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In mid-seventeenth century Boston, a young wife gives birth to a child that is not her
husband’s. She confesses her sin but finds that honesty
is sometimes punished far worse than lying. The story’s narrator, who works at the Salem
Custom House, claims to have found both this story and a letter “A” made of red cloth hidden
in the Custom House. The story begins in Boston, June 1642, townspeople
gather outside the door of the prison. It’s a grim sight except for the bright red
roses growing beside the door. A young wife named Hester Prynne walks out
through that door, carrying her three-month-old daughter, Pearl. Hester is charged with adultery, for her husband
has been missing at sea for two years. Hester wears a red letter A on her chest but
the women watching say she should have been punished more harshly. Hester is led to the pillory, a wooden stand
where criminals are held up to public ridicule. She holds Pearl very tightly and the child
begins to cry. Hester sees an elderly, misshapen man watching
her in the crowd. She refuses to name the child’s father even
when the pastor, Reverend Dimmesdale, demands to know. The townspeople insist they see a devilish
glow coming from Hester’s scarlet letter. Back in Hester’s prison cell, the elderly
stranger turns out to be her missing husband. He calls himself Roger Chillingworth and gives
her medicine for herself and the baby. She’s suspicious, but he says she shouldn’t
worry. He wants her alive to suffer for her crime. Chillingworth says he’ll learn the father’s
name eventually. In the meantime, he wants Hester to say nothing
about him being her husband. She agrees. Hester is released and goes to live with Pearl
in a cottage on the edge of town, supporting herself with needlework. She is shunned and ridiculed, and soon feels
others should have letters sewn to their garments for the crimes they’ve committed but lied
about. Pearl grows to be a pretty but headstrong
seven-year-old. Some people insist she is the offspring of
demons, and even Hester believes the child’s face appears devilish whenever Pearl looks
at the scarlet letter. Hester hears that authorities want to take
Pearl away for a better upbringing. Hester says Pearl is her happiness and punishment
all in one and keeps her from straying again, so the child is allowed to stay with Hester
for now. Then Hester meets Mistress Hibbens, the governor’s
sister and a worshipper of the “Black Man,” Satan. She invites Hester to a gathering to worship
the devil, but Hester refuses – for Pearl’s sake if nothing else. Chillingworth notes that Reverend Dimmesdale
constantly suffers chest pain. The two unmarried men share a home for a time,
though Chillingworth sometimes has an ugly, evil look on his face and his bad influence
is haunting Dimmesdale. They discuss how most people feel better after
confessing sin, but Dimmesdale only clutches his chest again. Later, when Dimmesdale falls asleep reading,
Chillingworth lifts the book from his chest and looks beneath the man’s shirt – and
gets the proof he’s been looking for. Chillingworth begins plotting his revenge
on Dimmesdale, who’s been revealed as Pearl’s father. But the reverend is already torturing himself
into serious illness with the guilt he’s carrying. Hester knows that Dimmesdale’s conscience
torments him, and that Chillingworth is his enemy. She decides to help Dimmesdale if he can. The townspeople respect for Hester for her
repentant behavior. But her humiliation and shunning have hardened
her against ever feeling gentleness again, as a woman should. The loss makes her feel suicidal. She even considers taking Pearl with her,
though she finally decides against this. Perhaps helping the suffering Dimmesdale will
allow her to save herself, as well. Chillingworth tells Hester she may be allowed
to remove the scarlet letter soon. She refuses, saying that when she is worthy
it will fall off on its own. His appearance has changed from a decent man
to one with a dark and evil heart, the tormentor of Dimmesdale for the last seven years. Hester blames herself for Chillingworth’s
transformation, since she betrayed him. Hester says she’s ready to publically reveal
that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father, since her silence has let Chillingworth ruin the man’s
life. She asks him again to forgive Dimmesdale,
but he refuses. Hester and Pearl encounter Dimmesdale walking
through the woods. Pearl asks if he holds his hand over his heart
because the “Black Man,” Satan, left his mark there. Hester silences Pearl but feels pity for Dimmesdale,
who looks more haggard and ill all the time. Hester and Dimmesdale ask each other if they’ve
found peace. Hester only looks at her scarlet letter. Dimmesdale says no, that as a minister he
is a hypocrite. Realizing that guilt is destroying him, Hester
tells Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is actually her husband. Hester offers to go away with Dimmesdale and
start a new life. She pulls off the scarlet letter and throws
it down on the forest floor. He accepts, and the sun finally comes out. Pearl joins them, wearing leaves and flowers. But Pearl soon rejects Dimmesdale’s company
and wants to be only with her mother – and wants her to put her scarlet letter back on,
so that everything is as it’s always been. Hester books passage on a ship back to England
for the three of them. They will leave in four days, after Dimmesdale’s
final sermon on Election Sunday. Yet Dimmesdale is unnerved about this decision
to leave with Hester and Pearl and wonders if he hasn’t made a deal with the devil after
all. Election Sunday is a day of thanksgiving,
but Pearl is acting wilder than ever. Then the captain of the Bristol ship informs
Hester that Chillingworth has also booked passage for the same voyage. Dimmesdale is looking far more alive than
he was in the forest. Hester, Pearl, and Mistress Hibbens all notice
the change in him. The Mistress tells Hester that though Hester
might wear her scarlet letter on the outside, a sinner like Dimmesdale wears his on the
inside. Both of them are marked. Dimmesdale delivers a fiery sermon, but afterwards
seems drained and even dying. He gets on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl
and says he knows of something far worse than Hester’s sin. Dimmesdale rips open his shirt to display
a red letter A, carved into his own chest – and then he collapses and dies. The narrator of the story concludes that it’s
better to be honest, even about the worst sins, than to hide wrongdoing. Roger Chillingworth dies not long after and
leaves his property to Pearl, making her very wealthy. Pearl and her mother leave for England. But many years later, Hester returns alone
to her old cottage. She still wears her scarlet letter, but this
time as a badge of honesty rather than shame. Hester spends her remaining years helping
other women with the wisdom she’s gained. When Hester dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale. Her gravestone has a scarlet letter engraved
on it.