life with her, for his love has never died. Once he decides to leave Boston with her, he is transformed physically and emotionally. Thrilled at the prospect of a new life, Hester removes the scarlet letter, throws it away, and immediately feels a sense of freedom. She also discards her cap and allows her hair to fall around her shoulders, returning her beauty and youthfulness. As if to reflect their joy, the sunshine breaks through and lights up the forest.
Hester then tells Dimmesdale that he should get to know their daughter and informs him that she is a strange child. Dimmesdale doubts whether Pearl can accept and love him. Hester, however, is confident that Pearl will adjust. She calls out to the child, who is busily entertaining herself nearby and comes reluctantly when summoned. In fact, Pearl seems more at home out in the wild than she does in the confines of her home.
As Pearl approaches them with flowers in her hair, Hester and Dimmesdale discuss how much she looks like her father. Dimmesdale confesses that he has often been afraid of discovery through her resemblance. When Pearl see the two of them together, she refuses to cross the brook and come near, despite her mother's encouragement. She points to Hester's dress and goes into a screaming fit of anger. Hester realizes Pearl is upset about the missing scarlet letter, which she has constantly worn during the child's lifetime. Dimmesdale says she must do what is necessary to calm Pearl, so Hester tells the child to bring her the letter lying on the ground. When Pearl refuses to comply, Hester retrieves it herself, pins it to her dress, and ties back her hair. Pearl then rushes to her and gives her kisses; however, she suspiciously looks at Dimmesdale occupying her rightful place beside her mother.
Pearl questions Dimmesdale's presence. When Hester says he is there because he loves both of them, Pearl asks whether he will walk hand-in-hand with them into town, revealing her distrust of him. Hester informs Pearl that in the future the three of them will live together openly.
Dimmesdale leaves the forest ahead of Hester and Pearl and has to reassure himself that his meeting with them was not a dream. He also reflects on their plan to leave within the week on board a Spanish ship bound for Bristol. Hester will discreetly book their tickets, and on the day after the Election Day sermon, they will leave Boston for good.
On his way back home, Dimmesdale finds himself completely changed. He no longer walks feebly, and everything around him, especially his church, appears brighter. When he passes his parishioners, however, he is at a loss for words, for he finds that he wants to say wicked things to them. He is afraid that perhaps he has sold his soul to he devil. He then encounters Mistress Hibbins, the witch, who refers to his secret meeting in the forest, which Dimmesdale denies. She laughs at him knowingly and tells him she will meet him in the forest at midnight.
Election Day, an important Puritan holiday, arrives and the market place is flooded with people. There is an air of festivity about, but the people do not seem excited or filled with joy. Hester, dressed in her typical drab clothing, sets off with her daughter towards town. Pearl, dressed in particularly bright clothing, is excited about the holiday and more lively than usual. Even Hester is filled with joy, knowing that she will be leaving Boston in a few days.
When Pearl spies the crowd of people, she inquires whether Dimmesdale will be there and hold out his hand to them. Hester says that he will be present, but that they must not greet him. Pearl is mystified as to why he will recognize them at night and in the forest and ignore them in daylight. She calls him "a strange, sad man."
In the midst of the Puritans, Indians, and sailors assembled in the market place, Hester notices Chillingworth, who is talking to the captain of the ship bound for Bristol. The captain, departing from Chillingworth, comes to Hester and informs her that Chillingworth has also booked passage to Bristol on his ship. When Hester looks at Chillingworth from a distance, he smiles knowingly at her.
The Election Day procession starts with the military band, followed by the local troops; next come the eminent civilians, followed by Dimmesdale. As the minister walks past Hester and Pearl, he does not even glance at them, an action that hurts Hester. She, however, cannot keep her eyes off of him. She immediately notices that he has significantly changed in appearance. He no longer appears emaciated or weak and walks with a healthy gait. She also notices that he does not hold his hand over his heart.
Pearl, like her mother, notices the changes in Dimmesdale and wonders if it is the same person whom they had met in the forest. She also notices that he does not look their way. Pearl feels unhappy and wonders how he would react if she were to go up to him and ask for a kiss.
Mistress Hibbins joins Hester and informs her that she knows of the secret meeting with Dimmesdale in the forest; she also implies that the outwardly pious minister is guilty of the same sin as Hester. Finally she predicts that the minister's mask, obviously implanted by the devil, will be removed, and the truth about him will soon be revealed to the world. Pearl will then know why he has held his hand over his heart.
The service begins in the meeting house. The sound of Dimmesdale delivering the sermon is heard by Hester, who chooses to remain outside at the scaffold. The Puritans, the Indians, and the sailors pass by her and look at the scarlet letter, each with a different emotion. In the crowd, Hester sees some of the people who had been there when she was first made to stand on the scaffold.
After Dimmesdale's inspiring and emotional sermon, the procession moves towards the town hall. The people are enthralled by Dimmesdale's words, revere his seeming holiness, and judge him as more pious and honorable than ever. As he walks past in the procession, the spectators cheer him triumphantly and think he is the best preacher of all of New England.
There has been a significant change in Dimmesdale's appearance since the earlier procession. Ironically, after his triumphant sermon he no longer walks with a healthy gait, but is once again feeble and tottering. There is also a strange expression upon his face. As he nears the scaffold, Dimmesdale leaves the procession and seeks Hester's help in climbing up the steps with Pearl. Chillingworth tries to intervene and warns him of the consequences of a public disclosure. Dimmesdale, however, refuses to be victimized by Chillingworth any longer. He is determined to make a public confession of his sin before he dies.
As the crowd, with its distinguished guests, stands aghast, Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold with Hester and Pearl. Standing in full public gaze, he addresses the people and confesses his guilt. He declares that, like Hester, he too wears the mark of sin. Before collapsing, Dimmesdale bears his chest for all to see. He then forgives Chillingworth and asks Pearl to kiss him.
For the first time, Pearl truly reveals her love for Dimmesdale. As her tears fall for the first time in the novel, she undergoes a transformation that will enable her to lead a normal life. No longer will she feel the need to shun companionship or insist that her mother wear the scarlet letter. Her questions have been answered, her humanity has been established, and she will no longer be the impish child she has been throughout the book.
Dimmesdale bids a final farewell to Hester, for he doubts he can be united with her for eternity because of his sinful nature. The minister then dies, leaving the people with a sense of awe.
Dimmesdale's exposure of his breast is interpreted differently by the people. Some believed that there was really a scarlet letter there, a mark of his sinfulness. Some said the devil put it there; others believed that Dimmesdale had carved it there himself as self-inflicted punishment; others felt that Chillingworth had caused it. Others, especially those representative of the Church and the State, believed that there was no such sign on his heart and that he had no personal sin; they interpreted Dimmesdale's ascending the scaffold with Hester and Pearl as a symbolic lesson in the sinfulness of all men. In God's view, everyone is a sinner in need of mercy.
Hester and Pearl remain in Boston until Chillingworth's death, which occurred within a year. Driven by his revenge, after Dimmesdale's death, he no longer had a reason for existing. Pearl inherits a large sum of money and property from him, his only noble act in the book.
Later, mother and daughter disappear, and the people often hear rumors about their whereabouts. Hawthorne indicates that have gone to Europe. Then one day Hester returns to her old cottage without Pearl. Once again, different stories are circulated. Hawthorne discloses, however, that Pearl has married well, has a child of her own, and is constantly in touch with her mother. She, therefore, becomes the only bright spot in a gloomy novel.