The Scarlet Letter | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Chapter 3 | The Recognition

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of chapter 3 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter | Chapter 3 : The Recognition | Summary



Hester glimpses an older, slightly crippled man at the back of the crowd. The man, a stranger to Boston, signals to Hester to ignore him. A man in the crowd tells the new arrival that Hester had landed in Boston from England two years before. Her husband, a scholar who was scheduled to arrive after she did, had neither appeared in Boston nor contacted her. As the years passed, Hester fell in love with another man and gave birth to her daughter. Her youth and her belief that her marriage was over saved her from the gallows, the usual sentence for adultery.

John Wilson, a well-respected elder in the Puritan church, pushes a reluctant Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester's pastor, to ask her to reveal the name of her lover. Governor Bellingham also encourages Dimmesdale to get Hester to confess the name. Dimmesdale, who has an "apprehensive" and "half-frightened look," makes the appeal, but Hester refuses. Wilson then delivers a long sermon on sin, with many references to Hester's scarlet A. At the end of the sermon, Hester is taken back to prison.


This chapter brings together the four main characters: Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Pearl. In so doing, it sets in motion the central conflict that drives the plot even though the true relationship to Hester remains hidden to the reader at this point. Chillingworth is an observer, and his questions to another member of the audience conveniently leads to a bit more exposition of Hester's story. Readers can see clues as to the significance of each of them, however. Hester fixes her attention on Chillingworth, "the stranger," so thoroughly that she tunes out everything else around her. She is clearly disturbed by his presence and finds "the presence of these thousand witnesses" a "shelter." More than the public shaming, she dreads being alone with this man . Given the dignity and stature she has exhibited up to this point, her discomfort registers as remarkable.

Dimmesdale is presented as a young, learned cleric known for his "eloquence and religious fervor." Hester's minister, he is charged by the governor and the Reverend Wilson to teach Hester to mend her ways. Like Hester, Dimmesdale is uncomfortable. When given this task all the blood drains from his face, which seems unusual for one who must have expected such a responsibility. In urging her to reveal the name of her lover, he states what becomes his own fate: better for the man to be named and stand with her for condemnation, he says, "than to hide a guilty heart through life." Until this point Hester and Pearl had been the focus of the story. Dimmesdale's words highlight the fact that the novel will tell two stories—her managing public shame and another harboring private guilt.

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