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.
While sitting on the scaffold, Hester sees a man she recognizes. He makes a gesture for her not to acknowledge his presence. He asks a person nearby for the details surrounding the woman on the scaffold. He finds out that after two years without word from her husband, she had a child out of wedlock. As punishment for her sin, she is required to sit on the scaffold for three hours and then wear the letter "A" on her dress for the rest of her life. No one knows who the father is because she refuses to tell, this time more adamantly.
Reverend John Wilson, a venerated minister who is among a group of town leaders present for the punishment, addresses Hester and asks her to reconsider her decision not to divulge the name of the baby's father. She continues her silence and Wilson asks Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister in charge of her spiritual well-being to encourage her to share the name. Dimmesdale does so, but she still refuses to say.
Rev. Wilson gives a sermon about sin, frequently using Hester as an example, and then Hester returns to prison.
Hester Prynne sees a man she recognizes in the crowd. He is old and deformed, and fits the description of man who was in one of Hester's memories. This man, referred to as the old scholar, has entered the town with a Native American who is planning to barter his captivity. He makes a gesture to Hester not to say anything and then he asks a man standing nearby for the details of Hester's crime. The townsman explains that Hester came to the settlement in order to prepare things in advance for her husband who was intending to join her after a few months. After almost two years her husband had still not arrived and Hester had a baby out of wedlock. The one mystery that still remains is the identity of the father, who Hester refuses to name. The townsman then explains that it is her punishment to stand on the scaffold for three hours and then to wear the "A" on her breast for the rest of her life.
The old scholar moves away and Hester is addressed by the Reverend John Wilson, who is sitting with the governor and other dignitaries on the balcony attached to the meeting-house. He asks her to say the name of the father, so he can share the punishment equally; Hester refuses. John Wilson asks Arthur Dimmesdale, up-and-coming young minister of whose congregation Hester is a member, to urge her to divulge the identity of the father. Dimmesdale, who is of a nervous temperament and delicately sensitive and who is intensely popular, speaks to Hester, asking her to name the father. She refuses again, far more adamantly, and claims to be willing to suffer his punishment along with her own.
Rev. Wilson gives a sermon about sin, frequently returning to Hester as an example, and then Hester returns to prison.
Hester returns to the prison and is nervous and overexcited. Afraid that she might hurt herself, the jailer calls in a physician who happens to be nearby. It turns out to be the old scholar who Hester recognized from the scaffold--Hester's husband. He treats both her and her baby, despite her suspicions that he plans to cause them harm.
He tells her that he feels betrayed, but that he knows that he has some responsibility for what had happened. He knew that she never loved him, but married her anyway, and with his long, though unavoidable, absence, something was bound to happen. He asks her to tell him the name of the father, and when she refuses, he makes a vow to find out. He asks her to keep his own identity quiet, which she agrees to do.
Hester returns to the prison and is nervous and overexcited. Afraid that she might hurt herself, the jailer calls in a physician who happens to be nearby. It turns out to be the old scholar who Hester recognized from the scaffold, who is Hester's husband. He is actually staying in the prison while his ransom from the Indians is worked out. He is known to be a doctor, by the name of Roger Chillingworth, so he is brought in to examine Hester. Chillingworth first treats Hester's baby, who is also ill. Hester is suspicious of Chillingworth, afraid that he might do something to hurt her baby, since she is the result of Hester's infidelity. Chillingworth assures her that he intends no physical harm to Hester or her baby, so Hester allows the treatment. The baby calms down; Chillingworth treats Hester and she calms down as well.
Chillingworth then tells Hester how he feels about the situation. He takes some responsibility, as he had predicted something similar to occur, especially with his long, but unavoidable absence, since he was already old when he married the young, beautiful Hester. They had both lived in false happiness and security, expecting no problems from the lack of love between them. Chillingworth scolds Hester for weakness, but does not blame her, and wishes no ill upon her. He does ask her to tell him the name of the father, who is the person Chillingworth holds most responsible for the situation.
Hester refuses to tell him, and Chillingworth makes a vow to find him out, claiming the ability to discover anything he puts his mind to. He asks Hester only to keep the vow of silence as to his own identity and not tell anyone that he was her husband. Hester agrees, and expresses her fear of his plan.
In these two chapters the relationship between Hester and her husband is introduced, with limited information given about their individual pasts and their past together. Roger Chillingworth is introduced as a man with a physical defect but with a superior intellect and great understanding. He is a doctor and a scholar and thus well-trained in all aspects of humanity. When speaking to the townsperson about Hester, he seems confident in nature's ability to eventually make all hidden things known, especially when someone helps it along. This is the first glimmer of what will become Chillingworth's quest for revenge. At this point he is still distanced from the overpowering affect of vengeance and it is a starting point for what will be an incredible transformation over the course of the book.
Hester demonstrates incredible courage as she resists all efforts of the people present to find out the identity of her baby's father. She demonstrates the idea that what is important is honesty to herself and her own personal obligations rather than total adherence to the social system in which she finds herself. This is in stark contrast to what is required by the Puritan community, which demands outward adherence to all laws, which may or may not (but most often does) mask the true state of things. Hester does not need to expose Dimmesdale because they both know his identity, and their obligation is to each other, not to the other members of the community. He, on the other hand, stands by as she withstands the punishment that he should be sharing, untrue to her and to himself. When he is forced to ask Hester to unmask him, knowing that she will not and that he does not want her to, he commits his first open betrayal of what he has done and who he is, and begins the torment of his own hypocrisy that will cause physical and mental suffering.
When Hester is back in her prison cell, she is physically affected by the emotional stress and strain of the punishment and of meeting Chillingworth face to face. Pearl, who is so closely tied to her mother that her state often seems to be dependant on her mother's, is also ill. Chillingworth attempts to dispel Hester's fear that he intends to harm them, and treats them both. Once calmed down, Hester has the meeting that she dreaded, and their discussion shows how they both feel about the situation. Chillingworth demonstrates his deeper understanding of human nature by taking part of the responsibility for Hester's affair. It becomes clear that their marriage was not out of love, and it was more out of a desire for companionship, mostly for him, rather than for her. This suggests that the situation that Hester finds herself in was partially caused by the fact that they had each lied to themselves about their relationship to each other. If they had considered it more carefully, and more honestly, their lives would have been drastically different. Chillingworth feels no hatred towards Hester because all of his feeling is directed towards Hester's partner. When she refuses to tell him, she is keeping the obligation she feels towards Dimmesdale. When Chillingworth asks her to keep his identity secret, she hesitates, though she does not know why, but it is because it is betraying Dimmesdale into the hands of her husband, which goes against the connection that they share. She agrees, not thinking of the consequences, and Dimmesdale's fate seems to be set. When the promise is made, Hester realizes that she has done something wrong, and even asks Chillingworth if he is the "black man," who hides in the forest. This foreshadows the transformation which will occur to Chillingworth and is a wrong far worse than adultery since it betrays her soul and Dimmesdale's.