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.
Hester hears that there are plans being considered among the town's leaders to remove Pearl from her care and to place her in another Puritan home. Some of the leaders feel that Hester, as a sinner, is incapable of providing the religious instruction that Pearl would need.
Arriving at the governor's mansion, Hester and Pearl go into the garden to wait. The mansion is described, with its grand portraits and military armor, in a style following stately homes in England. In the garden, when Hester refuses to pick a rose for Pearl, Pearl screams and shouts and causes such a commotion as to call the attention of the governor and the group of men he is showing around his estate.
Hester makes a trip to Governor Bellingham's mansion in order to deliver a pair of gloves that she had embroidered for him. More importantly, she is going to discuss a matter of great importance with him. She had heard that some people, including the governor himself, though it might be best to remove Pearl from Hester's care and place her in another family's home. They believe that Hester, as a fallen woman was incapable of providing the spiritual guidance and teaching that Pearl, as a young Puritan child, needs. Fearful of this possibility, Hester determines the only chance she has is to argue her case with the governor himself.
Hester decides to dress Pearl in a bright red dress, which accents her fiery nature, but results in making her an even more powerful mirror of the scarlet letter that she wears on her dress. In this outfit, Pearl looks as much like a personification of the scarlet letter as is possible. Along the way, a group of children accost her and Hester, which allows Pearl to defend them both to her greatest ability, sending the children in all directions, afraid of Pearl's childish wrath.
Arriving at the Governor's mansion, Hester and Pearl go into the garden to wait. The mansion is a large wooden house, fresh and cheerful. The outside walls are covered in a kind of mosaic of colored glass, which makes it look like it is covered with diamonds. Pearl is enchanted by the house, which practically sparkles in the sunlight. They enter the house despite the door servant's information that the Governor would not be able to see them. They walk through the entrance hall with its grand portraits of the Governor's stern forefathers and military armor, in a style following stately homes in England. They pass one particular suit used by the Governor himself and in it, Pearl is delighted to see an enlarged, distorted version of her mother's scarlet letter. Hester, in order to distract her, takes her to the garden. While waiting there, Pearl sees a group of rose-bushes and asks for a red rose. When Hester refuses to pick one, Pearl screams and causes such a commotion as to call the attention of the governor and the group of men he is showing around his estate.
The Governor is joined by Rev. John Wilson, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, who has become Dimmesdale's constant companion. The Governor, alerted by Pearl's outcry, approaches the child, unaware of who she is. He acts kindly to her, remarking about her striking appearance, and then discovers that Hester is her mother and is standing nearby. He informs Hester that he was thinking of removing Pearl and Hester defends her position. The gentlemen decide to test Pearl, who does not co-operate. This leads the men to believe that the best course of action is to remove her from Hester's care. Hester pleads with Dimmesdale to speak on her behalf. He does, and offers the argument that Hester needs Pearl for her own well-being. Dimmesdale speaks eloquently and the men decide to follow his advice. Hester, happy about the outcome, departs for her home with Pearl, and on the way refuses an invitation for a midnight meeting in a forest from the town's witch.
Though a strict Puritan, the governor has not seen fit to leave all luxuries and comforts behind, and he has quite a collection to show his visitors. The group includes Rev. John Wilson, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, who has become Dimmesdale's constant companion.
The Governor, alerted by Pearl's outcry, approaches the child, unaware of who she it. He acts kindly to her, remarking about her striking appearance, and then discovers that Hester, her mother, is nearby. He immediately refers to the topic that Hester has come to discuss with him, and asks her for her thoughts. Hester argues that she can do a proper job raising Pearl, and the gentlemen decide to put Pearl to the test and see if she knows what good Puritan children of her age should know. They ask her who made her, and after refusing to answer, Pearl suggests that she was plucked from a rosebush.
This answer does not please the gentleman and they decide to take Pearl from Hester. Hester pleads with them and then asks Dimmesdale to argue on her behalf. Dimmesdale offers a rational, and religious explanation as to why Pearl needs to be left with Hester. It is for Hester's own benefit, as Pearl is her one reason to continue to follow Puritan practices, and the strongest source of penance for Hester to bear.
The gentlemen are convinced by Dimmesdale's argument and agree to let Pearl stay with Hester for the time. Pearl shows affection towards Dimmesdale and then she departs with Hester. On the way out, Hester is invited by Mistress Hibbins to the woods to meet the "Black Man" in the forest that evening, which Hester declines, on Pearl's account, proving that Pearl stands between Hester and utter ruination.
Hester is determined to discuss Pearl's fate with the governor, though she admits to herself that she does not have much hope for success. With the decisions affecting daily life being decided by the highest officials in the community, Hester recognizes her own impotence, especially considering the men's general lack of sympathy towards any kind of imperfection, but as a mother protecting her child, and aware of the significance of that fact, she does feel there is some chance to keep Pearl.
On the day she plans to visit the mansion, she dresses Pearl in scarlet and gold, making Pearl look like an incarnation of the letter itself. She has done this on purpose, partly from a morbid desire to make the pain more acute, but also to seal the connection between Pearl and herself.
Governor Bellingham's house, in many ways, gives more of an insight into his character. Born an Englishman, his house follows the traditions of a manor houses, and demonstrates the way in which Bellingham, though the highest leader in a Puritan colony, retains a taste for the finer things in life, and a rejection of any unnecessary sacrifice of comfort. The slight hypocrisy of his actions, is emphasized in the narrator's ironic tone, as he describes the fineries of the house. In addition, the futility of attempting to transport England to the New World is evident in Bellingham's garden. He had attempted to recreate an English ornamental garden, but the true nature of the soil under his feet had triumphed as native plants assert themselves. The garden suggests that every place, and person, has its own unique identity, which will be discovered eventually, so it is necessary to be true to that identity, rather than attempt to force it into a mold which fits a false purpose.
Hester's image in the suit of armor shows her her own identity. She is hidden by the "A" completely, just as she is dominated by it in her daily life. Pearl is delighted at the sight, as she always is by things which show themselves in their true form, just as Pearl's own reflection emphasizes her mischievous intelligence.
When the group of men see Pearl, they are delighted by her, as long as they do not know who she is; as long as they do not know her past, they judge her based on her merits alone, rather than on their prejudices towards her mother. Once they see Hester, they become stern again, and their feelings of their own superiority resurface. Governor Bellingham immediately addresses Hester about the subject of Pearl's future, and it is evident that it is assumed that if Hester has sinned once, she is unable to understand the difference between right and wrong, and is unable to properly oversee a child's development. Repentance is required of all sinners, but forgiveness does not exist. He refuses to believe that Hester's experience could have any positive result on her future behavior, or on her ability to understand the nature and pitfalls of sin. Rev. Wilson attempts to examine Pearl, to see if she is a proper Puritan child, but she does not play his game. Though she can easily answer Wilson's question, she refuses to do so because she understands the artifice of the officials' positions. The governor and Rev. Wilson are inflexible, and do not even consider that Pearl is playing a game, and immediately come to the conclusion that they had previously made. This leads Hester to call upon Dimmesdale to remember their bond, and his obligations to her. Though she continues to maintain her silence, she understands that he is obligated to both her and Pearl, and must be held to this unspoken promise. Dimmesdale speaks for her, and though he says primarily what Hester said herself, his reputation holds sway and the officials are convinced. Dimmesdale has done his duty to Hester and he is rewarded by Pearl, who shows him a genuine affection that is very rare for her. He has been true to himself and to his obligation, which she recognizes.