The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who has had an illegitimate child. Despite being publicly humiliated by wearing a large scarlet letter 'A' on her dress, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child's father, even as the vindictive newcomer Chillingworth becomes determined to make her confess. This story explores the themes of sexual liberation, sin, and vengeance.
The novel actually has two settings; the main setting is Boston, Massachusetts from 1642-1649, which is where most of the action takes place. It is a thriving Puritan settlement on the edge of a great continent. The first settlers arrived in 1630 and in a decade have developed a bit of civilization in the midst of a wilderness. The community is based on firm religious principles that govern all aspects of daily life. They are known for their religious intolerance, and their community, in the story, is dominated by four major features: the cemetery, the prison, the scaffold, and the governor's mansion. Although action happens also in or around the boardinghouse where Dimmesdale and Chillingworth live, in the church and town hall, the aforementioned four edifices are most important to the story. The governor's mansion is bright and cheery, which is in stark contrast to the dark, morbid nature of the other four structures. The Governor and other officials are allowed the finer things in life, but the rest of the town follows the Puritan principles of simplicity and solemnity.
As for Hester, most of her time is spent in the darker parts of the settlement, or outside of it, such as in her cottage on the coast or in the forest. These are places where she is allowed to move freely and does not feel confined by the strict religious code that dictates all movement within the town.
The secondary setting is New England of the mid-nineteenth century, which is where the action of the introductory chapter takes place, and a point of comparison for the narrator. In "The Custom House," the narrator, who strongly takes after Hawthorne himself, details the events of his stint as a surveyor in Boston's custom house. The environment in which he works and the men he works with are interesting, though somewhat antithetical to his own view of the world and the way things should be. The narrator often compares the New England of the mid-seventeenth century with the New England of his own time, tracking the influences of the first settlers and the changes that have occurred in tradition and feeling.
The general mood of the novel is dictated by the first chapter, in which the cemetery and prison are described as being representative of the character of the town and the people who live there. Sober and solemn are the people the narrator describes, and the mood, consequently, tends to mimic them. In this first chapter, the narrator describes the novel as a "tale of human frailty and sorrow," thus setting a dark mood for the following chapters. The novel offers a collection of moral lessons for the reader, which the narrator refers to at the beginning and the end of the story, and thus a serious aura is necessary for the story. Hester's cottage lacks any kind of luxurious decoration that she might be inclined to give it, and the rest of the town, except for the Governor's mansion is without flair. The town itself, except on a rare occasion is quiet and unenergetic and the forest that surrounds them has its own patter of sunshine and dark that typifies the mood of the novel. The darkness is brightened on occasion by descriptions of Pearl's play and the activities of her imagination, but with no humor or respite from the guilt and sadness that dominates the characters thoughs and actions, the grayness of the Puritans' dress pervades the general ambiance of the entire novel.
The story is told by an omniscient narrator who relays the information of the plot as well as offers a glimpse into the secret inner souls of the main characters. The narrator is unnamed, though from the information offered in the introductory chapter "The Custom House," seems to be modeled very closely after Hawthorne, if not Hawthorne himself. He shares the thoughts of the characters as they struggle with their own idea of spirituality, and he gives his own comments on their state of affairs. He also shares his own thoughts about the nature of the Puritan settlement and the people who live there. His impatience with the intolerance of the townspeople shines through on several occasions, and ironic comments concerning the town's magistrates betrays his feelings toward government officials. The New England of Hester's time seems to pale in comparison to the narrator's New England, on several occasions, but the story that the narrator offers is universal, and he expresses his feeling of the significance of the lessons it offers.
The conflict in the story occurs on two separate levels. On the level of the story's plot, the main conflict occurs between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, as Chillingworth pursues his path of revenge. For the majority of the novel, Dimmesdale is unaware of Chillingworth's intent, so the conflict happens in a one-sided way. Once Hester realizes her need to protect Dimmesdale from him, she must confront Chillingworth about his cold-hearted actions. At the same time, there is a measure of conflict between Hester and the people of town, who actively isolate her, or wish to alter her life further, such as Gov. Bellingham with his plan to remove Pearl from Hester's care.
More important are Hester and Dimmesdale's individual, internal conflicts. They each consider the state of their own soul on a regular basis and seek to understand their place in the world (spiritual and otherwise) in the aftermath of their sin. They have shared the same experience, but the effects are far different, and they find themselves in drastically different situations, considering their problems from opposite angles. They do not have conflict between them, but inside their own minds, as they struggle with their guilt and shame.
The story is often narrated with a soberness that borders on somber. The subject matter is dark, and the tone reflects this. The narrator's tone is most often thoughtful, and his seriousness demonstrates the desire that the novel's moral lessons be considered. The importance of the moral(s) of the novel is emphasized, but the narrator escapes an air of moralizing. The tone sometimes becomes ironic, though the irony is taken to the furthest extent in the introductory chapter, not in the novel itself.
Though there is much in the way of symbols, whether or not these are used for foreshadowing is debatable, since the symbols often suggest the events themselves, rather than point to their future meaning. But some of Pearl's comments and actions foreshadow the final scene on the scaffold. For example, Pearl takes Dimmesdale's hand in the Governor's mansion (Ch xiii), and later asks him to stand with her and Hester (xix, xxi, xxii). She also notices the connection between Hester's letter and the way that Dimmesdale holds his hand over his heart, as she mentions on several occasions (Ch. xv, xvi, xix), which is a gesture towards Dimmesdale's final revelation of the letter.
In addition, Hester foreshadows the transformation that her letter undergoes, from "adulteress" to "able." In chapter 14, when discussing the proposal put forth by some community members to allow Hester to remove the letter, she claims, "Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that would speak a different purport." This is precisely what begins to happen as the letter begins to mean "able," but is actually not completed until Hester returns to the colony after leaving for Europe with Pearl. Once she returns and again takes up the letter, it has none of its original stigma.