The Scarlet Letter Plot Summary
The Narrator tells us that he found some documents telling the story of a Scarlet Letter used by a woman named Hester Prynne from Boston, Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century. He goes on to write an embellished version of the story.
The story begins with Hester Prynne, who has just given birth to an illegitimate daughter, leaving the prison to serve her sentence of standing in the town scaffolds for an hour with her three-month-old baby. She has also been required to wear a red letter "A," to stand for Adulteress, on her chest. Hester has embroidered the A with beautiful gold thread and amazing artistry. While Hester is standing on the scaffold, Roger Chillingworth, who appears to recognize her, appears out of the woods. Hester is also asked to name the man with whom she sins, but refuses.
The years pass and Hester's daughter Pearl grows into an impetuous little girl. Hester has moved with Pearl into a small cottage on the outskirts of town and makes her living by embroidering and sewing clothing for the townspeople. Roger Chillingworth, who turns out to be Hester's long presumed-dead husband from Europe, befriends Hester's Pastor, Arthur Dimmesdale, and the two eventually move in together. Chillingworth has billed himself as a physician, and therefore able to care for Dimmesdale, who is in very poor health. In a rare moment when Dimmesdale lets his guard down, Chillingworth discovers an open, self-inflicted wound on Dimmesdale's chest.
Dimmesdale's health continues to decline, and Chillingworth's character changes noticeably. He becomes a demon-like presence in Dimmesdale's life. Hester notices this change in Chillingworth and confronts him. It is suddenly clear that Chillingworth has determined that Dimmesdale is Pearl's father, and that Chillingworth intends to make Dimmesdale's life a living hell. Hester understands the gravity of the situation and decides to tell Dimmesdale who Chillingworth really is. At first, when Chillingworth first entered the settlement, he had sworn Hester to secrecy about his true identity. Hester decides that, for the sake of Dimmesdale's sanity, she must warn him about Chillingworth's character.
In a surprise and secret meeting with Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester reveals her secret, and begs a defeated and angry Dimmesdale for forgiveness. He eventually grants forgiveness, and agrees to leave the colony with Hester and Pearl as soon as possible. Unfortunately, somehow Chillingworth manages to find out about their secret plan to leave, and books passage on the same boat bound for Europe. In the meantime, Dimmesdale prepares for his final sermon, the Election Sermon given on the day the local officials are sworn into office. He writes and re-writes a dramatic speech which proclaims his sinful nature, which none of his parishioners can understand or accept. Dimmesdale is known as a brilliant and inspirational preacher, and his congregation is convinced of his godliness. After the exhausting sermon is over, Dimmesdale leaves the church and approaches the town scaffold. As he climbs the steps, he comes upon Hester and Pearl standing in the shadows, and pulls them onto the scaffold with him. In that moment, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale bares his chest wound to the congregation, and takes Pearl's hand to confess his fatherhood. He then dies.
After this dramatic admission and Dimmesdale's death, Chillingworth no longer has anything to live for. He dies shortly thereafter. Hester and Pearl go to Europe for many years, and Hester eventually returns without her daughter. No one knows where Pearl is, although Hester is seen sewing extravagant baby clothing that no one in the colony would ever use. In addition, Hester continues to receive letters from a man of great means throughout the rest of her life. She lives a long life, and serves as counselor to many troubled women, as well as a giver of charity. When she dies, Hester is buried next to Dimmesdale's sunken grave under a tombstone that says "On a Field, Sable, the Letter A, Gules."