The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

What Does the Ending Mean?

Summary What Does the Ending Mean?

At the end of the novel, Dimmesdale makes a speech and exposes his chest to the community gathered around the scaffold, then dies. A short time later, Chillingworth also dies and leaves his fortune to Pearl; Pearl and Hester go abroad, but Hester returns alone years later to live out her days quietly in the New England community. The ending turns the story into a narrative of redemption, and one in which good triumphs over evil. Although the narrator says there was some debate about what, if anything, Dimmsedale revealed on his chest, the reader understands that Dimmesdale intended the act as a confession of his identity as Pearl’s father. Dimmesdale believes that by finally confessing his secret, he has saved his soul: “Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever!” He dies at peace. By inheriting Chillingworth’s fortune, Pearl also redeems her tainted origins. She will not be haunted by her past, and most likely lives the happy life that Hester was denied. Finally, Chillingworth is defeated in his project of tormenting Dimmesdale: when he realizes Dimmesdale is voluntarily confessing, he laments, “Thou hast escaped me!”

However, while the ending does allow for redemption and peace, it is not, strictly speaking, a happy ending. Rather, the ending shows how individuals can learn from past mistakes, even if they also have to live with the consequences of those actions. Dimmesdale dies believing that his soul has been saved, but he does not get the chance to enjoy a life with Hester and Pearl. Hester is able to regain a sense of agency by voluntarily choosing to re-enter the community, and wearing the scarlet letter by choice rather than out of obligation. However, these decisions also show that she is defined by her past. The narrator reflects that Hester “recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine or mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin.” The final image of the novel is a description of Hester’s tombstone, emblazoned with the letter A. Even after her death, her identity will always be bound up with the fateful choice she made.