At the center of the book is Hester Prynne, a young wife in puritan New England, trapped in a loveless marriage with a man old enough to be her father, sent ahead of him to the new world while he takes care of business in the old. But before he can join her, she falls in love and into an affair, and nine months later, the result is born for all to see. In colonial New England, where religion controls every aspect of everyone’s life, Hester and her lover have committed a horrendous crime, never mind a sin, for which they could both be executed; the powers that be feel they are being lenient with her by condemning her to wear a scarlet letter A, for adultery, prominently displayed on her clothes. Hester shocks the whole village by embroidering the scarlet letter with gold thread and wearing it like a badge of honor. Is this her way of spitting into the eye of the village, or is she making her public dishonor deliberately more shameful as a penance?
And who is Hester’s lover? The village demands he show himself; Hester, out of pity, love, or contempt, or more probably a mixture of all three, isn’t saying. We know early on it’s the reverend Dimmesdale, a young preacher beloved and respected by all, but if he doesn’t have the courage to come forth himself, Hester will keep his secret. The story isn’t a whodunit, who done it is obvious almost from the beginning. The book is about love vs. lust, courage vs. cowardice, and the hypocrisy of public piety covering up a shameful secret. Reverend Dimmesdale can flagellate himself all he wants in private; we can’t help but feel contempt for him for not having the guts to share Hester’s public humiliation.
But as bad as things are for Hester and Dimmesdale, they are about to get infinitely worse with the appearance of Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingsworth, who arrives in the new world to find he has been cuckolded by his wife, who has given birth to another man’s child, and wants his honor avenged.
Hawthorne tells a compelling tale which captures our imagination as much as it did when it was written. We realize these star-crossed lovers don’t stand a chance in the uptight society they lived in. The book moves slowly, but in doing so it gives the reader time to think about the timeless issues of love, betrayal, deception, and the social mores that controlled the protagonists lives. Hawthorne raised plenty of questions; the readers will find their own answers.