What happens in The Scarlet Letter?

The year is 1642. Boston is a Puritan settlement, and one of its citizens, Hester Prynne, is led from the prison to the scaffold to stand in judgment before the town magistrates. In her arms, she carries her infant daughter Pearl, whose birth has sparked this inquiry. On the scaffold, Hester refuses to reveal the name of the child's father. As punishment, Hester is forced to wear the scarlet letter A that marks her as an adulteress.

  • Hester's long-lost husband, whom she believed to have been killed by the Native Americans, returns to Boston. No one but Hester recognizes him because he has taken the assumed name of Dr. Roger Chillingworth. He forces her to keep his identity a secret as he conducts an investigation into the identity of Pearl's father.
  • Hester lives with Pearl at the edge of town while Chillingworth moves in with the beloved Reverend Dimmesdale. Recognizing Dimmesdale as Hester’s one-time lover, Chillingworth torments the guilt-stricken man for years, keeping him alive out of spite.
  • Finally, Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold and reveals the letter A that he has been carving into his chest. He confesses in front of everyone, then dies of his wounds in Hester's arms. Chillingworth dies shortly thereafter, having exacted his revenge. Hester leaves Boston, only to return years later and live the rest of her days under the mark of the scarlet letter.

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Summary

The year is 1642. Hester Prynne, a young wife whose husband has been missing for over a year, is accused of adultery following the birth of her infant daughter Pearl. In a shameful public ceremony, Hester is forced to stand on a scaffold for more than three hours and submit to an interrogation. She refuses to reveal the name of her child's father, which angers the Puritanical citizens of Boston. She is forced to wear a scarlet-colored A on her clothes to mark her as an adulteress.

While on the scaffold, Hester sees her husband, Mr. Prynne, a physician who has just now returned to Boston. Following the interrogation, Hester and Prynne meet in private, where the two apologize for their respective offenses (Hester for her adultery and Prynne for his long absence, as well as for marrying such a young, vital woman—and at his age). Prynne was suspected of having been killed by Native Americans and thus was not recognized by anyone but Hester. He makes her promise not to reveal his true identity and assumes the name Roger Chillingworth.

Following her ordeal on the scaffold, Boston's officials decide to release Hester from prison. She is then allowed to build a business as a seamstress—a role in which she thrives, despite the contempt, condescension, and verbal abuse she suffers at the hands of her neighbors and patrons. Meanwhile, her daughter, Pearl, grows from an infant to a lovely, vibrant, peculiar little girl. Hester wonders at Pearl's strange mannerisms, suspecting that her daughter might be some sort of elf-child.

While delivering an order of gloves to the Governor's house, Hester speaks to the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a young, sickly minister who exhorted Hester to reveal the name of the father during her interrogation on the scaffold. Later, it will be revealed that Dimmesdale himself is the father. In this scene, however, Hester is the only other person who knows this, and Pearl speaks to her father, unaware of his true identity. He, the Governor, and Chillingworth all question Hester's ability to be a good role model for Pearl. She bears these criticisms well.

Chillingworth moves in with Dimmesdale under the pretense of being the minister's doctor. In fact, Chillingworth wants to ferret out Pearl's father and has reason to suspect that Dimmesdale might be the culprit. One day, when Dimmesdale falls asleep in his chair, Chillingworth opens the minister's shirt, revealing his chest, which the Reverend has been hiding from the doctor. Though the narrator doesn't say so, the minister has been carving an A into his chest, marking himself an...

(The entire section is 2,273 words.)