The novel opens with a preface entitled The Custom House
which serves to introduce the story to the reader. It also gives some
background information about the author.
The story begins by explaining that Hester Prynne has committed adultery
and has a child with a man that is not her husband. Hester will not tell
who the father of this child (Pearl) is. As a punishment for her sin,
she must stand on a scaffold and receive the insults of the people for
three hours and she must wear a scarlet A on her bosom for
the rest of her life as a symbol for her sin.
Hester came to the Massachusetts colony before her husband and when he
did not arrive shortly thereafter, it was assumed that he was dead. Hester
found out that this was not true when she saw her husband standing in
the crowd watching her on the scaffold. On this particular day, the reader
is also introduced to Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and another minister,
John Wilson Hare. Both advise Hester to reveal the identity of the father
of the baby so that he may suffer just as Hester does. Unknown to the
multitude, however, Dimmesdale himself was that lover; his gentle prodding
was in fact a distraught and convoluted effort to urge a confession from
Hester which he knew she would never make-and which he could not find
the courage to make for himself.
Later, Hesters husband (Roger Chillingworth) visits her in jail.
Roger apologizes that he was late in coming to the colony, but explains
that he was captured by Indians and held captive. He also convinces Hester
not to reveal that he is her long lost husband. Before he leaves, he vows
that he will find the man that brought shame on Hester and seek revenge.
Roger Chillingworth who was a physician as well as Hesters husband,
moves in with Reverend Dimmesdale because Dimmesdale was growing ill
While living with Dimmesdale, he grows suspicious that Dimmesdale is the
father of Pearl and seeks revenge by hurting him more than curing him
of his illness. But this was only a suspicion until one night, Chillingworth
opened Dimmesdales shirt while he was sleeping and discovers a scarlet
A on Dimmesdales Chest. Convinced that his suspicion is correct,
Chillingworth continues to harm Dimmesdale.
When Hester completes her term in jail, she is free to leave with her
child but she must continue to wear the scarlet letter A as a constant
reminder of her sin. At this point, Pearl is seven years old. Shortly
thereafter, Dimmesdale visits Hester and Pearl. The three of them stand
on the Scaffold together and Dimmesdale imagines people mocking him as
they should have seven years ago. He apologizes to Pearl and Hester for
not being with them on the Scaffold.
While they are talking, a meteor flies through the sky leaving a trail
that looked like the letter A, another reminder of the sin. Hester tells
Dimmesdale that her real husband is Chillingworth and that he wants revenge,
badly. They decide to run away together on a ship on Election Day.
On the day of their departure, Hester discovers that Chillingworth booked
a ticket for the same boat that she and Dimmesdale were going to take.
Dimmesdale delivers his election day sermon, one of his best sermons ever
spoken, and walks up to the scaffold with Hester and Pearl to reveal his
sin to all his congregation. He confesses everything and falls ill and
dies soon afterward. Hester leaves with Pearl. A few months later, Chillingworth
dies and leaves Pearl a great sum of money. Hester and Pearl move to England
where she is looked upon as a wise woman and they go to her for advice.
She continues to wear the scarlet letter there.