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The Scarlet Letter began life as a short story. (Hawthorne was advised to expand it into a novel, which he did.) In many respects, it retains the characteristics of a short story. The Scarlet Letter has the tightness and the economy we generally associate with the shorter fictional form.
Hawthorne's novel has only one plot. There are no subplots-no secondary love stories, for instance, such as you find in the novels of Jane Austen. It also has only one setting: Boston in the 1640s. Although Pearl and Hester eventually sail off to Europe, the reader is not invited to follow them there.
The Scarlet Letter has only four main characters: Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Pearl. All the other characters are really part of the historical tapestry against which the action takes place.
Perhaps most important of all, The Scarlet Letter has one predominating mood. For this, the lighting is largely responsible. We move in a world of darkness which is relieved only occasionally by a ray of light. (The darkness sets in early, with the beadle's presence obscuring the sunshine in Chapter 2. It continues to the end of the novel, with the legend on Hester's tombstone: "so somber... and relieved only by one ever- glowing point of light, gloomier than the shadow.")
Since Hawthorne's novel is such a spare and unified work, it is curious that readers disagree about its heart or structural center. Some critics believe that the heart of the book's structure is the scaffold, or penitential platform, to which Dimmesdale finally brings himself to stand by Hester's side. According to this view, the scaffold scenes alternate with the pivotal forest scenes, where the lovers confront the critical choice of escape from society or return to it.
But no less an authority than Henry James (the novelists' novelist and the acknowledged master of form in American fiction) disagrees. James dismisses the forest scenes-and indeed, any of the scenes where Hester plays a major part-as secondary. The Scarlet Letter, James says, is no love story. It is the story of retribution. And its center is the relationship between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, the guilty lover and the sinister husband whose sole purpose is to keep that guilt alive.