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 watches Chillingworth as he walks away, gathering plants as he goes, and thinks about the evil that he has become, and the unhappiness of their past relationship. Pearl returns to her, and shows her the letter "A" on her own dress, modeled after her mother's and made from seaweed. Pearl makes the connection between Hester's letter and the reason Dimmesdale always holds his hand over his heart. Pearl's understanding surprises Hester and she considers telling her the truth about the letter and Pearl's father. Hester thinks about the way that this would ease her own sorrow, but ultimately decides that her own comfort is not worth burdening the child, and she tells Pearl that the reason for her letter is purely aesthetic. Pearl continues to ask, but Hester maintains her silence.
Chillingworth walks away, gathering herbs and weeds as he goes. Hester watches him and is surprised that the ground does not shrivel up beneath him as a result of his evil nature. She expresses her hatred for him, and remembers the past, when they lived together happily. Thinking about it in her present situation, with all that has happened subsequently, she is surprised that she ever considered herself happy with him. Realizing she never had love for him makes her hatred in the present all the more powerful.
She calls Pearl to her, who had been playing in the tide pools along the coast throwing sea foam into the air and decorating herself with seaweed, supplying herself with her own letter "A" on her dress. Seeing this, Hester asks Pearl if she knows what the "A" means and why she wears it. Pearl answers that it is for the same reason that Dimmesdale keeps his hand over his heart. Hester becomes upset when she realizes the significance of the statement and Pearl attempts to comfort her. Hester considers Pearl, and thinks that maybe she could become a friend and support to her. Pearl has always been interested in the letter, such that it seems to be a very part of her. Hester is tempted to tell Pearl the truth and allow her to become a source to ease her sorrow, but Hester realizes that her own comfort is not worth burdening the child with the knowledge of such a sin and cannot bring herself to do it. She tells Pearl that she wears the letter for decoration only. Pearl is not fooled by the answer and persists in asking Hester on several future occasions, but Hester maintains her silence.
Having decided to tell Dimmesdale about Chillingworth, Hester has to wait for the proper time and place. When she hears that he has left town for a short time, she decides it would be best to meet him in the woods on his return journey.
She takes Pearl, who asks her about the "black man" who meets people in the forest. Hester tells Pearl that she does not meet the black man regularly, but had met him once in the past, and that is the reason for her letter. They settle near a brook to wait for Dimmesdale, who soon appears. He is frail, walking with his hand over his heart. Hester sends Pearl off to play and prepares herself to address him.
Hester looks for an appropriate time and place to meet Dimmesdale and tell him the truth about Chillingworth. She refuses to visit him in his study, even though no one would think anything of it, since she is a member of his congregation, and the stigma of her letter has diminished considerably. Instead, she discovers that he has left the settlement to visit a missionary and his Indian converts. She decides to meet him in the forest on his way back to town.
She and Pearl go to the forest on a partly gray day. Pearl plays in and out of the sunshine, which refuses to shine on Hester. Pearl asks Hester about the "black man" who people supposedly go to the forest to meet. Pearl had heard that Hester goes to the woods to meet the black man and that the "A" was his mark. Hester assures Pearl that she never goes to the woods without her, but that she did meet the black man once and that it was in fact his mark.
They settle near a brook to wait for Dimmesdale, who arrives soon after. Hester sends Pearl off to play while she talks to him. She watches him approach, as he cannot see her, and she is amazed at how feeble and weak he is. He seems to walk without any real purpose and does not seem to suffer in the same way that she does, except that he keeps his hand over his heart.
Hester considers her past with Chillingworth and in doing so, realizes the consequence of lying to herself about her feelings for him. She never loved him, yet tied herself to him and considered herself happy. She was dishonest about her true feelings then, and is feeling the effects now. When Pearl returns, she is wearing a letter "A" of her own, made from seaweed. Hester asks her if she understands the letter, and Pearl makes the connection between Hester's letter and the reason Dimmesdale keeps his hand over his heart. Though she does not profess to understand the true relationship between the two, she understands the significance of their connection, and challenges Hester to acknowledge it out loud. Her earnestness and apparent genuineness of feeling is what tempts Hester to take Pearl into her confidence. Pearl seems to be mature enough, and demonstrates great enough intelligence, to handle the complexities of Hester's feelings and situation. Pearl is tied to the "A," and is the one other person capable of easing Hester's sadness. Hester considers this as a real possibility, but the consequence of burdening her child with the same sorrow that she suffers is more than Hester can bear, and for the first time, she lies about her letter. She is faced with the chance to be totally honest, and though she has reached the point that she can admit to herself her obligations to herself and to Dimmesdale, she is still unable to be completely honest and open about her guilt.
Pearl continues her challenges to Hester to be honest, and shows her insight in the forest while they wait for Dimmesdale. She expresses the idea that the sin Hester shares is something she too will experience, something that is part of being an adult. She understands the equality of all people when it comes to the possibility for sin and guilt. She is interested in the idea of the "black man," and wishes to meet him herself. Hester admits that her mark is from the black man, and comes the closest to admitting to Pearl the reason for the letter. When Pearl sees Dimmesdale she calls him the black man, again making the connection between the letter and its source. She goes and plays by a brook, which seems to carry the secrets of all the people who passed within. Hester sees Dimmesdale and even though his physical form is weak, she deduces the extent to which he has not come to terms with his own guilt and shame.