In 17th-century Boston, citizens of the town gather around the prison house as a young woman named Hester Prynne is led to the scaffold for punishment. Hester emerges from prison carrying her 3-month-old infant daughter, Pearl, who is the product of an adulterous affair. On the bodice of Hester’s dress is a beautifully embroidered scarlet letter “A,” which stands for adulterer. She must always display the letter prominently on her clothing as part of her punishment.
As she stands on the scaffold, she recognizes someone in the back of the crowd. Her estranged husband, Roger Chillingworth, signals for her not to reveal that she knows him. Chillingworth inwardly resolves to uncover the name of Pearl’s father. The community leaders also want to know Hester’s partner in adultery, and they request that Hester’s pastor, Arthur Dimmesdale, entreat her to reveal Pearl’s father. Dimmesdale tells Hester not to conceal the man’s identity out of pity because it’s better for him to have his sin out in the open than to hide it. However, she steadfastly refuses to reveal his name.
Hester returns to a prison cell after her three hours on the scaffold, and Chillingworth is assigned to attend her and her baby as a physician. He was held captive by Native Americans for two years and learned a lot about natural medicine from them. He gives Hester and Pearl medicine to calm them, and he tells Hester that he doesn’t seek vengeance upon her.
He says that although she has wronged him, he also wronged her when he married her, because he was an old and ugly man desperately trying to create a warm relationship with a young woman who didn’t love him. However, Chillingworth does want revenge on Pearl’s father. Hester refuses to tell him the man’s name, and he resolves to continue living in the town until he discovers the man’s identity. He makes Hester promise not to reveal to anyone that he was once her husband.
Hester moves into a little cottage on the outskirts of the settlement. She makes a living by selling her extraordinarily high-quality needlework, and she is content, even though she has no friends. Hester also performs many charitable works, such as donating money to the poor and sewing clothes for them.
As Pearl grows from infancy to childhood, she is very capricious, and Hester is at a loss over how to discipline her. Like her mother, Pearl has no friends and seems to understand that she can never interact with other children. Even when Pearl plays by herself, she doesn’t invent imaginary friends, as another child might do — she creates imaginary enemies and pretends to fight them.
Pearl is such a strange child that the inhabitants of the colony want to remove her from Hester’s custody and have her raised by someone wiser. Hester visits Governor Bellingham and requests that her child be left to her care.
Dimmesdale and Chillingworth also happen to be visiting the governor, and when it becomes clear that the governor will not listen to Hester’s plea to keep Pearl, she demands that Dimmesdale defend her rights. Dimmesdale adequately persuades the governor, and Chillingworth takes special notice of Dimmesdale’s passionate defense of Hester.
Over the last few years, Dimmesdale’s health has been failing. No one knows why he is wasting away, but he grows thinner and paler. He frequently puts his hand over his chest, as if his heart is in pain. Dimmesdale’s parishioners insist that he seek medical help from Chillingworth, so the two men become friends.
Eventually, they move into the same house so Chillingworth can observe Dimmesdale at all times, supposedly to tend to his heath. However, people observe that Chillingworth looks uglier and crueler as the days go by, a fact that makes Dimmesdale’s parishioners uneasy. By this point, it is clear to the reader that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father and Chillingworth is fully aware of it.
Dimmesdale is tormented as Chillingworth uses subtle suggestions and references to make Dimmesdale feel guilty. One night, Dimmesdale is so overcome by his own inner distress, he rushes out to the scaffold where Hester was publically shamed years earlier. As he stands alone in the dark, it is revealed that he, too, carries a scarlet “A” symbol written on his own skin. He stands on the scaffold for a long time, then calls out to Hester and Pearl when he sees them walking by. He asks Hester to join him on the scaffold, since he did not join her there years ago as he should have.
The three of them join hands, and Pearl asks Dimmesdale to stand with her and her mother on the scaffold at noon on the next day. Dimmesdale is terrified of public ridicule, so he tells Pearl that he will stand with her and her mother on Judgement Day, but he can’t join them during the daylight hours. At that moment, a meteor streaks across the sky. To Dimmesdale, it looks like a giant red “A.”
By this time, Pearl is 7 years old, and Hester’s position in the community has risen slightly. She still lives by herself, but the townspeople now regard her with respect and kindness. Hester is so well known for acts of charity and for tending to the poor and sick, her scarlet “A” is often said to mean “Able” because she is so able and capable to help others.
Hester decides to help Dimmesdale by talking to Chillingworth. She tells him that she must reveal his real identity to Dimmesdale, and he scarcely cares. He so enjoys tormenting Dimmesdale, he won’t stop even if she discloses their real relationship.
A few days later, Hester meets Dimmesdale in the woods and tells him that Chillingworth was her former husband. Dimmesdale is angry and says he will not forgive Hester for hiding such a fact from him. Eventually, he forgives her, and they sit together on a fallen tree, sorrowfully holding hands.
He begs her to give him advice about what he should do, and she counsels him to escape from Chillingworth and take a ship back to Europe. He says that he has neither the energy nor the courage to start a new life alone, and she says she will go with him.
They resolve to escape together, and Hester removes her scarlet “A.” She flings it into the woods. Hester looks forward to properly introducing Dimmesdale and Pearl, but when she calls their daughter to rejoin them after playing in the woods, Pearl throws a tantrum and demands that her mother pick up the fallen letter and wear it again. Hester reluctantly does so.
Hester, Dimmesdale and Pearl make plans to board a ship for Bristol in four days’ time. Dimmesdale goes home and tells Chillingworth that he will not be needing his medicines or treatments any longer. Chillingworth knows that Hester has revealed his identity.
A few days later, all the townspeople gather in the marketplace for a holiday commencement. Hester hears from the ship’s captain that Chillingworth plans to sail to England with them, intent on tormenting Dimmesdale forever. Dimmesdale delivers the most moving, most beautiful sermon he has ever preached. He leaves the church feeling weak and frail.
He calls out to Hester in public. Hester is standing beside the scaffold, and Dimmesdale asks her and Pearl to join him on the scaffold. Dimmesdale announces to the whole crowd that he is guilty of the same sin as Hester, and he pulls back his shirt to reveal his own scarlet “A” carved into the skin over his heart. Dimmesdale collapses, and Chillingworth laments that he can no longer harm Dimmesdale after his confession. Dimmesdale asks Pearl to kiss him, and after she does, he says goodbye to Hester and dies.
After Dimmesdale’s death, Chillingworth no longer has a reason to live and passes away within a year. When he dies, he leaves a large amount of property in both America and England to Pearl. Pearl and Hester move to England, though years later, Hester returns alone to live in her old cottage, still wearing her scarlet letter.
The locals believe that Pearl is now a happy wife and mother in England, though no one is certain. Hester becomes a kind of town counselor, and people often come to her for sympathy and advice. Eventually, she is buried in the grave next to Dimmesdale, both of them using the same headstone, which is carved not with their names but with a single scarlet “A.”