Summary and Analysis
Several versions circulate of what actually transpired in the marketplace. Most people say they saw a scarlet A imprinted on Dimmesdale's chest, but there is conjecture as to its origin. Some think the emblem is a hideous torture the minister inflicted on himself, others think it is the result of Chillingworth's drugs, and still others believe it was remorse gnawing its way out of Dimmesdale's conscience. Still other observers claim that the minister's death serves as a parable showing that even the most saintly of us are sinners. Hawthorne puts this latter version down to the loyalty of friends and gives it little credence. He does state that a moral lesson is to be found in the original manuscript from the Custom House. That precept is "Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!"
In considering which characters follow this caveat, Hawthorne discusses their fates. Chillingworth, consumed by his revenge, shrivels up and vanishes. He leaves Pearl great wealth in his will, and she and her mother disappear, presumably to Europe. After their departure, the legend of the scarlet letter grows. Finally, one day Hester returns alone and inhabits once again the little cottage. She wears gray and reapplies the scarlet A to her bosom.
No one knows Pearl's fate, but people assume that she married well and had a family because letters with the seals of heraldry arrive for Hester and articles of comfort and luxury are found in her cottage. Hester is also seen embroidering baby garments; instead of Puritan colors, she uses most un-Puritan-like lavish and rich materials.
Finally, Hester becomes a symbol of comfort and compassion, and upon her death, she is buried in the cemetery near the prison door where she first was incarcerated. While alive, she gives hope and comfort to those who feel sorrow and pain, and, accordingly, the scarlet letter becomes a symbol of help. She becomes a prophet of a better time where human happiness will be easier to obtain than in the rigid rules of Puritan society. When she dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale. Their graves are slightly apart but with a single gravestone bearing the inscription: "On a field, sable, the letter A, gules."
This concluding chapter serves to answer whatever questions the reader may have after the final scaffold scene. As is his fashion, Hawthorne lends his customary ambiguity and vagueness to many of the questions by citing various points of view or options related to incidences without anointing any one of them as true. One such incident involves what people actually saw when Dimmesdale exposed his bosom on the scaffold. He presents several possible versions of the spectators at the scaffold that day including that some saw no letter on Dimmesdale's chest. He attributes this last version to the loyalty of friends to Dimmesdale.
Hawthorne explains that the moral of the story, gleaned from an old manuscript of testimony of people who had known Hester, is based on "the poor minister's miserable experience, and he states a kind of moral for us: "Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait by which the worst may be inferred." This often quoted moral about being true to oneself leaves the reader thinking about the characters in the story and which ones were true and what prices they paid.
Chillingworth shrivels up and vanishes because his revenge has consumed him and made him inhuman. Without his victim, he has no reason to live. But Hawthorne also adds mercy to Chillingworth's death: He explains in a lengthy paragraph that love and hate have a lot in common, and perhaps in the next life, both the spurned husband and the minister will rest in peace.
Pearl's fate is most interesting. The reader is never given a confirmed version of her life but is left to believe she lived a long and happy one, married and the mother of children. Hawthorne ironically notes that her rise in wealth certainly elevated her and Hester in the eyes of the colony that once spurned them. And he further adds that she could have married a "Puritan of the most devout nature." Having seen her father, the devout Puritan, one would certainly not wish that fate on Pearl. Hawthorne hints that her life elsewhere is much happier than it would have been had she married in the New World. The tear she shed at Dimmesdale's death was truly evidence that she would grow up to be humane. And her love and generosity toward Hester are obvious.
Finally, Hester's fate ends the book. One might ask why she returns to Boston, the scene of "her sin . . . her sorrow . . . her penitence." Hawthorne leaves the reader, once again, to decide. Perhaps she feels drawn to the place. Why does she resume wearing the scarlet A? Is it a sign that she accepts the rigid standards of Puritan society, or is it a sign that she stayed true to herself by daring to live beyond the petty rules of Puritan society? Hawthorne, perhaps, leans toward the latter idea when he views her as a seer of a future age where "a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness."
The graceful and dignified woman Hester has become is a survivor through suffering. Now that she has suffered, she can give what Dimmesdale could not: hope to those who are hopeless and help to those who have sorrow and are in trouble. Because her heart has felt these emotions, she is able to comfort others.
Even in death Dimmesdale and Hester are not allowed to mingle their dust. Perhaps Dimmesdale was right in questioning whether they would have a life together beyond this one. While their graves are slightly apart, the last irony is that they share a common tombstone. They could not be together in life, but in death they share a scarlet letter.
portent an omen.
nugatory trifling; worthless; invalid.
parable a short, simple story from which a moral or religious lesson may be drawn.
recluse a solitary person; shut away from the world.
stigma mark or brand; usually shameful.
escutcheon a shield or shield-shaped surface on which a coat of arms is displayed.
gules red; a term used in heraldry.