On a summer morning in Boston, in the early days of the Massachusetts Colony, a throng of curious people gather outside the jail in Prison Lane. They are there looking for Hester Prynne, who was found guilty of adultery by a court of stern Puritan judges. Condemned to wear on the breast of her gown the scarlet letter A, which stands for adulterer, she is to stand on the stocks before the meetinghouse for three hours so that her shame might be a warning and a reproach to all who see her. The crowd waits to see her ascend the scaffold with her child—the proof of the adultery, Hester’s husband being absent—in her arms.
At last, escorted by the town beadle, the woman appears. She moves serenely to the steps of the scaffold and stands quietly under the staring eyes that watch her public disgrace. It is whispered in the gathering that she is spared the penalty of death or of branding only through the intercession of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, into whose church she brought her scandalous sin.
While Hester stands on the scaffold, an elderly, almost deformed man appears out of the forest. When her agitation makes it plain that she recognizes him, he puts his finger to his lips as a sign of silence.
Hester’s story is well known in the community. She is the daughter of an old family of decayed fortune; when she was young, her family married her to a husband who had great repute as a scholar. For some years, they lived in Antwerp. Two years later, the husband sent his wife alone across the ocean to the Massachusetts Colony, intending to follow her as soon as he could put his affairs in order. News came of his departure, but his ship was never heard of again. The young, attractive widow lived quietly in Boston until the time of her disgrace.
The scaffold of the pillory on which Hester stands is situated next to the balcony of the church where all the dignitaries of the colony sit to watch her humiliation. The ministers of the town call on her to name the man who is equally guilty; the most eloquent of those who exhorts her is Dimmesdale, her pastor. Hester refuses to name the father of her child, and she is led back to the prison after her period of public shame ends.
On her return to prison, Hester is found to be in a state of great nervous excitement. When at last medical aid is called, a man is found who professes knowledge of medicine. His name is Roger Chillingworth, he tells the jailer, and he recently arrived in town after a year of residence among the Indians. He is the stranger who appeared so suddenly from the forest that afternoon while Hester stood on the scaffold, and Hester recognized him immediately as her husband, the scholar Prynne. His ship was wrecked on the coast, and he was a captive among the Indians for many months. When he comes to Hester, he, too, asks her to name the father of her child. When she refuses, he tells her he will remain in Boston to practice medicine and that he will devote the rest of his life to discovering the identity of the man who dishonored him. He commands Hester not to betray the relationship between them.
When Hester’s term of imprisonment is over, she finds a small house on the outskirts of town, far removed from other habitation. There, with her child, whom she names Pearl, she settles down to earn a living from needlework, an outcast from society. She still wears the scarlet emblem on the breast of her sober gowns, but she dresses her child in bright, highly ornamented costumes. As she grows up, Pearl proves to be a capricious, wayward child, hard to discipline. One day, Hester calls on Governor Bellingham to deliver a pair of embroidered gloves. She also wants to see him about the custody of Pearl, for there is a movement afoot among the strict church members to take the child away from her. In the garden of the governor’s mansion, Hester finds the governor, Dimmesdale, and old Chillingworth. When the perverse child refuses to repeat the catechism, the governor thinks it necessary that she be reared apart from her mother. Dimmesdale argues persuasively, however, and in the end Hester is allowed to keep Pearl, who seems to be strangely attracted to the minister.
Chillingworth became intimately acquainted with Dimmesdale as both his parishioner and his doctor, for the minister has been in ill health ever since the physician came to town. The two men lodge in the same house, and the physician comes to know Dimmesdale’s inmost thoughts and feelings. The minister is much plagued by his conscience and his feelings of guilt, but when he incorporates these ideas in generalities into his sermons, his congregation only thinks more highly of him. Slowly the conviction grows in Chillingworth that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father, and he conjures up for the sick man visions of agony, terror, and remorse.
One night, unable to sleep, Dimmesdale walks to the pillory where Hester stood in ignominy. He goes up the steps and stands for a long time in the same place. A little later Hester, who was watching at a deathbed, comes by with little Pearl. The minister calls them over, saying when they were there before he lacked the courage to stand beside them. As the three stand together, with Dimmesdale acknowledging himself as Pearl’s father and Hester’s partner in sin, Chillingworth watches them from the shadows.
Hester is so shocked by Dimmesdale’s feeble and unhealthy condition that she determines to see her former husband and plead with him to free the sick minister from his evil influence.
One day, she meets the old physician gathering herbs in the forest and begs him to be merciful to his victim. Chillingworth, however, is inexorable; he will not forgo his revenge on the man who wronged him. Hester thereupon says that she will tell Dimmesdale their secret and warn him against his physician. A short time later, Hester and Pearl intercept Dimmesdale in the forest as he is returning from a missionary journey to the Indians. Hester confesses her true relationship with Chillingworth and warns the minister against the physician’s evil influence. She and the clergyman decide to leave the colony together in secret, take passage on a ship then in the harbor, and return to the Old World. They plan to leave four days later, after Dimmesdale preaches the sermon on Election Day, when the new governor is to be installed.
Election Day is a holiday in Boston, and the port is lively with the unaccustomed presence of sailors from the ship in the harbor. In the crowd is the captain of the vessel, with whom Hester made arrangements for her own and Dimmesdale’s passage. That morning, the captain informs Hester that Chillingworth also arranged for passage on the ship. Filled with despair, Hester turns away and goes with Pearl to listen to Dimmesdale’s sermon.
Unable to find room within the church, she stands at the foot of the scaffold where at least she can hear the sound of his voice. As the procession leaves the church, everyone has words only of praise for the minister’s inspired address. Dimmesdale walks like a man in a dream, and once he totters and almost falls. When he sees Hester and Pearl at the foot of the scaffold, he steps out of the procession and calls them to him. Then, taking them by the hand, he again climbs the steps of the pillory. Almost fainting, but with a voice terrible and majestic, the minister admits his guilt to the watching people. With a sudden motion, he tears the ministerial band from across his breast and sinks, dying, to the platform. When he thus exposes his breast, witnesses say that the stigma of the scarlet letter A was seen imprinted on the flesh above his heart.
Chillingworth, no longer able to wreak his vengeance on Dimmesdale, dies within the year, bequeathing his considerable property to Pearl. For a time, Hester disappears from the colony, but she returns alone years later to live in her humble thatched cottage and to wear as before the scarlet emblem on her breast. The scarlet letter, once her badge of shame, becomes an emblem of her tenderness and mercy—an object of veneration and reverence to those whose sorrows she alleviates by her deeds of kindness. At her death, she directs that the only inscription on her tombstone should be the letter A.