Scarlet Letter Chapter Summaries
The Prison Door
The first chapter pretty much sets the scene for the rest of the book. It describes a door, the door to the prison in seventeenth century Boston. The door is studded with iron spikes and is surrounded with overgrown weeds and one rosebush. The narrator suggests that it’s a reminder of nature’s kindness to the prisoners. It says it will provide a “sweet moral blossom” in the face of distress.
The women standing outside the prison are smugly talking about Hester Prynne’s sin. Hester emerges from the prison looking proud, and holding an infant, and made her way to the scaffold, where she is supposed to be publicly damned. Hester has a gold and scarlet letter “A” on her chest, which means she has committed adultery and has had an illegitimate child, the letter “A” stands for “Adulterer”. The beadle calls Hester forward, the children taunt her, and the adults stare. She starts to have flashbacks of her parents standing outside their home in rural England. Suddenly becoming aware of the crowd, she agonizingly remembers her present punishment for her shameful crime.
In the crowd that is surrounding Hester, she spots her husband, who promised her he’d follow her to America, but never did. Even though he is dressed in an outlandish combination of European clothes and Native American dress, she recognizes him by his slightly deformed shoulders. He gestured to her to not reveal his identity, then turns to a stranger in the crowd and asks about her crime and punishment, stating he’s been imprisoned by some Native Americans, and is just arriving in Boston. The stranger tells him about her adultery charges after she was sent to America by her husband. He replies by saying that Hester’s husband must have been foolish to think that he could keep a young wife happy. Then he proceeds to ask the stranger about the baby’s father, in which the stranger says that she refuses to reveal the sinners name. He also says that as her punishment, Hester has been sentenced to stand for three hours on the scaffold in front of the crowd, and to wear the scarlet letter on her chest for the rest of her life. The narrator then introduces the town fathers, Governor Bellingham, Reverend Wilson, and Reverend Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale, a young minister is renowned for religious fervor, is delegated to demand that Hester tell the name of her child’s father. But she refuses, and he does not pursue her further. She states that her child will receive a heavenly father, and not an earthy one. Reverend Wilson then delivers a condemnatory sermon, and frequently refers to the scarlet letter, which the crowd seems to see glowing and burning upon Hester. She bears the sermon patiently, hushing her child, Pearl, when she starts to whine. At the end, Hester is led back to the prison.
Hester and her husband come face to face for the first time when he is called to the prison to provide medical support. Chillingworth, as he calls himself, promised the jailer to make Hester more agreeable to authority, as he offers her a cup of medicine. His gaze makes Hester shudder, and she refuses to drink his concoction, for she thinks he is poisoning her. He assures her he wants her to live, so he can have his settling of scores. He chastises himself for thinking he could keep a beautiful wife like her happy. He tries to get her to reveal her lovers name, telling her that he will detect signs of sympathy that will guide him to the accountable man. She, yet again, refuses, he makes her promise not to let slip his identity either. His demonical grin and delight at her troubles lead her to blurt out the speculation that he may be the “Black Man”, the devil in disguise, come to damn her soul. Chillingworth replies that it’s not the comfort of her soul that his presence jeopardizes, implying that he plans to hunt for out her...
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