5. Characters: Hester, Arthur, Roger, and Pearl.
Lucky for you, the cast list in The Scarlet Letter isn’t long. Here are the four most important characters in the story:
The protagonist. Be glad: She’s the only character in this story who manages to find any degree of redemption. When we first meet Hester, she’s a sorry sight—a terrified young woman, clutching a baby to her chest as she stands on a scaffold to be mocked and shamed by her fellow townfolk. (Gotta love the 1600s.) But just a few chapters into the book, Hester has begun to change. She’s claimed a degree of agency for herself (yes, Hawthorne loves those A-words when it comes to defining Hester), and has started redefining the meaning of that red A on her chest. By the end of the book, Hester is no longer adulteress, but an angel. Go Hester!
Hester’s partner in crime. Of course, no one in the colony knows that. To the colony-folk, he’s the sainted Reverend. A holy man, given to fits of ecstasy and emotional suffering. But they chalk that up to his saintliness and never guess the truth—which is, of course, that Dimmesdale is too weak to admit his crime. Instead, he prefers to punish himself in secret…until his own guilt, and the evil torments of Roger Chillingworth, eventually lead to his death.
Hester’s long-lost husband. He turns up at the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the very day that Hester is being publicly shamed for her crime of adultery. He swears her to secrecy and vows revenge on her lover. Hester refuses to give up Dimmesdale’s name, but Chillingworth sniffs Dimmesdale out almost right away. He spends the rest of the book devoting himself to devilish activities: tormenting Dimmesdale for his crime, even as he pretends to be helping the Reverend. In the end, though, Chillingworth’s evil consumes him, and he, too, meets an untimely death.
Hester and Arthur’s daughter. Like the other children in The Scarlet Letter, she often gives voice to, or helps to point out, the truths of the adult world that the adults in the novel would rather overlook or deny. Pearl isn’t exactly an appealing character. Her isolation from society provokes her to behavior that is startling and unattractive. And although this makes sense—think about how you would act if you were ostracized by all of society—her behavior actually serves a larger point. Basically, Pearl is the living version of the scarlet letter on her mother’s chest. Her fixation on the A helps to bring out the symbol’s meaning, and to draw the reader’s attention to it.