Welcome to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It's got everything a thriving colonial town needs: a public square and a prison. Why start us off with a prison? Why not the bustling marketplace or the sweet new church? Well, Hawthorne doesn't want us thinking that this is going to be a cheerful book, or anything. Nope. Someone's going to get shamed.
As our heroine Hester Prynne is getting her shame on in front of the whole town by displaying her scarlet letter A-for-adultery, she recognizes her long-lost husband in the crowd. Oops. Uh, welcome home, honey? At least she's the only one who recognizes him, since he's been away for two years and has come in disguise.
So, instead of a happy homecoming, they have a tense meeting at the prison where hubby Robert Chillingworth swears that he'll track down Hester's illicit lovah and she continues to swear that she'll never tell. Ooooh, we love love triangles—even if the Native Americans are only on the periphery.
Roger Chillingworth worms his way into the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale's confidence—and his bedroom. (Not like that—they're roomies.) One evening when the minister falls asleep at the table, Chillingworth pokes around under Dimmesdale's shirt. Whatever he finds there lets him know that Dimmesdale is Hester's boyfriend. (Not that we get to see it, of course.)
All right! Now that Chillingworth has uncovered the secret—by the way, this is about seven years later—we're ready for the big showdown.
Hester and Dimmesdale have a secret meeting in the woods—well, secret except for Hester's daughter, Pearl, who is always up in her mom's bidness—where they agree to run away to the Old World, i.e., Europe, and start a new life together. Sweet! Happy ending! They'll leave in three days.
But first, Dimmesdale has to go out with a bang by giving one last sermon.
Hester and Pearl go with all the other townspeople—plus a bunch of strangers and some Native Americans—to watch Dimmesdale give his special Election Sermon for the colony bigwigs. Just as they're settling in for a nice morning of preaching, the shipmaster lets them know that someone else has booked passage on the ship they're planning to take out of town: Chillingworth. Yep, he's going to follow them to England.
We're starting to think this isn't going to end well.
After preaching the best sermon of his life, the Reverend Dimmesdale manages to crawl up onto the scaffold, where he confesses and rips open his shirt to reveal that there's a mark on his chest, too. Only this one's in blood. And then he dies.
Dude, that is so metal.
Since Chillingworth no longer has the thought of revenge to keep him alive, he promptly dies and leaves all his money to Pearl. She and her mom skip town for years and years, where we hope they live happily ever after.
Except not. Years later, she comes back and starts wearing the scarlet A again—except, this time, everyone thinks it's awesome instead of disgusting and shameful. When she dies, she's buried in a grave near Dimmesdale. (But not too near. And with a scarlet A on her tombstone. What, did you think that was a Disney movie or something?)