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The Scarlet Letter


Hester Prynne
The book’s protagonist and the wearer of the scarlet letter that gives the book its title. The letter is a patch of fabric elaborately embroidered by Hester with an A, identifying Hester as an “adulterer.” As a young woman, Hester married an elderly scholar who sent her ahead to America, where he planned to meet her after finishing up some business. While waiting for her husband, who had still not arrived after two years, she has an affair with the Puritan minister Arthur Dimmesdale. The affair led to the birth of their child, Pearl, and to her public shaming at the opening of the novel. For her immoral behavior, Hester is banished to the outskirts of town. She is largely friendless, but through her kindness and talent as a seamstress she becomes a respected, if alienated, member of society.

Hester’s illegitimate daughter. Pearl is a young girl with a moody, mischievous spirit and the ability to perceive things others do not. She quickly discerns the truth about her mother and Dimmesdale, though neither will confirm her suspicions. The townspeople say that she barely seems human and spread rumors that her unknown father is actually the Devil. Pearl has grown up with her mother outside of the town, and she often terrorizes the town’s children, who view her as a curiosity. She is wise beyond her years, frequently engaging in ironic play having to do with her mother’s scarlet letter.

Roger Chillingworth
Hester’s husband. “Roger Chillingworth” is actually a pseudonym used by Hester’s husband to disguise his identity from the townspeople. He is an old scholar (he is much older than Hester) who had sent Hester to America while he settled his affairs in Europe. He arrives in Boston belatedly after being shipwrecked and captured by Native Americans. Upon his arrival in town, he finds Hester and her illegitimate child being publicly displayed for the crime of adultery. He lusts for revenge, and thus decides to stay in Boston despite his wife’s betrayal and disgrace. He uses his knowledge to disguise himself as a doctor, intent on discovering and tormenting Hester’s anonymous lover.

Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale
Hester’s anonymous lover. As a young theologian, Dimmesdale studied at some of England’s greatest universities before immigrating to America, specifically Boston, to work as a minister. In a moment of weakness, he becomes Hester’s lover and the father of her child, though he will not acknowledge this fact publicly. Dimmesdale’s commitments to his congregation are in constant conflict with his feelings of sinfulness and need to confess. The adulation he receives from them only serves to exacerbate his sense of guilt and self-loathing. Dimmesdale torments himself physically and psychologically for his sins, and his health deteriorates through the course of the novel, even as his prestige as a minister continues to increase.

Governor Bellingham
A wealthy, elderly gentleman who spends much of his time consulting with the other town leaders. Bellingham tends to adhere strictly to the rules, but he is easily swayed by Dimmesdale’s eloquence. He remains blind to the misbehaviors taking place in his own house: His sister, Mistress Hibbins, is a witch.

Mistress Hibbins
A widow and sister of Governor Bellingham. She is commonly known to be a witch who ventures into the forest at night to ride with the “Black Man.”

Reverend Mr. John Wilson
Boston’s elder clergyman. Reverend Wilson is a scholarly yet grandfatherly figure. Like Governor Bellingham, Wilson follows the community’s rules strictly but can be swayed by Dimmesdale’s eloquence. Unlike Dimmesdale, his junior colleague, Wilson preaches hellfire and damnation and advocates harsh punishment of sinners.

Former surveyor of the Salem Custom House some 200 years after the events described in the novel take place. The unnamed narrator discovers an old manuscript in the building’s attic that tells the story of Hester Prynne. When he loses his job, he decides to write a fictional treatment of the narrative.