Lemony Narrator – All you really need to know is that I found these old documents about a scandal that rocked Salem in the 1600s. I am a writer in the 1800s, but it wasn’t until I got fired as a customs officer (I found the documents in the archives of the Custom House), that I got time and inspiration to turn this scandal into a story.
Mean Biddy 1 – That Hester Prynne deserves a worse punishment for being an adulteress. She has to wear a letter on a chest? Whatever.
Mean Biddy 2 – Back in the good old days, she would have been branded with the ‘A’ on her forehead.
Mean Biddy 1 – Yes, those were indeed the good old days.
[[Hester is lead out of prison with a baby in her arms and a fabulous large ‘A’ made of scarlet and gold fabric pinned to the front of her puritan dress]]
Mean Biddy 2 – Wow, so they told her to sew her own letter and that’s what she came up with? She’s a really good seamstress.
Mean Biddy 1 – Yep. Too bad she’s a sinner. And darn her for still managing to be so beautiful in her shame. Darn her!
[[Hester is forced to sit up on a platform so everyone can judge her]]
Hester – This sucks. [[she recognizes the new face in town]] Oh, and it just got worse.
Top Minister – Sinner Hester, you should tell us who the father is so that we can shame him along with you!
Hester – Um, how about… NO!
Top Minister – Minister Dimmesdale, she was in your congregation, so can’t you talk some sense into her?
Arthur Dimmesdale – The mother should not suffer alone. Let the man who sinned with her come forward to share her shame, or let the mother point him out so that he may share the burden of his sin publicly with the woman, especially if he’s too cowardly or hypocritical to out himself, not that I have any idea whatsoever as to who this weak, frightened man may be.
Hester – Still NO!
Top Minister – Well, fine, you stand there and think about what you’ve done while we all shame you.
[[After a period of public shaming, Hester and the baby are taken back to prison, where both are in such bad shape a doctor is called in, and it’s the new face in town]]
Roger Chillingsworth – Here’s some medicine for you and the baby.
Hester – You aren’t going to kill us, are you?
Roger – Nope.
Hester – Would it help if I said I was sorry I cheated on you? But you did send me here alone and this is the first I’ve heard or seen of you in two years. I thought you were dead!
Roger – You’re not that sorry. You never loved me.
Hester – You never loved me either.
Roger – Fair enough. I won’t harm you or the baby but I want to know who the father is.
Hester – I’m still going with NO on that one.
Roger – Fine, I’ll figure it out myself. But you have to promise not to tell people who I really am. It’ll make it easier for me to find out who the father is and I really don’t want to be the husband of the adulteress.
Hester – I’m too distraught to tell you were to stuff it, so alright.
Lemony Narrator – Hester is eventually released from prison and moves into a small cottage outside of town to raise the little girl; even though she’s a sinner, she happens to be the best seamstress in Salem, and even Puritans indulge in pretty things once in a while, so she makes a pretty good living; she even gives to the poor, who scorn her because she’s a sinner and they aren’t, so good job poor people biting the hand that feeds.
Pearl (Hester’s child) – Mom, what are we doing here?
Hester – The governor might take you away from me, so I’m going to try to convince him that I can raise you fine.
Pearl – Silly governor. Oh, make sure you keep that scarlet letter clearly displayed. You wouldn’t be my mother without it! It’s like it defines you or something. And every time I say something like that you wince like it hurts or something. You’re so silly!
Hester – What is wrong with my child?
[[The governor finds them waiting and has the Top Minister and Dimmesdale with him]]
Governor – Hester Prynne. Is this the child born of sin?
Hester – … This is Pearl.
Governor – What an odd child. Tell me, who made you?
Pearl – I was picked off a rosebush outside of the prison!
Hester – Pearl! Be serious!
Governor – Tsk, tsk. A child of three ought to know that God made her.
Top Minister – Yes, clearly Hester is not capable of raising this child in a godly fashion. We shouldn’t be surprised.
Hester – Minister Dimmesdale! You look awful! Good grief! But anyway, this is more important than your obvious ill-health. Tell them I should keep my child! Tell them how much I need her!
Dimmesdale – If she doesn’t have custody of the child, she may stray further into sin. While she has custody of the child, she has a duty to raise the girl in a godly fashion so that she doesn’t repeat the sins of her parents.
Governor – Well, I suppose that makes some sense. Alright, she keeps the child for now but we’ll be watching you…
Hester – Everyone does. Come on, Pearl.
Pearl – Mom, how come that Minister Dimmesdale holds his heart like you do when I mention the scarlet letter?
Hester – Um, no reason. No reason at all…
Dimmesdale – So, good physician, how come I’m in such bad shape?
Roger – Well, I can’t seem to find a physical reason, so I’m going to guess this is some kind of malady of the soul. You’re not hiding any kind of deep, dark secret that gnaws at the very core of your being, are you?
Dimmesdale – Um, no, of course not.
Roger – Of course not. You’re the most holy man in the town. Forget I said anything about bearing a burden of sin and it slowly crushing your will to live. Also, take this medicine so you can live just a bit longer with this mystery ailment.
Dimmesdale – If that guy wasn’t my friend, I’d think he was out to get me or something.
Lemony Narrator – Fast forward a few years. Dimmesdale’s health continues to deteriorate and in due course Roger does figure out his terrible secret. Dimmesdale has a mental breakdown and crisis of conscience and sneaks out in the middle of the night to the public square to scream out his sins to the world.
Dimmesdale – Um.
Lemony Narrator – It’s much less convincing than the minister thought it would be. Like, kind of lame, actually. No one even begins to wake up.
Hester – Arthur, what are you doing out here? It’s midnight!
Dimmesdale – I’m, um, being a miserable wretch. And I am a miserable, cowardly, terrible person. I tell my congregation over and over what a horrible sinner I am and they only love me all the better for it. You’re tearing me apart, Hester! Hey, what are you doing here anyway?
Hester – Oh, some official just died and I was getting the measurements for the death shroud.
Pearl – Hello silly minister!
Dimmesdale – You-you brought the kid? To a deathbed? In the middle of the night?
Pearl – Mom takes me everywhere!
Dimmesdale – Who am I to judge? Come up here, both of you, and let’s stand up on the platform together as we should have so long ago.
[[Hester and Pearl comply]]
Hester – You really look awful! You look like you’re dying!
Pearl – Are you going to stay up here with us until the sun rises and we can all say good morning to the town together?
Dimmesdale – Um, you know what, I’m not sure I’m ready for that after all.
[[A meteor streaks across the sky like an omen or something]]
Roger – Minister Dimmesdale, what are you doing at this hour? I’m out because I was attending the official that just died but you should be in bed. You must go back home or else you’ll catch your death of cold. And if you die, you can no longer feel the icy blackness of your secret sin slowly tainting your soul and destroying your mind and body.
Dimmesdale – Yes, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. Excuse me.
[[Roger and Dimmesdale go to Dimmesdale’s place and Hester and Pearl return to their cottage]]
Pearl – Is he ever going to confess publicly and have to wear a pretty red ‘A’ like you, Mom?
Hester – I don’t know. And the ‘A’ isn’t pretty.
Pearl – Sure it is, like that meteor in the sky. If you took that off, I wouldn’t know you’re my Mom. And there you go, wincing again like I’ve caused you pain. You’re so funny.
Hester – And it’s bedtime for you, young lady!
Some Foresty Area Near Salem:
[[Roger is gathering herbs]]
Hester – Pearl, go play over there. Roger, this has got to stop.
Roger – What are you talking about?
Hester – It’s clear you figured out Arthur is Pearl’s father and you’re torturing Arthur!
Roger – So? He’s too cowardly to pay the price for his sins and he deserves nothing but torment. I will have my revenge.
Hester – That’s not your place and I can’t let you keep doing this. I’m going to tell him who you are.
Roger – It won’t matter. Vengeance is mine!
Another Foresty Area Near Salem:
[[Dimmesdale is returning from an errand and Hester manages to meet up with him]]
Hester – Pearl, go play over there. Arthur, we need to talk.
Arthur – I’m sorry, Hester, for being such a poor, weak sinner. I’m sorry I’m not a father to Pearl. I’m sorry for everything!
Hester – Yes, yes, we both make a mistake. But the physician you think is your friend is actually my husband!
Arthur – What!?
Hester – Yes! He vowed me to secrecy so he could find out the identity of my co-sinner and destroy him. I should have refused but since I’m at that cottage at the edge of town and never see you, I didn’t know how bad things had gotten. Kick him out, Arthur, before he kills you!
Arthur – And then what, Hester? I lack the courage to stand in judgment in front of the town. I mean, obviously, or I have done it already. I can’t keep being a minister when I’m such a hypocrite.
Hester – Then let’s leave this place! We’ll take Pearl and go to Europe. We can start a new life. [[she dramatically casts away the letter]] For over seven years I’ve worn that thing. I think I’ve paid the price. Let’s get the heck out of here!
Arthur – You’re right! You’ve suffered in the public eye and I’ve suffered in silence and all because we loved each other. Introduce me to Pearl as her father and we’ll leave as soon as we can.
Hester – Pearl, come meet your father!
Pearl – You aren’t my mother! You don’t have the ‘A’!
Hester – Of course I’m your mother, and this is your father. Don’t be silly.
Pearl – My mother has a scarlet ‘A’ on her chest and always has. If you don’t have it, you aren’t my mother and I’m not taking another step.
Arthur – What is wrong with that child?
Hester – I don’t know. I think she might be some kind of fairy or demon-spawn sent to punish me further. [[she reattaches the scarlet letter and Pearl scampers right over]]
Pearl – Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad! Or it is still Secret Dad?
Hester – Pearl! Arthur, I’ll make all the arrangements and we’ll start over!
Lemony Narrator – Hester arranges passage to leave after Election Day, although she finds out the day of that Roger has also booked passage on the same ship. She doesn’t know what to do because Dimmesdale still has to give the Election Day sermon and she has to wait until he’s done. Oh, and he gives a really excellent sermon, maybe the best sermon the whole town has ever heard. The faithful are fortified, and the doubtful are left doubtless.
Random Person 1 – Wow, that was the best sermon I have ever heard.
Random Person 2 – I know, right? It’s like such a holy man really understood the plight of us ordinary sinners.
Dimmesdale – Hester, Pearl, come with me. I should have done this years ago. [[They all climb the platform much to the crowd’s confusion]] Yes, people, I should have done this years ago when Hester so bravely stood here all by herself. I should have walked with her from the prison. I should have stepped forward when the Top Minister called out for her co-sinner to do so. I should have suffered the judgment and scorn of the entire town for seven long years with Hester. But I was weak, cowardly, and a terrible low sinner, and I am the child’s father!
Crowd – *Gasp*
Roger – You can’t confess! How am I supposed to torture you?
Hester – But we were going to start over!
Arthur – I’m sorry, there is no new life for me. I’ll just die now. [[does so]]
Pearl – And I’ll learn some empathy from this tragedy.
Lemony Narrator – With Dimmesdale dead, Roger had no reason to continue to live and in fact died less than a year later, leaving a lot of money and property both in Salem and in Europe to little Pearl. Hester promptly took Pearl away from Salem, presumably to Europe where Pearl was married to someone who would appreciate her wild nature and make her happy. Unbelievably, Hester then returned to Salem still wearing the scarlet letter.
Townspeople – You didn’t have to come back. Seven years was a long time. The magistrates were thinking of letting take the letter off then and we certainly wouldn’t require you to wear it now.
Hester – No, this is my burden of sin to carry for the rest of my life. That was the judgment and I will see it through.
Lemony Narrator – And Hester lived the rest of her life alone in the cottage sewing fancy garments and continuing to help the poor and less fortunate. In time the townspeople saw her as a wise woman and someone they could go to for advice. When Hester finally died, she was buried next to Dimmesdale’s grave and a shared tombstone. In one last “f#&@ you” to the sinners, the tombstone didn’t even have their names; it only had a scarlet “A.”
Okay, there are two problems with getting a modern-day audience into this book – 1) It’s a morality play. The only action is between the three primary players and the little girl, and that action is mostly how they deal with the consequences of the adultery. 2) Long-winded Lemony Narrator. I like Hawthorne, but my copy has 42 pages (!) of him talking about his life as a customs officer and finding the manuscripts on Hester before finally starting the story. So my recommendation for high school teachers is tell the kids to skip the introductory chapter on the Custom House. It absolutely does not matter except that the narrator for the rest of the story uses the word “we” to denote himself and the audience, and at the very end makes reference to finding the manuscripts again. Also, teachers should describe it for what it is – a story about love, sin, and revenge.
Anyway, that first chapter aside, assuming one likes interpersonal drama, this is a good story, albeit with a 19th century flair for lengthy monologues and dramatic phrases. Not that the “Twilight” books in any way compare with this as far as quality goes, the appeal of those books is the same as this one. The main conflict was whether Bella would choose Edward or Jacob and all the supernatural elements and what little fighting there was were entirely superfluous to that main conflict. The main conflict here is between the three main characters and their own inner turmoil. Hester of the three main characters bears her sin the best, maybe because the entire society of Salem judges her for it so she can feel something resembling repentance. Dimmesdale’s secret sin literally kills him, and his confession is long overdue. He tortured himself but not in the way that Hester both tortured herself and was tortured by society. And Roger made the decision to sin when he decided to get revenge against Dimmesdale instead of forgiving him. And, as is common in stories like this, only the child gets a happy ending. I thought Hester was easily the strongest and Dimmesdale was a bit weak since he promptly dies after his confession, which means he doesn’t have to bear any of the judgment Hester’s already had to go through. After Dimmesdale and Roger’s death, Hester leaves Salem and actually comes back to finish her sentence. That’s conviction.