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The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and EthicsThe Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics


The Scarlet Letter (1850)


Written by the American, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64)


Who were Hawthorne's friends?The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics


1. Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Philosopher and writer (pictured right).


2. Herman Melville The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics

Writer of Moby-Dick (pictured right).


Set in...

Boston, Massachusetts, during the mid-seventeenth century.


Fun facts

  • Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, the setting for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
  • Made into a film in 1926 (starring Lillian Gish) and 1995 (starring Demi Moore)


Key characters

Hester Prynne, American immigrant woman from England.

Roger Chillingworth, her elderly husband.

Arthur Dimmesdale, her lover and church minister.

Pearl, her illegitimate daughter.


The storyThe Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics

A young woman, Hester Prynne, is led out of prison in mid-seventeenth century Boston, Massachusetts (then a Puritan, strictly religious, town).

She is holding her infant daughter, Pearl, and wearing an embroidered bright red (or scarlet) letter ‘A’ (for adulterer)

(Lilian Gish is pictured right as Hester in the 1926 film).

She has been forced by the community to wear it on the town scaffold as punishment for her adulterous affair and is shocked to see her elderly husband, Roger Chillingworth, whom she thought was dead.


  • visits her in prison.
  • forces her to keep his identity secret. The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics

She steadfastly refuses to identify her lover and Pearl’s father.

Several years later, Hester is working as a seamstress (still wearing the letter ‘A’) and Pearl has grown into a young girl. They are helped by a young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is suffering from heart trouble, caused by psychological distress.

Chillingworth, working as a doctor, treats him and eventually moves in with him to care for him.

Chillingworth soon suspects that Dimmesdale’s torment is caused by his affair with Hester. He is convinced of this when he sees that Dimmesdale has cut a mark over his heart similar to Hester's scarlet letter.

He is tortured by:The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics

  • guilt.
  • Chillingworth's continual torment.

Chillingwort tells Hester (now renowned for her charitable work and quiet humility) he will continue tormenting Dimmesdale.

She then reveals the truth about her affair with Dimmesdale, and they (pictured right in the 1926 film) decide to leave Boston in four days and live with Pearl in Europe as a family.

Both feel a sense of release and Hester removes her scarlet letter and lets down her hair. The day before the ship is to sail, the townspeople gather for a holiday, and Dimmesdale preaches his best sermon ever.

Meanwhile, Hester has learned that Chillingworth knows of their plan and has booked a place on the same ship. Dimmesdale, leaving the church after his sermon, sees Hester and Pearl standing before the town scaffold.The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics

He impulsively mounts the scaffold with them and makes a public confession, exposing the letter ‘A’ he had cut onto his chest. He falls dead as Pearl kisses him.

Frustrated in his revenge, Chillingworth dies a year later, and Hester and Pearl leave Boston.

Years later, Hester returns (wearing the scarlet letter again) to live in her old cottage and resume her charitable work.

She receives occasional letters from Pearl (now in Europe) who has a husband (an aristocrat) and children.

When Hester dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale, sharing the same tombstone with a scarlet “A” on it.


Lessons for happiness and ethics

 The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics

1. Women are at least as good as men

Hester (Demi Moore, pictured right, in the 1995 film) is the book’s heroine and strongest character who has to endure:

  • her husband’s vengeance.
  • people’s hostility.
  • the indignity of wearing the scarlet letter.


2. Be postive and throw off the chains of your past

Dimmesdale's health is badly affected by his mental tortue over Hester. He is happiest when they:

  • publicly proclaim their love. The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics
  • look forward to their future together in Europe.

But they also show that you can't just live on hope.

“She could no longer borrow from the future to help her through the present grief”, Nathaniel Hawthorne says of Hester.

 Hester (Lilian Gish) and Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson) are pictured right in the 1926 film. 


3. Beware of heartless intolerance and vengeance

Boston is full of intolerant and dogmatic people who refuse to forgive Hester.

Their self-righteousness blinds them to the fact that Hester is only human and has faults, just like them.The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics

“If truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne’s?”, writes Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Chillingworth destroys his own happiness by his vengeful attack on Dimmesdale.

Chillingworth (Robert Duvall) is pictured right in the 1995 film.


4. Integrity means influence

Hester wins respect through her humility and charitable work.

Chillingworth is clever but evil, showing that knowledge is no good without moral integrity.

 The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics

5. Contentment comes from confession

Dimmesdale’s mental burden is lifted by his public confession (pictured right in the 1926 film).

Pearl suggests that he would have saved himself much misery, if he had been courageous enough to do it earlier.


6. A problem shared is a problem halved

Dimmesdale is helped by:

  • his conversation with Hester.
  • their decision to leave Boston.

Not talking about her adultery led to his:

  • mental torture.
  • self-flagellation (burning the letter ‘A’ on his chest).


7. Things are rarely black and whiteThe Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics

Deciding on what’s right is rarely straightforward.

Hester’s adultery is a sin in the Bible but she and Dimmesdale were truly in love, and they thought her husband was dead.

 Hester (Demi Moore) and Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman) are pictured right in the 1995 film.


8. Doing right means making priorities

A confession would have damaged Dimmesdale’s reputation as a minister.

But he should have decided that Hester and Pearl were more important than his job.

 The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics

9. Be true to yourself

Hester is heroic because she:

  • is true to her principles. 
  • courageously brings up Pearl in the face of intense hostility.
  • keeps wearing the scarlet letter unashamedly (because it represents her triumph over adversity and her love for Dimmesdale).

So Hester and Dimmesdale are united in death with a scarlet ‘A’ on their tombstone.

 The Scarlet Letter - Happiness and Ethics

10. Never stop learning


  • learns from the “shame, despair [and] solitude” (resulting from her adultery).
  • learns to moderate her impetuosity (because she knows this may result in losing her daughter).
  • is very reflective - weighing up the pro’s and con’s of any decision (like fleeing to Europe).


Key quotes on pain and stress

The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, despair, solitude! These had been her teachers ... and they had made her strong.

She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom!, (on Hester removing the scarlet letter)


Key quotes on love

Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along with it the utmost passion of her heart!

Love...must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world


Key quote on integrity

No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.


Key quote on the past

The past is gone! Wherefore should we linger upon it now?, Hester (to Dimmesdale, looking forward to their new life together)


Key quote on health

A bodily disease ... may, after all, be but a symptom of some ailment in the spiritual past, Chillingworth


Two literature websites to recommend 

1. sparknotes.com

2. litcharts.com

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