The Scarlet Letter is a novel about what happens to a strict, tight-knit community when one of its members commits a societal taboo, and how shame functions in both the public and private realms of life. In telling the story of the adulterous but virtuous Hester Prynne; her weak, tormented lover Dimmesdale; and her vengeance-minded husband, Chillingworth, Hawthorne explores ideas about the individual versus the group and the nature of sin. A first-person, introductory chapter, written two hundred years after the events of the novel, indicate that the story will explore attitudes and beliefs that have evolved since the time the story’s set. The next chapter introduces the main character, Hester, emerging from the prison wearing a dress marked with a scarlet letter “A,” and carrying her baby, Pearl. By opening the action of the book after Hester and Dimmesdale’s infidelity has already taken place, Hawthorne establishes the themes of the book as sin, guilt, and remorse, rather than forbidden passion.
After introducing Hester as the book’s protagonist, Hawthorne incites the central conflict of the book by bringing Hester in direct contact with her antagonist, Chillingworth, the husband she has betrayed by committing adultery. Chillingworth vows to discover the identity of Pearl’s father, acting as a proxy for the reader, who at this point is equally curious who Hester’s lover is and why she is so dead-set on protecting him.
As the reader comes to strongly suspect Dimmesdale is the father, the tension increases, as the reader wonders if Chillingworth has made the same realization, or if Dimmesdale will keep his secret. Dimmesdale, Hester, and Chillingworth all keep their relationships to one another secret, so all three characters exist in isolation within the community, although Hester is the only one who has been officially banished. This dramatic irony, in which the reader knows each character’s secret motivations, but the characters remain ignorant of each other’s true feelings, amplifies the tension as well.
As time passes, the conflict escalates with the growing friendship and dependence between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. Chillingworth opens Dimmesdale’s shirt while he is sleeping and sees a mark, convincing him Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father. Meanwhile, Hester lives in seclusion with her daughter, becoming philosophical about the nature of her crime and the role of women in society. In the book’s climactic scene, the forces of repression and secrecy directly confront the human need for confession and forgiveness when Hester and Pearl join Dimmesdale on the scaffold in the middle of the night. But Dimmesdale admits he is too weak to publicly reveal himself as Pearl’s father, and Hester realizes that Dimmesdale, though he has been able to remain a member of society, has possibly suffered more than she has. Unlike Hester, Dimmesdale has kept his sin a secret, and continues to wear one face in public and another in private. Hester sees how Chillingworth has added to Dimmesdale’s torment, and questions whether she is at fault for having concealed Chillingworth’s identity. Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the woods, Hester reveals that Chillingworth is her husband, and the couple resolves to run away together.
However, all does not go as planned for the couple, as Chillingworth learns of their plans and conspires to follow them, assuring their guilt will remain active wherever they go. After preaching a final sermon, Dimmesdale reveals his identity as Pearl’s father, exposes the mark on his chest, and then dies, perhaps aware that his plan for a new beginning with Hester was always doomed. Although in hounding Dimmesdale to death Chillingworth has achieved his revenge, he is frustrated by Dimmesdale’s public revelation: “Thou hast he escaped me!” Chillingworth says, as Dimmesdale dies. “May God forgive thee!” Dimmesdale replies, “Thou, too, hast deeply sinned.” This statement suggests that Chillingworth’s cold-hearted pursuit of vengeance, and, by extension, the town’s thirst to punish Hester, are equal if not greater sins to Hester and Dimmesdale’s adultery.
After Dimmesdale’s death, Hester leaves the community, but returns for unknown reasons and chooses to life out her life in quiet seclusion, wearing her scarlet A by choice and acting as a confessor to other women who have violated societal norms.