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Synopsis

The Scarlet Letter is an 1850 romantic work of fiction in a historical setting, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is considered to be his magnum opus. Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston during the years 1642 to 1649, it tells the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an adulterous affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. Throughout the book, Hawthorne explores themes of legalism, sin, and guilt.
The story starts during the summer of 1642, near Boston, Massachusetts, in a Puritan village. A young woman, named Hester Prynne, has been led from the town prison with her infant daughter in her arms, and on the breast of her gown "a rag of scarlet cloth" that "assumed the shape of a letter." It is the uppercase letter "A." The Scarlet Letter "A" represents the act of adultery that she has committed and it is to be a symbol of her sin—a badge of shame—for all to see. A man, who is elderly and a stranger to the town, enters the crowd and asks another onlooker what's happening. The second man responds by explaining that Hester is being punished for adultery. Hester's husband, who is much older than she, and whose real name is unknown, has sent her ahead to America whilst settling affairs in Europe. However, her husband does not arrive in Boston and the consensus is that he has been lost at sea. It is apparent that, while waiting for her husband, Hester has had an affair, leading to the birth of her daughter. She will not reveal her lover's identity, however, and the scarlet letter, along with her subsequent public shaming, is the punishment for her sin and secrecy. On this day, Hester is led to the town scaffold and harangued by the town fathers, but she again refuses to identify her child's father.
The elderly onlooker is Hester's missing husband, who is now practicing medicine and calling himself Roger Chillingworth. He reveals his true identity to Hester and medicates her daughter. They have a frank discussion where Chillingworth states that it was foolish and wrong for a cold, old intellectual like him to marry a young lively woman like Hester. He expressly states that he thinks that they have wronged each other and that he is even with her — her lover is a completely different matter. Hester refuses to divulge the name of her lover and Chillingworth does not press her stating that he will find out anyway. He does elicit a promise from her to keep his true identity as Hester's husband secret, though. He settles in Boston to practice medicine there. Several years pass. Hester supports herself by working as a seamstress, and her daughter, Pearl, grows into a willful, impish child, and is said to be the scarlet letter come to life as both Hester's love and her punishment. Shunned by the community, they live in a small cottage on the outskirts of Boston. Community officials attempt to take Pearl away from Hester, but with the help of Arthur Dimmesdale, an eloquent minister, the mother and daughter manage to stay together. Dimmesdale, however, appears to be wasting away and suffers from mysterious heart trouble, seemingly caused by psychological distress. Chillingworth attaches himself to the ailing minister and eventually moves in with him so that he can provide his patient with round-the-clock care. Chillingworth also suspects that there may be a connection between the minister's torments and Hester's secret, and he begins to test Dimmesdale to see what he can learn. One afternoon, while the minister sleeps, Chillingworth discovers something undescribed to the reader, supposedly an "A" burned into Dimmesdale's chest, which convinces him that his suspicions are correct.

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