The Scarlet Letters, set in 1953, begins with the news of Rodman Jessup’s adultery, which threatens not only his life, but also the law firm of Vollard, Kaye & Duer. As the son-in-law and favorite of Ambrose Vollard, Jessup was the heir apparent to the firm. All is not as it appears, however, since Rodman’s “adultery” was prompted by his discovery, in her journal, of his wife’s affair with Harry Hammersly, his business colleague, rival, and friend. Knowing that Ambrose would be destroyed if he heard of his daughter’s behavior, Rodman commits adultery and provides his wife with the ammunition she needs. Rodman resigns from the firm, takes another position, and establishes himself as a formidable merger attorney; Harry marries Rodman’s wife and eventually assumes control of the company. Rodman rejoins the Vollard firm, marries Jane Farquhar, and becomes aware of Harry’s questionable handling of some of the accounts. The seemingly inevitable showdown never occurs, thanks to Ambrose’s wife’s intervention.
Louis Auchincloss, using allusions to Roman history, Shakespeare, The Jungle Book, and the Bible, skewers his well-read characters and the classes they belong to. The citizens of Glenville are “good burghers,” Rodman’s mother has “the required son and the desired daughter,” and the Vollard firm is another “Camelot.” In the chapters he devotes to each of his leading characters Auchincloss portrays the mercenary motives of spouses, parental neglect and spite, love-hate relationships, and workaholics and “shysters.” There are, with the exception of the puritanical Rodman, few admirable characters and no loving marriages. When he is forced to confront the kind of attorney he has become, the altruistic Rodman compromises, adulterating his character. In fact, most of Auchincloss’s characters wear “scarlet letters.”