The first chapter sets the scene for the novel: Boston, during the seventeenth century. During this period, religion is the foundation for both the laws and the society. We are introduced to the town's cemetery and nearby prison. Next to the prison grows a wild rosebush. We can think of the wild rosebush as representing the beauty of nature, and the prison as the symbol of societies need to tame nature.
The Puritans are awaiting the public punishment of Hester Pyrne. At this point the reader has yet to discover any information regarding Hester's crime. Some of the women in the crowd feel that her punishment is too lenient. It seems that the community’s minister, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, was able to help her escape the punishment of death that the community’s laws called for. Hester, looking beautiful and dignified, emerges from the prison carrying a three month-old child and wearing a scarlet letter A on her chest. The letter is beautifully embroidered, and displays vibrant gold thread. Hester is led to the scaffold. Standing there in front of the crowd as they taunt her, she reminisces about her past. Hester is filled with pain and feelings of loneliness.
Still on the scaffold, Hester notices a strange man and an Indian heading towards the crowd. The strange man looks at her and they both recognize one another. She is shocked to realize that this is her long-missing husband. He motions to her as to not reveal his identity.
Another man in the crowd informs the stranger as to the circumstances leading to the woman’s punishment. He tells him that Hester was sent to Europe ahead of her husband, who was to follow a short time later. She has now been in Boston for two years, and has never received word from her husband. The people have been lenient in punishing her for the crime of having a child out of wedlock because of the circumstances with her absent husband. Her punishment is to stand on the scaffold for three hours and to wear the A on her chest for the rest of her life.
The stranger remarks as to how he has had numerous problems at sea, and had afterwards been held captive by some Indians. He thinks it is wrong that the father of the child has not been named or come forward. He swears that the man’s identity shall be revealed.
Reverend Mr. John Wilson asks Hester’s pastor Dimmesdale to plead with Hester to reveal Pearl’s father. As Dimmesdale urges her to name the father, Hester’s child looks up and holds her tiny arms out to him. Hester refuses to reveal the mans name. The strange man (her husband) then yells from amidst the crowd for her to name him. She still refuses to name her child’s father.
Wilson delivers a sermon while Hester tries to comfort her screaming child. After the sermon, Hester is led back to the prison.
Both Hester and Pearl are noticeably agitated in their prison cell that evening. The jailer brings in a physician for the two. The physician is announced as Roger Chillingworth, who turns out to be Hester's husband (the stranger), using an alias.
Hester is frightened to be around her husband. He offers both Hester and Pearl some medicine, and Hester initially fears that he may be trying to poison them. Eventually they both take the medicine. Pearl falls right to sleep, while Hester feels much better. Roger and Hester talk and we learn that theirs was a loveless marriage. They both accept equal blame for her current situation. Roger has no animosity towards his wife; he merely wants to discover the identity of Pearl’s father.
Chillingworth tells Hester that if she is going to conceal the identity of Pearl’s father, then she must also conceal his identity. He warns her that if she does not keep his identity a secret then he will do something to Pearl’s father. Hester is not happy with this arrangement. Against her better judgement she agrees to his terms. Hester wants to protect Pearls' father, whom she truly loves. After making the pact, Hester questions her husband as to whether he is like the Black Man and will destroy her soul. He responds that it will not be her soul that is destroyed.
Hester is freed from prison and free to go anywhere she wishes. She chooses to stay in Boston. She moves to a cottage near the sea, which is situated on the outskirts of town. Hester supports herself and her daughter through her work as a seamstress. The townspeople love her handiwork and it is much in demand. It is interesting to note that while Hester is creating beautiful pieces of clothing, she only wears very dark and simple clothing herself. People use her to produce clothing for every occasion, except for weddings. Though the townspeople employ her for her services, Hester and her child remain social outcasts. We learn that the extra money Hester earns from her sewing is given to the needy.
The reader begins to realize that the secrets that Hester carries with her are not her own. Everyone is aware of Hester’s sin, and the scarlet letter is a constant reminder to her and everyone else. However, Hester is now keeping secret the identity of her childs father and her husband. She is the only one of these three main characters who is honest in who she is.
This chapter centers upon Pearl. Pearl has grown into a beautiful and highly intelligent little girl. Her mother creates and dresses Pearl in elaborate and beautiful outfits. For all of her outward signs of beauty, Pearl seems troubled inside. She is a mischievous child who displays complete disrespect for authority.
With nobody but each other, Hester and Pearl are constantly together. At times people will gather to look at Pearl. She will not make any attempts to befriend anyone. Instead she yells at them and throws rocks their way. Pearl has a wild and untamed temperament that is often associated with nature.
Pearl has a very active imagination. In her world of make-believe, she never creates friends. Instead, she creates Puritan enemies, and enjoys destroying them. Pearl is also enamored with Hester’s scarlet letter. Both the letter and Pearl are symbols of Hester’s sin.
Hester finds herself to be both worried and a little frightened by this child that she loves.
Hester discovers that some of the townspeople feel that it would be a good idea to take Pearl away from her. They feel that the child is a demon and must be taken away so as to protect Hester. Hester decides to go to Governor Bellingham’s mansion to deliver some gloves he had ordered, and to plead for her to keep her daughter.
Hester dresses Pearl in an elaborate scarlet dress made with gold thread. It perfectly captures the look of Hester’s scarlet letter.
Waiting for Bellingham at his mansion, Hester is standing in front of a suit of armor. Hester’s distorted reflection in the armor makes her own image almost completely hidden behind the magnified image of her scarlet letter. Pearl’s mischievous grin is also magnified and distorted in her own reflection. These images frighten Hester, and she takes Pearl to the window to look at the garden. Pearl begins to cry for one of the red roses in the garden.
Some men begin to approach the two, and Pearl lets out a large scream. Then she becomes quiet.
The group of approaching men includes Bellingham, Wilson, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth. Bellingham is shocked at Pearl’s attire and challenges Hester’s fitness as a parent. Bellingham has Dimmesdale quiz Pearl on her knowledge of the catechism. Pearl, who is very knowledgeable regarding religion, deliberately fails the quiz. When Dimmesdale inquires as to who made her, Pearl replies that she was not made but plucked from the rosebush that grew near the prison. Upon hearing this, Bellingham and Wilson immediately believe that Pearl should be taken from her mother. Hester implores Dimmesdale to persuade them otherwise. A visibly nervous and sickly looking Dimmesdale clutches his heart and eloquently convinces the men that Pearl should stay with her mother. He says that God has given Pearl to her mother as both a blessing and a reminder of her sin. Pearl caresses Dimmesdale’s hand, and he kisses her head. Pearl then playfully skips away. Hester, having won her case, leaves the company of the men.
Chillingworth, displaying a sly grin, encourages the other men to guess at the identity of Pearl’s father. He seems to have an idea that Dimmesdale is the father. Hester also points out in this chapter that Chillingworth’s appearance has become more dark and ugly. Perhaps this is an outward sign of the evil and desire for revenge that is consuming him.
As Hester leaves the mansion, Mistress Hibbins invites her to a midnight meeting of witches in the forest. Hester refuses the invitation. She thinks to herself that if they had taken her child from her, she most assuredly would have attended the meeting.
Chillingworth has incorporated himself into the society as a physician. He has become Dimmesdale’s physician and friend. Many of the townspeople think very highly of Chillingworth because of the special attention that he lavishes upon their increasingly ailing minister. At Chillingworth’s suggestion, the two men eventually move into the same house.
Over time the townspeople’s trust and appreciation towards Chillingworth begins to fade. Rumors abound that he practices the black arts. Many people believe that he is an evil influence. However, they also have faith that their beloved minister will triumph over Chillingworth’s evil influence.
Chillingworth is intent on discovering the identity of Pearl’s father. At the same time he finds himself trying to get inside of Dimmesdale’s heart to learn the secret that is gnawing away at the minister. He knows that the minister’s health problems are associated with a great burden that he keeps to himself.
Chillingworth and Dimmesdale discuss the nature of secrets and the effects they can have on their possessors. While they talk, Hester and Pearl are visible through the men’s window. Pearl is skipping along atop the tombstones, and then is seen playfully placing thorny burrs around her mother’s scarlet letter.
Pearl throws a burr towards Dimmesdale through his window. She then tells her mother that they must leave before the Black Man catches her. She warns her mother that the minister has already been caught.
The men both agree that Hester is better off with her sin publicly acknowledged. Chillingworth tells Dimmesdale that he will never be able to cure him as long as the minister is concealing something. The minister grows agitated and lets it be known that he will never reveal his secret to Chillingworth. An upset Dimmesdale quickly leaves the room.
Some time afterwards, Chillingworth finds Dimmesdale asleep in a chair. He pulls aside the minister’s vestment, and stares at his chest. Chillingworth is overcome with joy at what he sees on the minister’s chest. He begins to dance.
Chillingworth now feels that he is fully aware of Dimmesdale’s secret, and sets out to slowly torture him with this knowledge. Dimmesdale is unaware of Chillingworth’s sinister motives, but comes to fear him.
The minister is growing sicker and weaker, and at the same time more popular with the townspeople. His suffering has made him a better minister, as he is now better able to relate to his congregation. He often finds himself on the verge of telling the congregation that he is Pearl’s father. He alludes to the congregation that he himself is a sinner, but this only makes them more fond of him. The more that his sin and guilt consume him, the more the townspeople shower him with praise. He has also taken to punishing himself for his sins. He beats himself with a whip and frequently holds all-night vigils.
One night Dimmesdale walks to the scaffolding where seven years earlier Hester stood acknowledging her sin. Dimmesdale walks up the steps and is overcome with emotion. He realizes that he should have stood on these steps alongside Hester and their daughter. He cries aloud in agony and self-hatred. Bellingham and Hibbins both hear his cry, but do not see him on the scaffolding from their windows.
A few moments later, Wilson is seen approaching the scaffolding carrying a lantern. He has just left the deathbed of Governor Winthrop. As he passes, Dimmesdale is barely able to withhold from speaking to the Reverend.
Dimmesdale imagines the cool air stiffening his body, making it impossible for him to step down from the scaffolding. The townspeople would all see him frozen there the following morning. He laughs at his vision, and is startled to hear a child’s laughter accompany his own. It is Pearl. Pearl and her mother are on their way back home from Winthrop’s deathbed. They ascend the scaffolding and all three stand there together, hand in hand. Pearl stands between the two of them as a symbol of both their love and their sin.
Pearl twice asks Dimmesdale if he will stand there with them tomorrow. He says that he will not. In response, Pearl laughs and pulls away from him. He says that he will stand there with them on judgement day. As he says this, a light shines from the sky and lights up the scaffolding. Dimmesdale looks up and see a red light in the sky in the shape of the letter A. Dimmesdale suddenly becomes aware that Pearl is pointing to Chillingworth. He is staring and grinning at the three of them on the scaffolding. A terrified Dimmesdale asks Hester for Chillingworth’s true identity. Hester says nothing, for fear of breaking the pact between herself and her husband. A mischievous Pearl pretends to whisper the answer into Dimmesdale’s ear, but she merely speaks nonsense and then starts laughing.
Chillingworth comes forth and explains that he is just on his way home from Winthrop’s. Chillingworth urges Dimmesdale to return home with him, and he does.
The following Sunday, the minister delivers his best sermon. Afterward, the sexton hands him his glove that he had found on the scaffolding, and then inquires as to the meaning of the giant red A in the sky. The sexton assumes that it stands for angel, in recognition of Winthrop’s death. Dimmesdale claims to know nothing of a giant A in the sky.
Hester is troubled by the change in Dimmesdale that has taken place in the last seven years. He is clearly on a downward spiral. The opposite seems to be occurring to Hester. Once the outcast, she has now gained the respect of the townspeople. Her scarlet letter is now said by many to stand for able, and not adultery. Some say that the letter has supernatural powers that protect its wearer. The public memory of her sin has clearly dimmed. Her physical appearance has changed as well. This once beautiful woman now seems rather drab, and has the air of a servant.
Pearl is now seven years old and Hester is very troubled by her unusual personality. She sometimes wonders if it would not be better if they were both dead. She also feels somewhat responsible foe Dimmesdale’s current condition. Hester decides to speak with her husband to see if she can break their pact. She feels that Dimmesdale must know Chillingworth’s true identity.
Hester and Chillingworth speak with one another. Chillingworth mentions that there is talk that Hester may be allowed to remove the scarlet letter from her chest, Hester says that no one has the right to remove it. She feels that if she were worthy of its removal then it would fall of on its own, or be transformed into something else. While they talk Hester is surprised at how evil looking he has become.
Chillingworth lets Hester know that she may tell Dimmesdale his true identity if she so wishes.
Hester claims that she hates Chillingworth. She also feels that in his marrying her, he committed a greater sin than she ever has.
While the two were talking, Pearl was busy playing along the seashore. She had created a green letter A on her chest out of seaweed. Hester tells Pearl that her green letter has no meaning, and then asks her if she knows the meaning of her own scarlet letter. Pearl replies that Hester has to wear the scarlet letter for the same reason that Dimmesdale keeps his hand over his heart. Hester is tempted to tell Pearl the truth about her father. Instead, she claims that she knows nothing of the minister and his heart. She also claims that she wears the scarlet letter for the gold thread. Pearl persists in questioning Hester about the letter, and will not stop. Hester eventually threatens to put her in a dark closet if she will not stop.
Hester is very eager to tell Chillingworth’s true identity to Dimmesdale. She does not want to speak with him at his house, so she decides to meet him one day in the forest as he returns home. As Hester and Pearl walk in the forest, Pearl says that the sunshine is running away from her mother because of her scarlet letter. Pearl has no problem running into a patch of light, but when Hester tries to the light disappears. Pearl claims that the sunlight does not love Hester, and that it is afraid of something that is on her chest.
Pearl asks her mother to tell her about the Black Man. Pearl says that she has overhead a woman talking of the Black Man who lives in the forest, and has people sign their name in blood in his book. The woman had said that Hester’s scarlet letter is the mark of the Black Man. Hester confesses to her child that she had met the Black Man once in her life and that the scarlet letter was indeed his mark.
Hester and Pearl sit and wait for Dimmesdale. When they hear someone approaching, Hester sends her daughter away. Before she leaves, Pearl asks if it is the Black Man that is coming, and whether Dimmesdale holds his hand over his heart to cover his own mark from the Black Man.
Dimmesdale comes down the path. He is looking haggard as he walks with his staff, and holds his hand over his heart.
Dimmesdale hears Hester calling to him. They sit together among the moss and somewhat nervously enter upon casual conversation.
Eventually, Dimmesdale asks Hester if she has found any peace. She asks him the same question. He says that he has found only despair. Hester suggests that his good works have atoned for his sins. He says that he wishes for only one person that he may confess his sin to.
Hester tells Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is her husband. Upon hearing this, Dimmesdale cries aloud. He swears that he cannot forgive her for letting him unknowingly be victimized by her husband. They continue to talk and he does forgive her. He claims that Chillingworth’s sin is worse than both of theirs.
Hester urges Dimmesdale to leave Boston. He says that he does not have the strength to begin anew. Hester tells him that she would accompany him.
Dimmesdale agrees to leave Boston with Hester. They immediately feel better, and Hester removes her scarlet letter, throwing it in the brook. She also removes her cap and lets down her long and beautiful hair. Then the sun shines through the trees. Hester once again looks radiant and beautiful.
Dimmesdale is worried that perhaps Pearl will not like him. Hester is sure that she will like him and that having her father will bring balance to Pearl’s life.
While they have been talking, Pearl has been playing in the forest. She seems to belong there, and to be a part of it. The animals are not frightened of her. She is a product of a natural union, not a socially accepted one. Similarly, her two parents give in to their natural desires when they agree to run of together. It is fitting that this would occur in the forest. Hester calls for Pearl. Pearl slowly walks towards her parents.
Pearl, wearing wildflowers in her hair, walks towards her parents. She stops at the brook, and will not cross it. Her mother attempts to lure her over, but Pearl merely frowns and points to her mothers chest. Hester demands her daughter to come forward but Pearl simply continues to point to where the scarlet letter once was, and then begins to loudly shriek.
Dimmesdale tells Hester to do whatever she must to calm Pearl. So Hester puts her scarlet letter back on, pins her hair up, and puts her cap back on. She immediately looks drab and unfriendly once again. Pearl rushes towards her and kisses her mother and the scarlet letter.
Hester tells Pearl that the minister loves both of them. Pearl asks if he will head back to town with them, hand in hand. Her mother explains that not now, but in the near future they will all live together. Pearl asks whether the minister will always have his hand over his heart. Hester forcibly brings Pearl to the minister and he gives her a kiss. Pearl runs to the brook and washes away the kiss. As Pearl stands alone, her parents make plans for their leaving town.
Dimmesdale leaves the forest and thinks about their plans for leaving Boston. Hester will secretly book passage for the three of them on a Bristol-bound ship leaving in four days. Dimmesdale is excited by the plans and his physical appearance has visibly improved as he walks into town. As he enters town he feels very different. He is tempted to say and do things to the people that he passes that he never would have before. Everything that was once so familiar now seems very different to him.
He passes by Mistress Hibbins who makes note of his trip to the forest. She laughs when he denies any wrongdoing on his part. She tells him that she will meet him in the forest at midnight.
At home, Chillingworth suggests some medicine for Dimmesdale but he refuses. He fears that Chillingworth may know something of the plan to leave Boston. He tells Chillingworth that he may not be with the congregation for another year.
The minister has an important sermon to deliver for Election Day, which is only three days away. When alone, Dimmesdale burns what he has written so far for his Election Day sermon. He sits up all night and writes a new sermon.
It is election Day, and Hester and Pearl are headed toward the marketplace. Hester explains to Pearl about Election Day and the procession of important men that will take place. Pearl wants to know if Dimmesdale will hold out his hand to them. Hester tells her that he will not, and that they must not greet him. Pearl comments about how strange it is that he will acknowledge them when at night or when alone, but not during the daylight and in front of others. She also comments how sad he is with his hand always over his heart.
Chillingworth and the captain of the Bristol-bound ship appear together. Hester is shocked to learn from the captain that Chillingworth has booked passage on the same ship. Hester sees Chillingworth across the way staring and smiling wickedly at her.
The Election Day procession begins. Dimmesdale appears to be quite confident as he walks with his head held high. He looks so different and healthy that Pearl does not even recognize him. Hester is disappointed when he does not even look at her as he walks by.
Mistress Hibbins comes up to Hester and talks of the meeting in the forest and say that the minister has the mark of the Black Man on his chest. She says that the mark will be revealed to the world, and then laughs as she walks away.
Hester, standing by the scaffolding, cannot hear the words of Dimmesdale’s sermon. She senses the sound of someone revealing a secret and asking for forgiveness.
The captain tells Pearl to tell her mother that Chillingworth will bring Dimmesdale to the ship. When hearing this news, Hester is depressed. Suddenly the townspeople surround her and stare at her scarlet letter. Another group of people are looking up to Dimmesdale as if he were a saint.
Dimmesdale’s sermon is over and is a complete success. As he leaves with the procession, Dimmesdale appears more haggard than he ever has. He can barely walk. He struggles over to the scaffolding and calls for Hester and Pearl to join him. The minister holds Pearl’s hand and leans on Hester and they ascend the scaffolding together.
Dimmesdale tells Hester that he is dying and he must acknowledge his sin. He steps in front of Hester and Pearl and announces to the people that he bares the sign of sin on his chest. He exposes his chest to the crowd, and then collapses.
Hester holds his head and Chillingworth curses that the Reverend has escaped him. Dimmesdale asks God to forgive Chillingworth for his sin, and then he asks Pearl for a kiss. Pearl kisses him and begins to cry. With this kiss we see that Pearl at last accepts and forgives her father. In addition, both the kiss and tears show that she is changing from the cold and distant child that she was. His pubic acknowledgement of her has transformed the troubled child. He says goodbye to Hester and she asks if they will spend eternity together. He says that he fears eternal happiness will not be found. He praises God and then dies.
In confessing, Dimmesdale has managed to at last escape from the guilt and shame that has haunted him all these years. In addition, it enabled him to escape the evil clutches of Chillingworth.
This final chapter of the novel merely serves to wrap things up for the reader. The townspeople who witnessed Dimmesdale’s action on the scaffolding have different views of what took place. Some say that he had a scarlet letter on his chest. Of those who saw it, there are many different explanations going about town as to how it got there. Some blame it on Chillingworth and his drugs. Others feel it is the manifestation of the Reverend’s remorse. Many others claim they saw nothing at all.
We learn that Chillingworth’s health rapidly declines following Dimmesdale’s death, and he dies within a year. He had been driven by his thirst for revenge, and once Dimmesdale dies he himself had no reason to go on. Upon his death, he leaves a sizeable inheritance to Pearl.
Shortly after Dimmesdale’s death Hester and Pearl move away. Hester eventually returns and continues her charity work. She also continues to wear her scarlet letter. It is no longer looked down upon. It is looked upon with awe and reverence. When she dies she is buried to Dimmesdale.
It is believed that a happy and married Pearl is living abroad.