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.
Chillingworth and Dimmesdale soon become friends again and Chillingworth, now assured that he has positively identified Pearl's father, develops his plan for revenge. He becomes even more involved in Dimmesdale's life and attempts to manipulate Dimmesdale's thoughts more than ever before.
Meanwhile, Dimmesdale's popularity and renown is steadily increasing. He is respected because he seems to be on the same level as his congregation, rather than above them. Part of the reason of his ability to speak to the people rather than speaking at them, is his secret sin. He is tormented by it, and it keeps him humble. He feels that the accolades he receives are undeserved and tries to confess to his congregation, but he does it in such a vague way that they think he is being extremely modest and they love him all the more for it. He feels even worse for it, and keeps vigils in the night as penance. During one of these, he decides to go out.
After the incident in the library, when Chillingworth secretly looks at Dimmesdale's chest, the outward relationship between the two men maintains a steady pace. As this is happening, Chillingworth, develops his plan for revenge against Dimmesdale. He is certain that he has found the man who is the father of Hester's child and his anger and determination only grow. He becomes even more involved in Dimmesdale's life and attempts to manipulate Dimmesdale's thoughts more than ever before.
Meanwhile, Dimmesdale's popularity and renown is steadily increasing. He is famous and respected, more than others who have greater knowledge, skills and experience, primarily because of his eloquence. In his congregation's eyes he has the ability to speak to them in a way that they understand, and he is able to express the most esoteric ideas in a humble way. He seems to speak from their level to their level, rather than talk down to them. It is because of his inner torment that he is able to do this--it keeps him honest and humble. This puts Dimmesdale in an awkward position; he is gaining popularity because of his secret sin, but his secret sin makes him aware of the fact that he does not deserve the accolades, since he is no better than any member of his congregation.
He attempts to confess his sin to his congregation, but since he does so in such a vague way, it makes them love him all the more, as it puts him on their level without giving them any concrete reason for thinking he is unfit for religious office. He is aware of the way his false confessions work, and he hates himself even more for his own weakness. He takes it out on himself physically; flogging himself and keeping vigils in the night. He still feels weak and false and the anguish of his soul continues. During one of his vigils, he decides to go out.
During his vigil, he goes to the scaffold where Hester first sat, and sits in her place. He screams out loud, but still the town sleeps, unaware that he is there. While sitting there, Rev. Wilson passes by on his way home. Dimmesdale has the urge to call to him, and alert him to his presence, but he does not, and Wilson never sees him. Soon after, Hester and Pearl also pass by, and Dimmesdale calls to them. They join him on the scaffold and the three of them stand on the scaffold together, as they should have done before. Dimmesdale refuses Pearl's request to stand altogether in the daylight the next day, and a meteor lights up the sky. Dimmesdale is convinced that it burns in the sky in the shape of the letter "A." During the flash of light, the three see Chillingworth standing nearby. Chillingworth asks Dimmesdale to accompany him back home and Dimmesdale agrees. The next day, Dimmesdale preaches his best sermon to date. After the service, his glove, which was found on the scaffold is returned to him, without any suspicion being aroused.
During his night vigil outing, Dimmesdale goes to the scaffold, in the marketplace, where Hester sat during her first hours of public disgrace. It is the middle of the night and no one is about to see him. He climbs the scaffold and sits, seven years after Hester did the same. While sitting there, he suddenly gets the impression that the universe is staring at him and at a scarlet letter on his chest, and he feels a pain in his chest to match. He screams and expects the entire town to wake up and find him there, but no one stirs except the governor and his sister, Mistress Hibbins, who each look out and see nothing.
Dimmesdale grows calmer and soon Rev. Wilson passes by, on his way home. He had been at the bed-side of Governor Winthrop who had just died. As Wilson passes by the scaffold Dimmesdale is tempted to call out and call Wilson's attention to his presence, but he does not. Wilson leaves, unaware of Dimmesdale.
Hester and Pearl pass by, also on their way home, after being at Gov. Winthrop's house. He calls to them and asks them to join him on the scaffold. They do, and the three of them stand on the scaffold, together, holding hands, as they should have done seven years ago. Pearl asks Dimmesdale to do the same thing the next day, in the daylight, and Dimmesdale refuses. While standing there together, a meteor lights up the sky and Dimmesdale sees it in the form of a bright letter "A." In the light of the meteor the group sees Chillingworth standing nearby and his faces shows all that he keeps hidden from the clergyman during the day. Dimmesdale asks Hester to tell him who Chillingworth is and she keeps her promise to Chillingworth and tells Dimmesdale nothing.
Chillingworth escorts Dimmesdale home and the next day, which is a Sunday, Dimmesdale preaches one of his best sermons to date. It is energetic and enthusiastic and wins him even more support from his congregation. After his sermon, an old sexton returns Dimmesdale's glove to him, which he had found on the scaffold. Dimmesdale fears that he has been found out at last, but his reputation is so secure that the sexton has no suspicion.
After their argument about the nature of confession and Dimmesdale's illness, both men become more feverish in their individual pursuits. Chillingworth's plan for revenge is clear, and he progresses with intensity. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, continues his attempts at penance. As he grows more aware of his own torment and dominated by it, he grows less aware that Chillingworth's is feeding it. He attributes his suspicion towards him as another effect of his guilt. Meanwhile, his reputation is growing, and his fame is reaching new heights. He finds himself in an impossible situation; his inner torment gives him an insight into the hearts of his congregation, which makes him even more popular, but this increases his torture since he recognizes that he is undeserving of his reputation for purity. His attempts to confess are just as dishonest as the vigils he keeps in order to purge his guilt. All attempts to rid himself of his guilt fail because he is untrue to himself. Though he may feel that they are genuine, his efforts are dishonest, and thus only make his agony more acute. He whips himself physically and mentally and stays up all night considering his sin, but as long as he keeps the secret he remains untrue to himself.
During his midnight journey to the scaffold, Dimmesdale begins to reach this conclusion. He first goes to the scaffold with the same cowardly intentions as his other vigils--a kind of mock penance. He screams aloud without effect, and lets Rev. Wilson pass by without alerting him to his presence. When Hester and Pearl pass by, he laughs out loud, uncontrollably, which is answered by Pearl's own laugh. By answering his inadvertent cry, she gives him the strength to be more honest with himself. He calls them onto the scaffold in an effort to place himself in a situation which mirrors what he should have done from the very beginning. Pearl asks him if he will do the same in the daylight as he does at night, which he refuses, and that is the moment that the meteor lights up the sky in the shape of the letter "A." It is suggested that Pearl has something to do with the "A," as she continues her role of uniting Hester and Dimmesdale and encouraging honesty among themselves. It is also at that moment that they see Chillingworth, whose evil intent is unmasked in the light of the meteor. This is a climactic moment in the book, as the four main characters confront each other and their true forms. Chillingworth's transformation to an incarnation of evil is complete, Pearl's demand for honesty is exercised to supernatural proportions, and Dimmesdale is faced with the inevitability of his fate. Hester is tested when Dimmesdale asks her about Chillingworth, and she betrays her obligation to Dimmesdale by remaining silent. This moment sets them all on the path to the final moment on the scaffold when all is revealed.