In the crowd that surrounds the scaffold, Hester suddenly spots her husband, who sent her to America but never fulfilled his promise to follow her. Though he is dressed in a strange combination of traditional European clothing and Native American dress, she is struck by his wise countenance and recognizes his slightly deformed shoulders. Hester’s husband (whom we will learn, in the next chapters, is now calling himself Roger Chillingworth) gestures to Hester that she should not reveal his identity. He then turns to a stranger in the crowd and asks about Hester’s crime and punishment, explaining that he has been held captive by Native Americans and has just arrived in Boston. The stranger tells him that Hester is the wife of a learned Englishman and had been living with him in Amsterdam when he decided to emigrate to America. The learned man sent Hester to America first and remained behind to settle his affairs, but he never joined Hester in Boston. Chillingworth remarks that Hester’s husband must have been foolish to think he could keep a young wife happy, and he asks the stranger about the identity of the baby’s father.
The stranger tells him that Hester refuses to reveal her fellow sinner. As punishment, she has been sentenced to three hours on the scaffold and a lifetime of wearing the scarlet letter on her chest. The narrator then introduces us to the town fathers who sit in judgment of Hester: Governor Bellingham, Reverend Wilson, and Reverend Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale, a young minister who is renowned for his eloquence, religious fervor, and theological expertise, is delegated to demand that Hester reveal the name of her child’s father. He tells her that she should not protect the man’s identity out of pity or tenderness, but when she staunchly refuses he does not press her further. Hester says that her child will seek a heavenly father and will never know an earthly one. Reverend Wilson then steps in and delivers a condemnatory sermon on sin, frequently referring to Hester’s scarlet letter, which seems to the crowd to glow and burn. Hester bears the sermon patiently, hushing Pearl when she begins to scream. At the conclusion of the sermon, Hester is led back into the prison.Read a translation of Chapter 3: The Recognition →
Hester and her husband come face to face for the first time when he is called to her prison cell to provide medical assistance. Chillingworth has promised the jailer that he can make Hester more “amenable to just authority,” and he now offers her a cup of medicine. Hester knows his true identity—his gaze makes her shudder—and she initially refuses to drink his potion. She thinks that Chillingworth might be poisoning her, but he assures her that he wants her to live so that he can have his revenge. In the candid conversation that follows, he chastises himself for thinking that he, a misshapen bookworm, could keep a beautiful wife like Hester happy. He urges her to reveal the identity of her lover, telling her that he will surely detect signs of sympathy that will lead him to the guilty party. When she refuses to tell her secret, he makes her promise that she will not reveal to anyone his own identity either. His demoniacal grin and obvious delight at her current tribulations lead Hester to burst out the speculation that he may be the “Black Man”—the Devil in disguise—come to lure her into a pact and damn her soul. Chillingworth replies that it is not the well-being of her soul that his presence jeopardizes, implying that he plans to seek out her unknown lover. He clearly has revenge on his mind.Read a translation of Chapter 4: The Interview →
The town has made Hester into a “living sermon,” as Chillingworth puts it, because she is stripped of her humanity and made to serve the needs of the community. Her punishment is expressed in violent terms. Reverend Wilson relates an argument he had with Dimmesdale about whether to force Hester to confess in public. Dimmesdale spoke of such an action in terms of a rape, arguing that “it were wronging the very nature of woman to force her to lay open her heart’s secrets in such broad daylight, and in presence of so great a multitude.”
The men who sit in judgment of Hester are not only hypocritical but also ignorant. Bellingham, surrounded by the trappings of his office, and Wilson, who looks like “the darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed to old volumes of sermons,” both occupy positions where power is dependent upon self-portrayal and symbols. They know little of human nature and judge using overarching precepts rather than the specifics of an individual situation as their guides. The narrator tells us that these ignorant men “had no right” to “meddle with a question of human guilt, passion and anguish.” Dimmesdale, on the other hand, seems to know something of the human heart. He is compassionate toward Hester and is able to convince Bellingham and Wilson to spare her any harsher punishment.
As part of its meditation on the concept of evil, the text begins to elucidate Dimmesdale’s character for the reader. The emerging portrait is not altogether positive. Although Dimmesdale displays compassion and a sense of justice, he also seems spineless and somewhat sinister. His efforts to get Hester to reveal her lover’s identity involve a set of confusing instructions about following her conscience and exposing her lover in order to save his soul. The reader does not know why Dimmesdale declines to speak straightforwardly, but Hester does. When it is later revealed that Dimmesdale is the lover she seeks to protect, his speech becomes retrospectively ironic and terribly cruel. In this way, The Scarlet Letter comes to resemble a detective story: things have meaning only in the context of later information. The larger implication of such a structure is that lives have meaning only as a whole, and that an individual event (Hester’s adultery, for example) must be examined in a framework larger than that allowed by the categorical rules of religion. This notion returns the reader to the book’s general theme of whether it is ethically right to judge others.