"The Scarlet Letter" is a tragic love story set in the time of the Puritan settlement around 1700 in Boston, Massachusetts. The story begins with a bundle of papers found in the attic of a customhouse in Salem, Massachusetts around 200 years later. The narrator is an unknown person who is about to lose his job as customhouse attendant when he finds the manuscript wrapped in cloth with a red letter "A" embroidered on it. After losing his job, he decides to write a fictional story based on what he found.
The story is based on Hester Prynne, a young woman who was sent to Salem ahead of her elderly husband to set up housekeeping and await his arrival. Soon the townspeople discover she is pregnant. It is obviously not her husband's child, he has not arrived and assumed to be lost at sea. When publicly shamed and asked to reveal her lover, Hester refuses and is banished to live in a cabin on the outskirts of the settlement. There she raises her little girl, Pearl, who is willful and a bit wild. Hester begins to rebuild some of her standing in the community by doing good deeds and being repentant. She must wear a large scarlet "A" embroidered on all her clothing to mark her as an adulterer.
Meanwhile, the minister of the settlement has taken ill. Arthur Dimmesdale is a young and eloquent minister. He has been helpful to Hester in keeping the townspeople from taking her child away from her. Watching all this happen from the sidelines is an elderly doctor, Roger Chillingworth. The reader later discovers he is Hester's husband supposed lost at sea. The only person who knows this is Hester. He proceeds to torment her throughout the story in order to get his revenge on her and find out who her lover was. He suspects the minister, so when he grows more ill, Chillingworth, a doctor, moves in with him to discover the truth. It's obvious Dimmesdale is tormented by something, and during an unusually bad bout of sickness Chillingworth discovers a mark emblazoned on his chest that brings him great joy. Dimmesdale finds more ways to torment himself physically and mentally with Chillingworth adding to it.
Seeing the minister's health fading so markedly, Hester goes to Chillingworth to beg him to stop the torment. He refuses. She threatens to tell Dimmsdale who Chillingworth really is. She meets with Dimmesdale to convince him to flee with her to Europe to raise their daughter together. But, Chillingworth discovers their plan and books passage on the same ship. After delivering one of his best sermons to date, Dimmesdale pulls his lover and daughter on the scaffold again, he mounts next to them, revealing the mark on his chest and revealing his sins. Then he drops dead next to her in a tragic scene. Chillingworth is left without his continuing revenge and dies a year later. Hester and Pearl leave Boston for parts unknown.
But, years later Hester returns to the cottage. Pearl sends her letters to keep her updated on her wonderful life married to an aristocrat in Europe and Hester continues her good deeds and charitable work until her quiet death. She is buried next to Dimmesdale where the share a tombstone with a scarlet "A".
"Scarlet Letter" opens with an unidentified customs official who comes across a manuscript with a red cloth wrapped around it with the letter A embroidered in gold. The customs official is a young man among old corrupt men who have had the job of collecting taxes for incoming cargo for years. He feels out of place and can relate to the story he reads of Hester Prynne, a young mother who ostracized from her settlement due to the judgments of the puritans in her town. The manuscript was written a hundred years earlier by another customs official, Johnathan Pue. It is about a story that happened a hundred years before Pue's time. Although the narrator wants to write the story, he doesn't feel he should because his own puritan ancestors would consider it a frivolous undertaking. But, after losing his job due to a change in the government leaders, he decides to write a fictional account of Hester Prynne. He knows it will not be completely factual, but true to the overall story of love.
After the introduction the story begins with a prison. The narrator relates that no matter how good the intentions are of a settlement, the first things they put in are a prison and a cemetery. The prison is a dark and forbidding place with a single rosebush growing outside. The narrator sees this as a metaphor of nature's kindness to the condemned. Shortly a young woman is pulled out of the imposing door. She clutches a baby to her chest. The chest of her dress has a large letter "A" embroidered in red and gold. She is lead to a platform among jeering and abuse by the townspeople. We learn the letter stands for her crime of adulterer. While standing on the platform, or 'scaffold ' she thinks of her life up to this day. She remembers her parents in a small village in England and the old, twisted man she married and followed to continental Europe. But when she once again realizes with disbelief where she is now, she squeezes the baby a bit hard and causes it to cry out.
While standing on the scaffold Hester notices her husband standing in the crowd. He is dressed in a combination of English and Native American garb. She sees that he is older, but seems wiser as well. Then he gestures for her to not identify him. Another secret for Hester to keep. Already she refuses to name the father of her baby. She says the baby will only know a heavenly father, not an earthly father. When her husband asks a man near him what her crime is he is told that she was staying with the man in Amsterdam while waiting for her husband to finish his affairs. When the man came to the colonies she came along. Her husband was supposed to follow her, but never did. They suspect he was lost at sea. As punishment she must spend three hours on the scaffold and wear the scarlet "A" on her chest for her lifetime. Then she stands patiently on the scaffold while one of the three ministers who stand in judgment deliver a sermon. Then she is led back to prison.
While in prison she is visited by her husband, Roger Chillingworth. He tells the jailer that he will tend to her health and get a confession out of her. At first she refuses his medicine, sure that he has come to poison her, but he lets her know his revenge will be much longer. First he wants to know who the father is so he can punish him also. She refuses to tell him, calling him the “Black Man” in disguise. He will tempt her to a pact that will damn her soul. He tells her to not reveal him to the townspeople, as part of his revenge.
After several months Hester is released from prison. She is given the offer to leave Boston, but instead settles in an abandoned cabin on a piece of stark land. There she manages to eke out a living with her needlework. Although the townspeople are puritan, they use her talents with a needle and her aesthetic eye for beauty for some of their official garments. She can work on burial shrouds, christening gowns and the robes of the town officials. But, she is not allowed to work on wedding garments due to her status. She must wear the "A" as a cautionary tale to all who see her, and is reviled by all, even those she helps. She is lonely except for Pearl, her daughter. She named her Pearl because she had given everything to bring her into the world. But, sometimes Pearl is her mother's worst torture. Sensing she is being punished along with her mother, and hearing herself referred to as an "imp of evil" she acts out quite often. Whenever Hester tries to teach her about God, she says that she "has no heavenly father." Hester sees her own moodiness, passions and defiance in her daughter and worries all the time. Pearl is constantly making mischief and makes up pretend friends to play with since the children of the town shun her. Pearl is fascinated by the scarlet letter and often uses it to torment her mother.
After learning the townspeople and Governor are planning on taking Pearl from her because they feel she might be a "demon-child" and hurting Hester, or if she is a human child, must be given to a better parent, Hester goes to visit the Governor to beg him not to take her child. Along the way they are confronted by some cruel children and Pearl loses her temper. She is only three years old. While there she meets with the town officials, including her estranged husband, Chillingworth, and Reverend Dimmesdale. After quizzing Pearl on religious teachings and not receiving expected answers they begin to think it better she be taken from Hester. Hester pleas with Dimmesdale to speak up on her behalf. Through his eloquence he convinces the men to allow her to keep her daughter. Chillingworth is livid, especially after noticing the only man Pearl relates to is Dimmesdale. He asks the men to take up the search for the father of the baby again. But, they refuse, saying that God will reveal the information in His own time. When leaving the mansion Hester is stopped by the Governor's sister asking her to attend the witches' meeting that evening. Hester says that if she had lost her daughter she would have, but since she still has her daughter she wont be attending. Thus, the narrator shows how Pearl saved Hester's soul from the devil.
As time progresses the health of the town's beloved minister, Dimmesdale begins to fade. He is always seen clutching at his chest, so they assume he has heart problems. Since Chillingworth has set himself up as a doctor specializing in herbal remedies due to the time he spent with the Native Americans after being captured by them, he offers to take up permanent residence with the minister in order to find a cure. Dimmesdale's room has tapestries showing the evils of adultery, and Chillingworth's room is fitted out like an evil lab. The two have long talks about sin and the effect on one's health. One day Dimmesdale asks about a certain plant the doctor has gathered. He tells him it was taken from a grave of an unrepentant person. The unconfessed sins of the person caused the plant to turn black. As they are talking they see Pearl dancing in the graveyard and tossing burrs at the A on her mother's chest. When she sees them, she pulls her mother away from the sight of the "black man" who is the devil. Chillingworth states that Hester wears her sin for all to see and notices, even though Dimmesdale tries to hide it, his interest in Hester. Chillingworth determines to take a look at Dimmesdale's chest while the man is sleeping. There he sees something that makes him rejoice, but the reader doesn't get and idea what it is till later.
At first the townspeople are happy Chillingworth has moved in to help the minister, but soon they notice the countenance of Chillingworth is changing into something that appears demonic. Even though, Dimmesdale senses Chillingworth is torturing him in small ways, he can't put a finger on what it is. So he thinks he is imagining it. He does begin to have "visions" due to his continual self punishments. He goes without sleep, he fasts and practices self-flagellation. He also has long vigils where he contemplates on his sins. During one of these vigils he decides to go to the scaffold where Hester was judged for her sins. While standing there shouting to the heavens, he worries the townspeople will overhear and wonders what they would think, but those that do hear him think it is the cry of witches. When he sees another minister pass by he thinks the man will notice him, but he doesn't. He has just left the deathbed of the first Governor of the settlement. But, when Hester, who has been called to work on the death shroud, passes by with her daughter, Pearl answers his call and they join him on the scaffold. Pearl asks him to join them the next day to announce to everyone what he has kept hidden, but he says the time is not right yet. She asks when the time will be right and he says, "Judgment Day". Suddenly a meteor brightens the sky forming a red letter "A" in the night sky. Whenever Pearl sees the man standing in the shadows watching them they see it is Chillingworth.
Dimmesdale asks Hester who Chillingworth really is, but, Pearl tries to answer for her. She whispers nonsense in his ear as punishment for not standing before the town with her and her mother. Then Chillingworth comes to lead him off the scaffold. The next day Rev. Dimmsdale's sermon is the best so far. Afterward, a sexton hands the reverend a black glove that was found on the scaffold. He knows it belongs to him, but never suspects he was there, just that the glove was taken by the devil and left there. They remark on the "A" in the night sky, but instead of thinking it had anything to do with Hester and her daughter, assume it is for angel to show that the former Governor has gone to heaven.
Seven years have past and Hester is more and more accepted in society. They come to view the A as meaning able instead of adulterer because of all her good deeds. She loses her vibrancy, though and becomes more of a shell of her former self. One day she and Pearl come across Chillingworth at the beach gathering herbs. She asks him to stop torturing Dimmsdale. From this he knows she has finally admitted he is the father of her child. Seeing himself as the devil he has become, Chillingworth blames Hester for his change from an innocent scholar to what he has become, a cruel and revengeful old man. She threatens to reveal to Dimmsdale who Chillingworth really is. He tells her to go ahead and tell him, but his revenge and her silence are their fate.
After leaving Chillingworth, Hester and Pearl go into the forest so as to meet up with Dimmsdale who will be coming back this way after visiting the local tribe. When they see him coming Hester sends Pearl away to play while she talks with him privately. She tells him who Chillingworth really is. At first he is angry, but decides the sin in on Chillingworth. They renew their love for each other and plan to escape on a ship to Europe where they will begin a life together far from the puritan lifestyle. Hester is so happy she lets her hair down and pulls the "A" from her chest. She and Dimmesdale both begin to recover some of their health with the release of the burdens of sin they have been carrying. They call Pearl over to join in with their happiness and to get to know her father. The child refuses to come to her mother until the letter is replaced. When Hester pins it back on she begins to lose her luster again. Pearl asks if Dimmesdale will walk hand in hand back to the village, but he refuses. She rebuffs him.
Dimmesdale goes back to the town a changed man. He sees the world differently and tells Chillingworth he will not need his medicines anymore. Chillingworth wonders if the minister now knows his true identity. But, instead of allaying his fears Dimmesdale writes a new sermon for the holiday coming up that reflects his new outlook of life.
Somehow Chillingworth discovers their plans and books a passage on the same ship. Hester finds this out during the coronation of a new Governor. The holiday Dimmesdale is to give his new sermon. She is worried because his renewed health and vigor make Dimmesdale seem more remote than ever. She is unsure of her decision to leave with him, especially with her estranged husband going along. Chillingworth is still practicing his psychological torture of her but Dimmesdale seems immune to it. The reason becomes clear when he leads Hester and Pearl up to the scaffold after delivering the "best sermon ever" to announce his sins to all. He tears off his vestment to show the mark on his chest. Then he falls down to die. As he is dying Pearl finally bestows the kiss on his brow he had asked of her in the forest. Hester asks if they will be together in Heaven. He says only God can decide. Chillingworth bellows out that they have taken his vengeance away and escaped his punishments.
Afterwards, some people say the mark on his chest was like Hester's, some said there was nothing there. Mostly the narrator says the latter were Dimmsdale's friends who were trying to show his compassion for a sinner and protect his reputation.
With no one to hate, Chillingworth starts to fade and dies with the year. He leaves a large inheritance to Pearl. Shortly thereafter, Hester and Pearl leave the settlement. Many years pass and the scarlet "A" becomes legend. The townspeople preserve her cabin and the scaffold as a testament to the lovers. One day Hester returns to finish her days in the cabin, once again taking up her charitable works and still wearing her scarlet "A". Pearl has settled in Europe married to an aristocrat and sends letters to her mother in Boston. Since the "A" has lost its stigma, when Hester dies she is buried in the King's Chapel Graveyard near Dimmesdale, but not too close. Although their graves cannot touch, they share a single gravestone marked with a scarlet letter "A" on a black background.
Place: Boston, Massachusetts
Time: 17th century
Hester Prynne - she starts out life in a small village in England with two loving parents. She is pretty, intelligent, and passionate. Unfortunately, Hester makes the mistake of marrying an elderly scholar. Probably drawn to him because of his intelligence and his plans to travel to the 'new world'. Hoping for adventure she instead finds herself in the company of a puritan friend of the family. She is sent ahead to Boston to await her husband, who doesn't arrive. While she is alone in a new place she takes up with the handsome unattached minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Their affair is discovered when she becomes pregnant. She is shunned by the townspeople, especially when she refuses to name her lover.
He lets her take the public punishments of being forced to stand 3 hours on the scaffold in the town square to be ridiculed by the puritans and to wear a scarlet letter "A" on her chest the rest of her life. She suffers her shame and continues to do good deeds and help the poor. Her needlework becomes much in demand and earns her a meager living for herself and her daughter. From her vantage point as the town pariah she can see much of the happenings of the town. Especially its treatment of women.
Pearl - she is the illegitimate daughter of Hester. Though a small child, she sees what others do not. She is wise beyond her years, but very mischievous. The townspeople spread rumors that she is the daughter of the Devil. She often torments her mother regarding the letter she wears. Her mother goes between wondering if Pearl is her gift from God, or her torment from the Devil.
Roger Chillingworth - he is the estranged husband of Hester Prynne. Having sent her ahead to the colonies while he settled his affairs in England he loses touch with her. After being captured and then released by the Native Americans he finally arrives in Boston, just in time to see her on the scaffold with her illegitimate baby. Since he is a scholar, he uses that knowledge and what he learned from the Native Americans to pose as a doctor. He forces Hester to not reveal his identity so he can exact his revenge on her and find out who the father is. His character becomes more twisted and hateful as revenge starts to twist his soul.
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale - after becoming famous for his sermons in England, he migrates to Boston to spread the word. There he meets and becomes involved with Hester. Although he never admits to fathering her child, and doesn't share in her shame publicly, he punishes himself privately. His punishments become quite severe and begin to effect his health. This brings the townspeople to let Chillingworth to move in with him for his continual care. Of course, Chillingworth sees this as a way to up his psychological torture of Dimmesdale since he begins to suspect the secret tormenting him is Hester's also. Even with all this going on Dimmesdale eloquence continue to improve and his messages on the pulpit are better and better.
Reverend John Wilson, Governor Bellingham and his sister, Mistress Hibbons - the reverend is old school puritan, preaching harsh punishments for sinners. Governor Bellingham is the benevolent old puritan, the fatherly figure. What he doesn't know is that his sister, who lives with him, is a practicing witch. Whenever Mistress Hibbons shows up in the story, the reader is shown the hidden evils.
The Narrator – a young man who has been given the boring job of customhouse official in Salem, Massachusetts. He feels ostracized from the older, corrupt men who have had this job for years. So, he wanders around exploring the building. While searching through the attic he comes across the manuscript this book is based on. Wanting to become a writer, but not feeling it is a respectable job, he waits to begin until after he loses his job with the changes in the government upon the election of a new President.