The novel begins with the narrator, a Custom House official, who happens to find a scarlet letter “A” in a box he finds one day in the office. The narrator then relates the story of Hester Prynne, the original bearer of the scarlet letter, who lived in Boston when it was just a small Puritan settlement in the seventeenth century.
Hester’s story begins on a scaffold just outside the town prison. She has committed adultery, given birth to a child out of wedlock, and refuses to name the man with whom she had the affair. The village leaders hope to shame her into naming her lover by making her into a public spectacle. Even under intense pressure, Hester refuses to reveal her secret. She alone must bear the shame and isolation resulting from her actions. As a punishment, Hester is made to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her chest at all times. The letter “A” stands for adultery and causes her and her daughter to be scorned by the members of her community.
Hester’s former husband returns to witness Hester’s shame. He decides to seek revenge against the man who, in his opinion, ruined Hester’s life and stole his wife from him. He assumes a new name, Roger Chillingworth, and becomes known as a physician specializing in alternative medicine. He befriends the Reverend Dimmesdale, the sickly young minister. Chillingworth eventually determines that Dimmesdale is the father of Hester’s daughter, Pearl. He plots an elaborate scheme in order to avenge the wrong he perceives was committed by Dimmesdale.
Hester discovers Chillingworth’s plan to torture Dimmesdale on a daily basis, and recognizes that Dimmesdale’s health is significantly impacted by the revenge plot. Her secret is slowly killing the minister. As a result, Hester must break the promise she made years ago to never reveal the identity of Chillingworth in order to save Dimmesdale’s life.
She reveals Chillingworth’s true identity to Dimmesdale and begs for his forgiveness. She expresses her desire for Dimmesdale to leave the country for his own safety, but Dimmesdale does not want to be alone. Hester offers to leave with him, and they plan to leave on a ship bound for Europe in three days. However, both Hester and Dimmesdale are plagued by feelings of dread and doom that continue to interrupt their elation.
Another threat to their future happiness remains. Chillingworth is aware of the conversation between Hester and Dimmesdale. He remains committed to seeking revenge, and will use any means necessary to fulfill his need. Will Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale be able to start a new life as a family n Europe, or will Chillingworth finally attain his retribution?
Themes in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter include isolation, hypocrisy, the nature of evil, the role of a woman in society, the destructive power of guilt, revenge, and the pressures society places on individuals to conform. Symbolism is another literary device prevalent in the novel. Examples include the scarlet letter itself, the brook, the roses, and Pearl’s name. These literary devices and Hawthorne’s plot continue to resound with readers, allowing the novel to remain popular with readers today.