Analysis of Major Characters
The Scarlet Letter
is about Hester Prynne, the book is not so much a consideration of her innate
character as it is an examination of the forces that shape her and the transformations those forces effect. We
know very little about Hester prior to her affair with Dimmesdale and her resultant public shaming. We read that
she married Chillingworth although she did not love him, but we never fully understand why. The early chapters
of the book suggest that, prior to her marriage, Hester was a strong-willed and impetuous young woman—she
remembers her parents as loving guides who frequently had to restrain her incautious behavior. The fact that
she has an affair also suggests that she once had a passionate nature.
But it is what happens after Hester’s affair that makes her into the woman with whom the reader is familiar.
Shamed and alienated from the rest of the community, Hester becomes contemplative. She speculates on
human nature, social organization, and larger moral questions. Hester’s tribulations also lead her to be stoic
and a freethinker. Although the narrator pretends to disapprove of Hester’s independent philosophizing, his
tone indicates that he secretly admires her independence and her ideas.
Hester also becomes a kind of compassionate maternal figure as a result of her experiences. Hester
moderates her tendency to be rash, for she knows that such behavior could cause her to lose her daughter,
Pearl. Hester is also maternal with respect to society: she cares for the poor and brings them food and clothing.
By the novel’s end, Hester has become a protofeminist mother figure to the women of the community. The
shame attached to her scarlet letter is long gone. Women recognize that her punishment stemmed in part from
the town fathers’ sexism, and they come to Hester seeking shelter from the sexist forces under which they
themselves suffer. Throughout
The Scarlet Letter
Hester is portrayed as an intelligent, capable, but not
necessarily extraordinary woman. It is the extraordinary circumstances shaping her that make her such an
As his name suggests, Roger Chillingworth is a man deficient in human warmth. His twisted, stooped,
deformed shoulders mirror his distorted soul. From what the reader is told of his early years with Hester, he
was a difficult husband. He ignored his wife for much of the time, yet expected her to nourish his soul with
affection when he did condescend to spend time with her. Chillingworth’s decision to assume the identity of a
“leech,” or doctor, is fitting. Unable to engage in equitable relationships with those around him, he feeds on the
vitality of others as a way of energizing his own projects. Chillingworth’s death is a result of the nature of his
character. After Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth no longer has a victim. Similarly, Dimmesdale’s revelation that
he is Pearl’s father removes Hester from the old man’s clutches. Having lost the objects of his revenge, the