Story Skeleton—The Scarlet Letter

A summary and structural analysis of the plot points in THE SCARLET LETTER by Hawthorn

Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.

 

By David Griffin Brown 

Hester’s Ordeal and Dimmesdale’s Agony 

In my work as a developmental editor, I frequently encounter protagonists who do not have a fleshed out internal conflict. Their external conflict is clear, but without an internal conflict running interference, it can be more difficult for readers to connect with the protagonist. But in The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne takes a different approach. There is indeed an entanglement of external and internal conflict, but he hands each of these to two different characters. 

The Scarlet Letter is a historical fiction novel (published in 1850 but set in the 1640s) about a young couple whose tryst goes badly when a pregnancy reveals their affair. Hester Prynne was married in England and sent on to Boston by her husband (Roger Chillingworth) who was supposed to follow soon after. When he doesn’t arrive and she gives him up for dead, she falls for the local preacher (Arthur Dimmesdale) and gets pregnant. Since the community knows Hester to be married, she is condemned as an adulteress and forced to wear a scarlet letter A in public to mark her as such. Her lover, meanwhile, remains unidentified. 

As such, we have two protagonists on our hands. We also have an active antagonist in Roger Chillingworth with a plot line of his own. Let’s consider the story from all three perspectives: 

  • When Hester Prynne is forced to wear the scarlet letter for adultery, she must navigate societal rejection and seek personal redemption to rebuild her life and protect her daughter, Pearl, before isolation and stigma destroy her spirit and future. 
  • When Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected minister, conceals his part in Hester Prynne's adultery, he must grapple with his crippling guilt and seek forgiveness, otherwise his unresolved torment threatens to unravel his health and his position in the community. 
  • When Roger Chillingworth discovers that his wife, Hester Prynne, has borne a child from an adulterous affair while he was presumed lost at sea, he must plot and execute his revenge against the child's father, Arthur Dimmesdale, without revealing his identity or aspirations for vengeance to the townsfolk.

A quick word about the wacky first chapter

The Scarlet Letter begins with "The Customs House," a peculiar chapter that serves to establish the narrator and the historical context of the story. In Hawthorne's time, historical fiction as a genre was not well-defined. This chapter sets up the narrator’s authority and scope, explaining how he has access to the entire tale and can follow different characters with a classic form of distanced, commentary-heavy omniscience

This narrative choice allows Hawthorne to explore the internal and external conflicts of multiple characters. However, his approach also creates a significant distance between the reader and the characters. Modern readers, editors, and publishers often expect the story to dive directly into the plot. We’ve also come to prefer more intimate narration, such as a deep third-person POV, which connects us more directly to the characters’ experiences. 

Despite these shifts in narrative preferences, Hawthorne’s choice of a distanced omniscient narrator serves his story well. It provides a grand, sweeping view of Puritan society and its complexities. While this style may not be in vogue today, it effectively sets the stage for the intertwined lives and conflicts of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth. 

An Externalized Internal Conflict 

In real life, people have many internal conflicts, which means that a protagonist should too. Everything bouncing around inside a character’s head contributes to their complexity and, therefore, their authenticity. But when we talk about internal conflict in fiction, we’re not just referring to a distant worry or a momentary spike in anxiety. In order to create and sustain emotional draw (that quality of a narrative that keeps readers anticipatory and thus turning pages), authors stack obstacles in front of their protagonist. The internal conflict is often the biggest obstacle of all. It is something the protagonist must come to terms with before their narrative goal can be achieved. 

In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne has many legitimate worries. The townsfolk question whether she should be allowed to keep her daughter. She also wants to be redeemed in the eyes of God. But these concerns are directly related to her external conflict—her narrative goal—which is to overcome public shame. She doesn’t have a clear misbelief or fatal flaw that she needs to come to terms with. A fatal flaw will indeed become her biggest obstacle. But the flaw doesn’t belong to her; it belongs to Arthur Dimmesdale. 

As a respected young minister in the 17th-century Puritan community of Boston, Dimmesdale has a lot to lose. So when Hester becomes pregnant, the couple decide to keep his name out of it. This leads to intense guilt and self-loathing, and that in turn manifests in his failing health. While Hester has a lot stacked against her, it is Dimmesdale’s guilt that brings her closest to failure. And while Hester is active in the pursuit of her narrative goal, Dimmesdale is not. To put that another way, Hester is internally passive while Dimmesdale is externally passive. Their external and internal activity combine to create a complete arc that neither would have on their own. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne splits the arc between these two characters for thematic reasons. Hester and Dimmesdale are two parts of a whole: public shame versus private shame; sin versus redemption; courage versus cowardice. An important takeaway here is that when an author breaks a “rule” or craft fundamental, it works best when done intentionally. After all, craft fundamentals are all about taking the reader’s experience into account. If you’re going to rock the structural boat, you should have a reason for doing so, and that reason should serve the story. 

Even though Hester and Dimmesdale are two parts of a whole, not all their plot points line up. Let’s take a look. 

Plot Points—Hester Prynne 

Stasis

The story opens after the inciting incident, and even after the point of no return, so Hester’s stasis is only hinted at. She arrives in Boston ahead of her husband, an older man whom she doesn’t love, and after time passes and she assumes he has died, Hester enters into an affair with Dimmesdale. 

Structurally, a story’s stasis is important because it provides the foundation for the protagonist’s motivation, and it is out of this motivation that the narrative goal forms. To put that another way, a stasis motivation is a generalized desire or value that tells us something about the protagonist’s underlying character, while the narrative goal is specific—it is the source of plot. 

In Hester’s case, her motivation is to love, which is manifested in her daughter Pearl. Her narrative goal is to overcome public shame. She must achieve this for herself, but more importantly, if she does not regain some respect in the community, Pearl could be taken from her. 

Inciting Incident

The moment Hester’s narrative goal crystallizes is when she is handed her sentence. For the rest of her days, she must wear a scarlet letter A upon her chest as a proclamation of her sin. With that stigma as a constant reminder for all to see, she must find a way to overcome her public shame. 

Point of No Return

In a phenomenal statement about her character, Hester embroiders her scarlet letter with exceptional skill, even fashioning it with gold thread. She does so in defiance of Puritan austerity, which in itself is a risk, but it is also a statement about her worth to the community—that she is an excellent seamstress. She could flee Boston and start a new life elsewhere, but instead she commits to staying, and this starts with an advertisement of her skills. This is her opportunity to secure the work that she will need to provide for her daughter. She will live her sin publicly while also claiming a place in the community. 

Rising Action

The story begins as Hester is released from prison, with Pearl in her arms and the scarlet letter on her chest. She is forced to stand on a scaffold in front of the gathered townsfolk. This opening scene serves as the antagonist’s inciting incident: her husband Chillingworth arrives at her sentencing but decides to keep his identity a secret from the community (more on that in a minute). Keeping in mind that Hester’s narrative goal is to overcome her public shame, her rising action involves how she struggles and strives toward this end, much of which involves her daughter Pearl. 

Pearl is a bit wild, such that her mother wonders if she’s fully human. The girl's tendency for tantrums and defiance threatens to undermine Hester's efforts at redeeming herself in the eyes of the community. However, Hester lives her sin out in the open, so rather than hide her daughter’s true nature, she dresses her in ornate clothing, even in scarlet and gold to match the letter upon Hester’s chest. 

This conflict comes to a head early on when Governor Bellingham suggests that Hester isn’t fit to raise the child. She implores Reverend Dimmesdale to vouch for her, which he does, and this resolves the threat to her custody of Pearl. 

Hester’s efforts also include the hard work and skill she puts into her trade. By dressing Pearl in such finery, and by the letter she bears, she is letting everyone know what she can do. More and more, the townsfolk turn to her to make and mend their clothing. After a while, even the town’s magistrates wear her garments. But as Hester becomes more accepted, as her scarlet letter comes to stand for “able” and perhaps “acceptance,” she herself becomes more severe and dresses more plainly like the rest of the Puritan townsfolk. Such is the pious humility she has gained—her public badge of sin is the source of her redemption. 

Midpoint reversal

All this time, Chillingworth has been tormenting Dimmesdale while also acting as the ailing man’s doctor. When Hester realizes what her husband is up to, she confronts him, admonishes him for what he is doing to the reverend, and threatens to reveal his true identity. This point in the novel is a reversal since the protagonist’s goal shifts. She has come a long way toward overcoming her public shame and gaining the community’s acceptance. Now that she is at her strongest and Dimmesdale is at his weakest, she wants to help him. This is also a reversal of the opening scenario when she was at her weakest, and he was at his strongest. Thus her new goal is to help Dimmesdale overcome his demons, or rather, his singular demon, at least as she sees it—Chillingworth. 

Rising Action

Hester follows Dimmesdale as he sets out to visit a Native American village. When she finds him in the forest, she confesses that Chillingworth is her husband and insists that they leave Boston together. Up to this point, it has been Hester’s love of Pearl that drove her onward. Now she makes a gambit for Dimmesdale’s love. But she does so out of a desire to help him—to do for him what he couldn’t do for her. Dimmesdale agrees to the plan. They will sail back to England together. However, when Hester tosses aside her scarlet letter, Pearl is upset. After all, the girl is a stand-in for the scarlet letter. The public truth of Hester’s sin cannot be hidden or thrown away. Also in this scene, Dimmesdale gives Pearl a kiss, which the girl washes off. In essence, she rejects her father because he is still living a lie, and in refusing to take responsibility for his sin, he is also refusing responsibility for his child. 

All is lost—the dark moment

The plan is for Dimmesdale to deliver his Election Day speech, after which they will board a ship back to England. However, since their meeting in the forest, Dimmesdale’s agony has increased. Meanwhile, Hester finds out that Chillingworth has booked passage on the same ship. If the townsfolk find out that Hester and Dimmesdale are leaving together, they may both lose everything—Hester the respect that she’s earned, and Dimmesdale the opportunity to escape his guilt, plus their chance of becoming a family. 

Climax

Hester has done everything she can. The next move is up to Dimmesdale—it is finally the passive co-protagonist’s turn to act. The reverend delivers the best sermon of his life, eliciting cheers and shouts from the congregation, and he knows it is also his last. His health is failing him, and he cannot go on with the lie he has held for so long. Running away was never really an option, because that would only compound his sin. Reverend Dimmesdale calls Hester and Pearl to join him on the village scaffold, and then he makes his shocking confession. It’s now Pearl’s turn to kiss her father—he has atoned, so she can finally forgive him. Dimmesdale promises Hester that they will be together again in heaven, and then he dies from the illness that has been eating at him. 

Resolution

Hester and Pearl remain in Boston, and within the year, Chillingworth dies, leaving all his wealth to Pearl. Mother and daughter return to England for a time, but one day Hester returns to Boston. She puts the scarlet letter back on and dedicates her life to helping others. When she dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale beneath a single headstone engraved with nothing but the letter A. 

Plot Points—Arthur Dimmesdale 

Stasis

Hawthorne doesn’t come right out and say that Dimmesdale is Hester’s lover and Chillingworth is her husband, even though it becomes obvious fairly quickly. But as a result, the narrator doesn’t reveal any specifics about Dimmesdale’s stasis—apart from the fact that he’s a reverend, so clearly the state of his soul and his reputation are both very important to him. 

Inciting incident

As with Hester, Dimmesdale’s inciting incident is the pregnancy scandal. The townsfolk know Hester is married, even if it is to a man they’ve never met. While Hester cannot hide her involvement, Dimmesdale can. Since the story begins after this point, readers don’t learn exactly how the two lovers agreed to keep this secret, but a secret it is, nonetheless. In the opening scene, it’s clear the baby’s father hasn’t come forward and, when pressed, Hester refuses to name him. Dimmesdale’s narrative goal is set: he must keep this secret while wrestling with the guilt of both his sin and his cowardice. 

Note the difference in specificity of these two narrative goals. Hester’s goal has a potential finish line: she may well reach a point when the community as a whole accepts her and the threat to her custody of Pearl has ended. However, Dimmesdale’s goal, to contend with guilt, does not have a finish line. If he keeps his secret, his guilt will remain. This is quite common in the classic tragic structure. The fatal flaw drives the protagonist to pursue a goal they cannot hope to achieve. In a comic structure, the reader cheers the protagonist on toward their goal. In a tragic structure, the reader cheers the protagonist to give up on their misguided goal and instead do the right thing. 

Point of no return

Shortly after the story begins, both a church leader and the governor urge a reluctant Reverend Dimmesdale to get Hester’s confession. Here is his opportunity, with the entire town present, to own up to the affair. Instead, he continues the farce and weakly asks Hester to name her lover. She refuses. Their lie has been performed in front of everyone. Now more than ever, Dimmesdale is stuck. He must carry this lie and the guilt that comes with it. 

Rising action

Whereas Hester’s rising action centres around Pearl, Dimmesdale’s rising action is tied to Chillingworth. When the governor suggests taking Pearl away from Hester, Dimmesdale insists that the child remain with her. Chillingworth is present for this, so it is his first major clue as to who Hester might have had an affair with. From the reader’s perspective, it seems like the gig might be up, but in fact Chillingworth doesn’t want to expose Dimmesdale; he wants to torment him. 

And torment him he does. Dimmesdale knows Chillingworth is watching him, but there’s nothing he can do about it. His health is worsening, and the doctor, who spent time studying medicine in Native American communities prior to his arrival in Boston, has a remedy to keep the reverend going. It’s not a cure though; it seems the doctor has no intention of curing him. 

The more Dimmesdale’s health declines, the more the townsfolk think he’s a saint. This admiration only increases his guilt. 

Midpoint

The midpoint of Dimmesdale’s plot line is the midpoint for the entire novel. He goes to the scaffold one night, more tortured than ever, when Hester and Pearl happen upon him. They join him on the scaffold and hold hands. Pearl asks Dimmesdale if he will join them on the scaffold the following afternoon—she senses the lie between them, hidden as they are by the night. After a shooting star appears as a letter A above them, Chillingworth shows up and leads Dimmesdale away. The reverend is no doubt afraid that his secret has finally been revealed, and Chillingworth is more certain than ever of Dimmesdale’s sin. 

Note that this is a midpoint but not a reversal. As a midpoint, it finally gives readers insight into Hester and Dimmesdale’s relationship, and it also increases the stakes as Chillingworth is also privy to the reveal. However, Dimmesdale’s narrative goal hasn’t changed. 

False Victory

In the tragic structure, the climax is preceded by a false victory rather than an all-is-lost moment. This is the scene where Hester intercepts Dimmesdale in the woods. He is buoyed by her strength, and her offer for them to run away together fills him with new hope. He does not have to live with this guilt forever. They can leave Boston behind and become the family they always wanted. 

Climax

This reprieve proves false when Dimmesdale returns to town. Evil thoughts are creeping into his head. He refuses Chillingworth’s medicine, burns his Election Day sermon, and starts writing a new one. He knows he cannot escape his guilt. At last, he is ready to give up on his futile quest. 

When it comes time to deliver his inspired sermon, Dimmesdale calls Hester and Pearl up to the scaffold, confesses, and then dies. He has failed at his quest to keep this secret while contending with his guilt. Instead, he makes his public confession and earns the forgiveness of Hester and Pearl. At the same time, he has thwarted Chillingworth’s attempt to fully corrupt and damn his soul. 

Plot Points—Chillingworth 

Stasis

Chillingworth is the most enigmatic of the three main characters. We learn that he delayed his arrival in Boston to spend time with Native Americans, with whom he studied medicine. We also know that he is older than Hester, and she does not love him. 

Inciting incident

Roger Chillingworth arrives to the crowd assembled around the scaffold whereupon stands Hester, newly released from prison, with baby Pearl in her arms. He knows at once that his wife has had an affair. In this moment, his plan for revenge crystallizes, though readers learn this obliquely. Initially, his goal is to find out who the baby’s father is, but the undercurrent is already about revenge. 

In this scene, all he does is motion for Hester to ignore him. This subtle gesture makes it clear that Chillingworth does not intend to declare himself as Hester’s husband. He has other plans that readers can only guess at. 

Point of no return

When Chillingworth motions for Hester to ignore him, he takes a step forward in his revenge quest. However, the townspeople still haven’t really noticed him. But when baby Pearl begins screaming and Hester panics, Chillingworth introduces himself as a doctor, and administers medicine to both mother and daughter. At this point he is “stuck” in his quest because he has essentially lied to all the townsfolk in not admitting that he is Hester’s husband. (And in making Hester swear not to reveal him.) This will enable to him to discover the identity of Pearl’s father. 

Rising Action

At first, Roger Chillingworth inserts himself into the community so he can wait and watch. His first clue arises when Governor Bellingham suggests taking Pearl from Hester—she appeals to Reverend Dimmesdale, who immediately and wholeheartedly vouches for her. 

Now that he has his suspect, Chillingworth moves in with Dimmesdale. The reverend’s health is already declining, so the doctor has the perfect excuse to get closer. 

Midpoint Reversal

One day, Chillingworth catches Dimmesdale watching out the window as Hester and Pearl pass by the house. The reverend’s reaction to them is a pretty clear confirmation of the relationship, but just to make sure, Chillingworth rips open Dimmesdale’s shirt when he is sleeping, then dances around the room like a devil—at whatever he has seen on the reverend’s chest. (The implication, of course, is that Dimmesdale bears a hidden version of the scarlet letter, and the evil of Chillingworth’s vengeance is turning him into a devil.) 

This is Chillingworth’s reversal since he now has final confirmation that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father. His quest shifts from finding the hidden adulterer to exacting his revenge. 

Rising Action

Roger Chillingworth now follows the poor Reverend Dimmesdale everywhere. His revenge quest corrupts him to such an extent that the townsfolk now see him as devilish. Indeed, he has become a devil intent on damning Dimmesdale’s soul. 

False Victory

Chillingworth won’t get what he wants in the end, which makes this a tragic structure. Accordingly, the very unchill doctor gets a false victory when he finds out Hester and Dimmesdale plan to escape to England. When he books passage on the same ship, he has them trapped. The reverend will not be able to run away from his sin. 

Tragic Climax

Following the fateful Election Day sermon, when Dimmesdale calls on Hester and Pearl to join him on the scaffold, Chillingworth tries to stop them. But then Dimmesdale makes his confession—he rips open his shirt to reveal the “red stigma” on his chest. And then, properly confessed before the townsfolk, and more importantly before God, Dimmesdale dies. He has atoned, and therefore he can await Hester in heaven. In other words, the devil who was once a man has lost. Chillingworth admits defeat: “Thou hast escaped me!” 

Want versus Need

Some craft guides discuss internal and external conflict as a want versus a need. The want is the external conflict—the protagonist’s efforts toward a narrative goal and all the obstacles that pop up in their path. The need is the internal conflict—something the protagonist must come to terms with before they can achieve their want, or something the protagonist must realize is more important than their want. 

As noted earlier, these two elements are split between Hester and Dimmesdale. Hester has the want: to overcome public shame by raising a God-fearing daughter and establishing herself as a reliable and respectable member of the community. Dimmesdale has the need: to overcome his guilt and cowardice. What’s interesting is that Dimmesdale’s public confession is also what Hester needs. Once the townsfolk realize that their proclaimed saint is the adulterer, they must reconsider their judgement of Hester and Pearl. 

What makes The Scarlet Letter a classic?

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter endures as a classic largely through its masterful symbolism, which is woven into each sentence. Every aside, every description has thematic weight. 

For example, each character's name is a key to understanding their symbolic and narrative roles. Governor Bellingham, whose name means “den of bears,” mirrors his function as a keeper of societal law and order. Dimmesdale’s name reflects his diminishing health and spirit, and the prison that is his sin and guilt. Chillingworth’s name conveys the doctor’s cold pursuit of vengeance, and also his hidden wealth. Pearl represents the beauty that can arise from strife. And Hester Prynne, whose name mean “star,” transforms from a symbol of shame into a beacon of strength and altruism—she becomes the saint the townsfolk thought Dimmesdale was. 

The Scarlet Letter was a hit when it was first published, and it persists as a classic today because of its intentionality. Every element works double time in service of the whole, making it a great narrative for writers to study. While the extremely distanced omniscient narrator is a harder sell these days, Hawthorne’s underlying strategies for building tension and enriching character arcs with nonstop symbolism offer invaluable insights for modern writers aiming to enhance their own storytelling craft.


David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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