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.
On election morning, Hester goes to the marketplace, for one last time before she leaves. Pearl is in high spirits and runs about the various groups of people. Everyone is as festive as Puritans get, which is perhaps more than people give them credit for, as most people still maintain some of the old English traditions of their homeland. The townspeople are joined by some Indians from the area, and the group of sailors from the Spanish ship visiting the town. Hester sees Chillingworth speaking with the ship's captain, who later informs her that Chillingworth is planning to sail with them. Hester despairs that she will never be able to escape her former husband's need for revenge.
On election morning, Hester goes to the marketplace, for one last time before she leaves. Possibly, she wants to feel the pain of the letter once more so she can appreciate her new life without it and with Dimmesdale even more. She is still somber, even more so than usual. Pearl, on the other hand, is in her brightest and happiest clothes and mood. She is able to express the emotions that Hester is feeling but must continue to hide. Hester tells Pearl about the procession that is going to happen, and Pearl asks if Dimmesdale will recognize them in public. Hester assures her that he will not, and that Pearl should keep quiet about everything.
All the people in the marketplace are not quite festive, but perhaps not as somber as the Puritans are normally considered. These people were still the first generation, born and bred in England and transplanted to Boston, so some of the English sense of festivity remains. They were by no means as free-spirited or lazy as the English might be on a holiday, but they have relaxed some of the severity of their day to day life.
Along with the Puritans, some other groups have gathered, including some Indians and the sailors from the Spanish ship on which Hester intends to sail. While considering these people, Chillingworth is seen talking to that ship's captain. The captain approaches Hester soon after and lets her know that Chillingworth is sailing on the ship as well. Chillingworth gives Hester a threatening smile and she realizes that they cannot escape her former husband's need for revenge.
The Election Day procession begins, starting with musicians who march through the marketplace. They are followed by a military escort and various dignitaries, including the town's magistrates, Governor Bellingham and Rev. Wilson. Dimmesdale follows behind, and he seems to be carried along by a special spiritual energy. Hester feels completely separated from him. Dimmesdale goes to the church and begins his sermon. The church is completely full and Hester stands outside, near the scaffold, listening to the sound of Dimmesdale's voice. During the sermon, Pearl plays, and is given a message from the sea-captain, who is completely enchanted by her. Pearl tells her mother that the Chillingworth arranged with the sea-captain to escort Dimmesdale, and that Hester and Pearl should meet them onboard. Hester sees the doom that is before her, which is worsened by a new flood of stares and renewed interest in her letter from the townspeople around her.
Before Hester can decide what to do, the procession begins. The music comes, then the military, the magistrates and Dimmesdale and the other clergymen. Dimmesdale is still far more energetic than he had been in the past, but seems distracted. Everyone who sees him is led to believe that his energy comes from the spiritual realm, and he seems to be carried along by it. Hester is depressed by this because it seems to separate her even more from him. He is far different from the man she met with in the woods near the brook and she doubts any manner of real connection between them.
Pearl senses her feelings and speaks out loud of the meeting in the woods. She wants to talk to Dimmesdale, but Hester restrains her from trying to receive a word or a kiss from him. Mistress Hibbins approaches Hester and comments on Dimmesdale's newfound energy. She attributes it to an outing in the woods and then confronts Hester directly about his trip to the woods. Hester ignores the comment and is surprised that Mistress Hibbins would even suggest it. She next questions Hester about the reason Dimmesdale keeps his hand over his heart. Pearl eagerly listens in, but Mistress Hibbins does no more but invite them to meet her in the woods at night.
Dimmesdale begins his sermon and the church is so packed that Hester cannot get close enough to hear anything but the vaguest sounds. She stands close to the scaffold listening to the general sound of his sermon, and sympathizes so much with Dimmesdale that it seems to her that she understands another kind of meaning in it.
During the sermon, Pearl runs about and plays, interacting with the different kinds of people in the marketplace. She charms almost everyone who sees her flit about. The sea captain is so taken with her that he gives her a gold chain, with a message for her mother that Hester is not to worry about Dimmesdale because Chillingworth has arranged to escort the clergyman to the ship. Pearl delivers the message, and Hester sees the inescapable doom that places itself before her. This is worsened by a throng of people who had heard about her letter, but had never seen it who now crowded around her. They stand a certain distance away, and stare, creating a kind of impenetrable circle around her. The Indians and sailors join the circle around her, and the matrons who first discussed her punishment seven years ago watch the spectacle with silent, knowing, self-satisfaction. At this very moment Dimmesdale is finishing his sermon and no one would be able to guess the connection between him and the woman with the letter standing in the marketplace.
The narrator reflects on the way that Puritans celebrate holidays, comparing the festivities of their homeland with their incarnation in the New World. Though the Puritans somberness interferes with the extent to which joy can be expressed through the festivities, the fun involved does not seem to be totally lost. The narrator does express a longing for the enthusiasm with which holidays are met in the England of days past. Pearl is an positive example of the joys of a holiday; dressed in her finest, she is able to run about and express the optimism that Hester is unable to express. The connection between mother and daughter is emphasized, as Pearl's mood seems wholly dictated by her mother's secret satisfaction with the possibility of leaving Boston.
Discussing Dimmesdale, Pearl reaches the heart of his hypocrisy, pointing out the inconsistency of his dealings with them. She describes his affection for them in the nighttime and in the forest that is never repeated in the broad daylight. Hester tells her that she does not understand, while it is Pearl who understands far more than anyone else. Hester is still working under the delusion that Dimmesdale's silence is necessary and unavoidable, and will no longer be required the following day as they sail to Bristol. The first indication that her dream is not a possibility comes when she sees Chillingworth talking to the sea captain, and then discovers that he has arranged passage on their ship. She and Dimmesdale hoped to escape the doom that Chillingworth represents, but they are not able to.
She sees Dimmesdale and feels separate from him, and needs a sign from him, one that Pearl offers to encourage by wanting to give Dimmesdale a kiss in the middle of the procession. Hester prevents her, and maintains her hope that their plans will be accomplished, but her hope is failing as she considers the doom before her. This becomes clearer with the sea captain's second message to Hester, which informs her that Chillingworth has taken responsibility for Dimmesdale. In this moment, Hester comes to terms with the fact that Dimmesdale also discovers, that they are tied to Boston, to this community, to their sin, to their fate. They cannot redefine themselves arbitrarily and they must remain true to who they are and what they have experienced.