'The Scarlet Letter' Plot Summary

Romance and Religious Intolerance in 17th Century Boston

The Scarlet Letter is an 1850 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne set in Boston, then the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in the mid-17th century (about fifty years before the nearby Salem Witch Trials). It tells the story of the relationship between the Puritan community and Hester Prynne, the protagonist, after it is discovered that she bore a child out of wedlock—an act that cuts against society’s religious values. As punishment for her actions, Prynne is forced to wear a scarlet “A,” which, as it is never said outright, presumably stands for “adultery” or “adulterer.” The narrative, which is framed by an introductory piece entitled “The Custom-House,” depicts the seven years following Prynne’s crime.

The Custom-House

This introduction, written by a nameless first-person narrator who shares many biographical details with the book’s author, serves as the main narrative’s framework. In this section, the narrator, who has an interest in writing, tells of how he works as a surveyor at the Salem Custom House—a moment he takes as an opportunity mainly to disparage and mock his colleagues, many of whom are older and have secured lifetime appointments through family connections.

This section takes place in the mid-19th century, and, as such, the Custom House has much less activity than it did during its heyday two centuries earlier. As a result, the narrator spends a good deal of his time snooping about in the attic of the building, whereupon he finds an old piece of red cloth in the shape of the letter “A,” as well as a century-old manuscript by a previous surveyor named Jonathan Pue, about a series of local events from a century even before his time. The narrator reads this manuscript, and then reflects on how his puritan ancestors, who he holds in high esteem, would have looked down on him writing a work of fiction, but, after he loses his job as a result of a shift in local politics, he does so anyway. His text, loosely based on the Pue manuscript, becomes the basis of the novel.

The Scarlet Letter

In mid-17th century Puritan Boston, then the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a local woman, Hester Prynne, is discovered to have had a child out of wedlock. This is a major offense in the extremely religious community. As punishment she is made to stand for several hours with her child, Pearl, in a stocks on a scaffold in the town square, and then to wear a scarlet A embroidered on her clothing for the remainder of her days. While standing on the scaffold, exposed to the public, Prynne is hectored by both the mob and the prominent members of the town, including the adored minister Arthur Dimmesdale, to name the child’s father—but she stalwartly refuses. Also while she is standing there, she sees a white man, guided in by a Native American man, enter the scene at the back of the mob. Prynne and this man make eye contact, but he puts a finger in front of his lips.

After the spectacle, Prynne is brought to her prison cell, where she is visited by a doctor; this is the man she had seen at the back of the crowd, who is also, it turns out, her husband, Roger Chillingworth, recently arrived from England after having been thought dead. They have an open and amiable conversation about each of their shortcomings in their marriage, but when Chillingworth demands to know the identity of the child’s father, Prynne continues to refuse to reveal it.

Upon her release from prison, Prynne and her daughter move to a small cottage on the edge of the town, where she devotes herself to needlework (producing work of notable quality), and helping others in need as best she can. Their isolation eventually starts to affect Pearl’s behavior, as lacking playmates other than her mother, she grows into a rambunctious and unruly little girl. Her behavior starts to attract the townspeople’s attention, so much so that members of the church recommend that Pearl be taken away from Prynne in order to receive better supervision. This, obviously, greatly upsets Prynne, who goes to speak with Governor Bellingham. With the governor are the town’s two ministers, and Prynne appeals to Dimmesdale directly as part of her argument against the townspeople’s motions. Her plea wins him over, and he tells the governor that Pearl should remain with her mother. They return to their cottage as before, and, over the course of several years, Prynne begins to earn herself back into the town’s good graces through her helpful deeds.

Around this time, the minister’s health begins to worsen, and it is suggested that Chillingworth, the new physician in town, take up residence with Dimmesdale to watch over him. The two get along at first, but as Dimmesdale’s health deteriorates, Chillingworth begins to suspect that his condition is in some way the manifestation of psychological distress. He begins to ask Dimmesdale about his mental state, which the minister resents; this pushes them apart. One night, shortly thereafter, Chillingworth sees on Dimmesdale’s chest, while the latter is sleeping, a symbol that represents the minister’s guilt.

Dimmesdale then, tormented by his guilty conscience, wanders one night into the town square and stands upon the scaffold where, several years before, he had looked upon Prynne as the town antagonized her. He acknowledges his guilt within himself, but cannot bring himself to do so publicly. While there, he runs into Prynne and Pearl, and he and Prynne finally discuss the fact that he is Pearl’s father. Prynne also determines that she will reveal this fact to her husband. Pearl, meanwhile, is wandering around beside her parents throughout this conversation, and repeatedly asks Prynne what the Scarlet A stands for, but her mother never responds with a serious answer.

Shortly thereafter, they meet again in the forest, and Prynne informs Dimmesdale of Chillingworth’s desire for revenge on the man who usurped him. As such, they make a plan to return together to England, which gives the minister a new bout of health and enables him to give one of his most rousing sermons at Election Day a few days later. As the procession leaves the church, though, Dimmesdale climbs up onto the scaffold to confess his relationship with Prynne, at which point he promptly dies in her arms. Later, there is much discussion amongst the townspeople over a mark seen upon the minister’s chest, which many claim was in the shape of an “A.”

With this affair now effectively settled, Chillingworth soon dies, leaving Pearl a large inheritance, and Prynne voyages to Europe, though she returns several years later and resumes wearing the scarlet letter. At some point thereafter she dies, and is buried in the same plot as Dimmesdale.