Notes to Ch 3, The Recognition
The Scarlet Letter

redeemed out of my captivity ....sl03.html#g07
during this period of European wars that extended to fighting between the colonies of England and France (in Canada) some white civilians were made captive by Native Americans, usually as agents of the French Roman Catholic forces. Their families could pay ransom money to get them back in some cases. Others chose to stay with their captors. Captivity narratives were popular books for some years. Ransoming captives was common in European wars as well. The overtones of the capitivity of the Hebrews in Babylon and Egypt would be apparent to readers of the Old Testament as the Puritans were. At the time of Hawthorne's writings a Native American in his native clothing would be a great curiosity in Salem or Boston, since New England Indians had been mostly exterminated by war or disease.
the Daniel who shall expound it ....sl03.html#g10
Daniel was a prophet who in his Old Testament book interpreted some encoded writing on a wall. (Daniel 5: "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.") The Puritans used references to the Bible in everyday life.
a living sermon against sin ....sl03.html#g13
instead of being put to death, Hester is being forced to wear the red letter A (standing for adulteress--we asssume, since Hawthorne never outright uses that word nor tells us authoritatively what the letter stands for--we have to use our resources to read something into the text--whether that is true or not perhaps only God knows). Thus anyone seeing the letter would be reminded of that sin. The Puritans believed that everything had religious significance and that people had free will to do good or evil. The scarlet letter is a text, just as this book is. The text, then, of the message is being engraved--it cannot be erased by man--and the meaning is supposed to be fixed, not subject to interpretation, just as the Bible can be read by every person but is not be be interpreted just as one wishes, as if that interpretation were directly from God (as the Antinomians believed, contrary to the Puritan church). Hester as a sinner is not to speak her own message or interpretation, and this message or sermon is to be her whole life, being even the emblem on her gravestone. For this her life is being spared. However, if she repents--of her own free will--publicly confesses her sin, and names the daddy, then they will let her take the letter off her chest. Otherwise she must undergo the period of standing on the scaffold and listening to a dreary sermon. We will discuss this public confession requirement later, but it seems odd at the moment for Hester to have to publicly confess her crime and sin--after all, it is obvious from the circumstances--but indeed public confession would be part of proving repentance, and this would have an effect on the sentence of the crime (we do not really know if Hester got a jail sentence, we only assume so, but that might have only been that she had to have the baby in jail, which might not have been much of a penalty if she had no other place to stay.) The slight logical contradiction between the first idea of the fateful permanent message, and the second idea, that the message can be altered by free will, is not explicitly pursued in this text. (Of course, Hester is a character in a novel and so subject to the author's will, not hers, but that is another level.)
public exposure ....sl03.html#g15
This point Hawthorne raises about the difference between public communication and private might relate to several other themes, such as the old law and the new, the predestined and free will, men and women roles in public, and the important issue of how an individual in either Puritan Boston or Whig Salem can relate to the community. It also suggests another theme that is not pursued so much in this novel as in others: the difference between the small town and the big one--anonymity can create privacy in a crowd, while gossips are always spying on you in a small town. The United States was in 1850 going though a new industrial revolution that was rapidly changing town life.
darkly engraved portraits...old volumes of sermons ....sl03.html#g18
Hawthorne discovered some of these in the attic of the Old Manse where he had lived. However, the portraits on display there now look more like Bellingham than Wilson--the wigs are very fancy--and since those portraits were from a later period in New England history he probably is referring to earlier, cruder, and more severe woodcuts rather than engravings.
proof and consequence thereof ....sl03.html#g21
the Puritan rhetoric was based strongly on the logic of Petrus Ramus, and their sermons largely consisted of his special style of demonstrating by a form of logic multiple points about a subject (in a moment, Wilson will draw out in an long--an hour or three--sermon all the points relating to the scarlet letter). This training in speaking therefore gave the clergymen special power and authority. However, public confession does not seem to be a prominent Puritan religious practice, though it was done voluntarily in special circumstances, and, in this case, Wilson was quite prepared not to have it. More likely, Hawthorne is simplifying history for dramatic purposes here.
the speech of an angel ....sl03.html#g22
Dimmesdale is at the same time a Romantic hero here (beautiful angel) and an anti-hero and sinner (fallen angel). He later even wonders himself if he has been possessed by the devil (the red mark on his chest would be a sign of that). Hawthorne cleverly paints him like a child, but we will see from Pearl that the morality of children is uncertain too. Dimmesdale is intelligent and persuasive like either angel, but it is ironic to describe him as an angel in the text. As one who delivers moving sermons Dimmesdale is an artist like Hester and Hawthorne. (Also, note the irony in Dimmesdale's use of the second person, as "thou"-- it was a form of speech that was used both for a minister to parishioner as well as lover to lover.) His parishioners trust him to tell the truth, and eventually he does, but they fail to believe his strictly logical interpretation, being more moved by the beauty than the truth--failing to see that the "tremulous" voice was strung taut between two ironic poles here. Hawthorne communicates this mainly by describing the sound of his voice and its effect, and hardly ever by relating the content. That content apparently also relates to the perception of political and moral progress made by the Puritans in Boston, another irony considering both the plot and Hawthorne's introduction. If the progress was owing to God's favor, would Dimmesdale be excused his sin, especially as he was a minister ("divine"), or would his sin be considered even worse?
Dimmesdale's appeal ....sl03.html#g27
The Reverend Dimmesdale seems on the surface to urge Hester to name him, but every word he says makes that more difficult for her. He as her pastoral advisor also condemns her to a life of public shame of wearing the scarlet letter as the only solution for the "evil within" her and the "sorrow without." He is telling her in code that he wishes to suffer in secret and refuses to join her in public. If you think about it, you see that Dimmesdale is in words telling the truth, but the more he tries to do that, the more he gets involved in hypocrisy. He needs to be true to himself emotionally instead of trying to mouth the truth. Even Pearl seems to realize that. Can you think of any famous person today who got into more and more trouble by trying to talk about his adulterous relationship?
the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam ....sl03.html#g34
did it or not? Well, the author says that some people whispered that it did, just as in the introduction he wrote that it seemed to burn his chest (also in the next chapter). Thereby the mystery is heightened and the symbol becomes more significant--perhaps it is a supernatural power that is causing it to behave this way--God or Devil? The child's screaming might be evidence for the latter (the author seems to use Pearl though the book as another way of pointing out interpretations, possibly the truth). We will see more allusions to the Black Man or Devil throughout. Was Hester's sin an act of love for a beautiful angel, or was it caused by the Devil, the fallen angel? What is the "real" significance of the scarlet letter?

Summary. Hester Prynne's husband, now called Chillingworth, appears on the edge of the crowd and learns that his wife has had a child by another man, whose identity he will now seek. It seems that he was considered lost at sea. He immediately decides to signal Hester to be quiet about the fact that her husband has appeared. Hester is asked to confess and name the father of her baby, but refuses, to the evident relief of her minister, Dimmesdale. The minister John Wilson sermonizes for an hour or three while Hester is publicly shamed. Then Hester and the child go back to prison.


Suggested MLA citations to this web page, HTML code and text.
Use as in ?Help? page citation guide.

Eldred, Eric. <cite>Notes to Ch. 3, The Scarlet Letter.</cite> <br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;1999. 23 Sep. 1999. <br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; &lt;<a href=""></a>&gt;

(<a href="">Eldred</a>)

Eldred, Eric. Notes to Ch. 3, The Scarlet Letter. 1999. 23 Sep. 1999.


Please send your own contributions or corrections:
Last updated: Sun Sep 26 22:15:45 EDT 1999
©Copyright 1999 Eric Eldred - see license
From Eldritch Press's Nathaniel Hawthorne Home Page -