The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne Summary and Analysis Chapter 3 - The Recognition

Summary

Hester recognizes a small, rather deformed man standing on the outskirts of the crowd and clutches Pearl fiercely to her bosom. Meanwhile, the man, a stranger to Boston, recognizes Hester and is horror-struck.

Inquiring, the man learns of Hester's history, her crime (adultery), and her sentence: to stand on the scaffold for three hours and to wear the symbolic letter A for the rest of her life. The stranger also learns that Hester refuses to name the man with whom she had the sexual affair. This knowledge greatly upsets him, and he vows that Hester's unnamed partner "will be known! — he will be known! — he will be known!"

The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, visibly upset, pleads with Hester to name her accomplice. He tells her that she should name her partner in sin because perhaps the man doesn't have the courage to step forward even if he wants to. Yet despite Dimmesdale's passionate appeal, followed by harsher demands from the Reverend Mr. Wilson and from a stern voice in the crowd (presumably that of the deformed stranger), Hester steadfastly refuses to name the father of her child. After a long and tedious sermon by the Reverend Mr. Wilson, during which Hester tries ineffectively to quiet Pearl's crying, she is led back to prison.

Analysis

The novel's other two principal characters now make their first physical appearance, and the tensions of the story begin to develop. In Chapter 4, the reader learns that the stranger who so terrifies Hester calls himself Roger Chillingworth, a pseudonym he has chosen for himself. In reality, he is Roger Prynne, the husband whom Hester fears meeting face to face. The other principal character is the young Reverend Dimmesdale, who pleads with Hester to name the father of her infant daughter; Dimmesdale is Pearl's father.

Hawthorne's portrayal of Chillingworth emphasizes his physical deformity. More important, Chillingworth's misshapen body reflects (or symbolizes) the evil in his soul, which builds as the novel progresses. In this chapter, Hawthorne provides hints of just how obsessed Chillingworth will become with punishing Dimmesdale. For example, when Chillingworth recognizes Hester standing alone on the scaffold, "a writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them . . ." Characteristic of Chillingworth, he internalizes "into the depths of his nature" this external convulsion, which will feed his appetite for revenge throughout the novel. The image of the snake is apt when we recall the serpent in the biblical Garden of Eden and the carnal knowledge that it represents. From this chapter forward, revenge and punishment for Dimmesdale will be Chillingworth's only consuming passion.

Dimmesdale's one-paragraph speech to Hester reveals more about his character than any description of his physical body and nervous habits that Hawthorne provides. Knowing that he was Hester's sexual partner and is Pearl's father, the speech that he gives is ripe with double meanings. On one level, he gives a public chastisement of Hester for not naming her lover; on another level, he makes a personal plea to her to name him as her lover and Pearl's father because he is too morally weak to do so himself. Ironically, what is initially intended to be a speech about Hester becomes more a commentary about his own sinful behavior.

In his speech, Dimmesdale asks Hester to recognize his "accountability" in addressing her, and he begs her to do what he cannot do himself. Publicly, he is her spiritual leader, and, as such, he is responsible for her moral behavior. Privately, however, he was her lover, and he shares the blame of the horrible situation that she is in. He then admonishes her, as her spiritual leader, to name her accomplice so that her soul might find peace on earth and, more important, so that she might better her chance for salvation after her death. When he then goes on to "charge" her with naming the transgressor, we understand that he is privately pleading with her to expose him publicly and thereby help ensure his salvation, for without public repentance salvation is not attainable.

The dichotomy between Dimmesdale's public speech and personal meaning is most evident in the phrase "believe me." This phrase comes directly following his plea that Hester not take into consideration any feelings she might still have for him. It also follows acknowledgment — privately to himself, but through public speech — that it would be better for him to step down "from a high place" and publicly stand beside her on the scaffold. Ultimately, his official, public duty and his private, personal intention are one and the same: to admonish Hester to expose her lover's — his own — immorality because he is too morally weak to do so himself.

Glossary

Daniel a prophet from the Old Testament.

Governor Bellingham (1592-1672) the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

halberds combination battle-axes and spears used in the 15th and 16th centuries.

skull-cap a light, closefitting, brimless cap, usually worn indoors.

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