The Scarlet Letter is set in the Puritan colony of Boston, New England, between the years 1642 and 1649. On the steps of the town prison, a crowd has amassed to witness the public humiliation of Hester Prynne whose pregnancy, occuring during her husband’s absence, has revealed her to be an adulteress. For this sin, she is pilloried and condemned to wear a scarlet letter A on her bosom. Within the throng is a mysterious figure going by the alias of Roger Chillingworth, who we quickly learn is the betrayed husband. A skilled physician, he gains admittance to Hester’s cell to treat her and her baby, Pearl. He attempts to learn the name of her lover, but Hester refuses to tell. She pledges to conceal Chillingworth’s true identity when he vows to find and destroy his rival if she does not.
After her release, Hester moves to a secluded cottage on the edge of town. She ekes out a meager existence doing needlework for the townspeople who shun and ridicule her. Pearl, meanwhile, develops into such a capricious, impish creature that the church threatens to take her away from her mother. Hester is also menaced by the local witch, Mistress Hibbins, who is determined to draw her into a covenant with the devil. Hester refuses to be derailed from her atonement.
Meanwhile, Chillingworth has taken up residence with the colony’s esteemed minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. The townspeople are delighted that such an able physician will be on hand to treat their ailing reverend, but Chillingworth’s motives are much more sinister. Correctly surmising that Dimmesdale is Hester’s lover, he administers psychological torture along with his plant remedies and thereby adds to the suffering of his guilt-racked patient. He finds the confirmation he craves when, peeling back the sleeping Dimmesdale’s bedclothes, he spies a scarlet letter A corresponding to Hester’s on the minister’s breast.
While Hester’s penance earns her a reprieve in the eyes of her fellow Bostonians, Dimmesdale’s guilt-induced deterioration makes him an object of concern. His behavior grows increasingly erratic, culminating in a night-time encounter with Hester and Pearl. When he refuses Pearl’s request to acknowledge her publically the next day, a meteor emblazons the sky with the letter A.
Concerned for his health, Hester arranges to meet Dimmesdale in the forest. They concoct a plan to flee Boston and sail for Europe, where they can live as a family. Filled with a new hope, Hester unpins the scarlet letter, but she is forced to put it back when Pearl refuses to recognize her mother without this badge of shame.
The day before their planned escape, Dimmesdale preaches to the gathered townsfolk with a renewed burst of eloquence. Just as Hester is finalizing the details of their voyage with the shipmaster of a privateer vessel, however, she learns that Chillingworth has discovered their plot and booked himself aboard the same ship. Their scheme in ruins, Dimmesdale desperately mounts the pillory and, with Hester and Pearl at his side, confesses his sins to the astonished people of Boston. He dies as Pearl rewards him with a kiss.
Hester and Pearl disappear from the colony. Chillingworth, robbed of his revenge, dies within the year. Hester returns towards the end of her life, still wearing the scarlet letter, to live at her old cottage, where she receives letters from Pearl. The former outcast, having married a wealthy European aristocrat, is now the cream of society. But her mother is unable to shake off the identity her persecutors stamped upon her. Instead, she provides support to women made miserable by the limitations imposed on their sex and gives them hope for a coming age when men and women might be equal. On her death, Hester is interred alongside Dimmesdale beneath a shared gravestone marked with the letter A.