The Scarlet Letter


Plot Summary

The novel opens with an explanation by the narrator, describing how he found the manuscript with the story in the Salem Custom House. This frames the story as a “true story,” and makes the narrator a character in the story, though he is not contemporaneous with the events in the story. While Hawthorne did actually work in a customs house, enough elements in the story are fantastical to make it clear that it is not actually a true story.

The story opens in June 1642. A woman with a young child is being sentenced to a punishment for adultery. The first part of her punishment is to be subject to public humiliation for three hours on a scaffold. The second part of her punishment is that she is to wear a scarlet “A” on her dress, not only for the time of her punishment, but for the undefined future. While standing on the scaffold, Hester is subjected to heckling by the crowd—particularly the women in the crowd, who seem jealous of her beauty. The gathered crowd wants Hester to name her lover, but she refuses, and the dignity in her refusal seems to anger the crowd while simultaneously causing some of them to admire her.

While up on the scaffold, Hester recognizes a man in the crowd. However, the man is not her secret lover, but her husband. After they married, her husband sent her ahead of him to the colonies, and then never appeared, which caused Hester to believe that he was lost at sea. Without revealing his identity, Hester’s husband asks a spectator to tell him why the woman is being punished. The spectator tells the man that Hester is being punished for adultery. Hester’s husband is angered that Hester’s love is not also being punished. He decides to stay in Boston and make it his mission to uncover Hester’s lover and punish him, as well.

While Hester is on the scaffold, the two ministers, John Wilson and Arthur Dimmesdale, question her about the identity of the child’s father, but she refuses to name her love. Hester is sent back to her prison cell. The jailer brings someone to see her. It...

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