By this point in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter the reader knows that Hester Prynne has been publicly humiliated and outcast for bearing a child from an adulterous affair. The reader does not, however, know that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is the father.
In chapter 8, the reader gets an inkling of the idea that Dimmesdale might be the father when he intercedes on Hester’s behalf in a meeting with the Governor and Reverend John Wilson. Although they are seriously considering taking her daughter Pearl away from her, Dimmesdale convinces them not to.
God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and requirements—both seemingly so peculiar—which no other mortal being can possess.
From this point, Roger Chillingworth, who has made it his life’s work to find out who the father is and torture him secretly, sets his sights on Dimmesdale. He becomes Dimmesdale's personal physician and moves into the same house with him.
Meanwhile Dimmesdale suffers from his guilt. At one point, in the middle of the night, he ascends to the scaffold, the same one on which Hester was made to stand in public shame with the letter “A” on her breast and her baby in her arms, and utters a cry of misery and guilt over his secret role in the affair. Shortly, Hester and Pearl happen to walk by and join him. At this point it should have become obvious to the reader that Dimmesdale is the father. At one point Pearl asks him if he will stand with her and Hester the next day, and Dimmesdale responds with:
At the great judgment day . . . Then, and there, before the judgment seat thy mother, and thou, and I, must stand together. But the daylight of this world shall not see out meeting.
From here, things begin to move quickly. Seven years have passed since Hester’s punishment. Dimmesdale has grown weak and wracked with guilt. Roger Chillingworth continues to poison him under the guise of being his physician. One day, Hester and Pearl and Dimmesdale meet in the woods. Although it seems like a chance meeting to Dimmesdale, Hester actually knew he would be there and sought him out. There in the solace of the forest, away from the severe eyes of the townspeople, they talk. Hester tells him that Chillingworth is in actuality her husband and has been undermining him for that last seven years. Then they vow to go away, across the sea, together.
Dimmesdale, however, is too weak to follow through with this plan. After delivering a memorable sermon the next Sunday morning, he again takes to the scaffold where he is joined by Hester and Pearl. Near death, he confesses his part in the adultery.
People of New England! Ye, that have loved me—ye that have deemed me holy—behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last!—at last!—I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from groveling down upon my face!
Dimmesdale then utters a thanks to God for keeping him close and dies on the scaffold.
Roger Chillingworth, his purpose in life now dead and gone, dies miserably within a year. He leaves his money to Pearl, and Hester travels with her back to Europe. When Hester returns, she returns alone and takes her place in her former residence.