Chapter 1: A crowd of dull, lifeless-looking people has gathered outside the door of a prison in seventeenth-century Boston. The building’s heavy oak door is covered with iron spikes, and the prison appears to have been built to hold criminals. No matter how hopeful the founders of new colonies may be, the narrator tells us, they consistently provide for a prison and a cemetery almost immediately. The one optimistic element in the otherwise dreary scene is the rosebush that grows next to the prison door. The narrator hints that it offers a reminder of nature’s kindness to the convicted; for his tale, he says, it will provide either a “sweet moral blossom” or else some relief in the face of merciless sadness and despair.
Chapter 2: As the crowd watches, Hester Prynne, a young woman holding an infant, appears from the prison door and makes her way to a raised platform, where she is about to be publicly condemned. The women in the crowd make critical comments about Hester; they particularly criticize her for the style of the embroidered badge on her chest—a letter “A” stitched in gold and scarlet. From the women’s conversation and Hester’s recollections as she walks through the crowd, we can assume that she has committed adultery and has given birth to an illegitimate child, and that the “A” on her dress stands for “Adulterer.” The beadle calls Hester forward. Scenes from Hester’s early life flash through her mind: she sees her parents standing in front of their home in England, then she sees a “misshapen” or twisted, scholar, much older than herself, that she married and followed to Europe. But now the present overcomes her, and she unconsciously squeezes the baby in her arms, causing it to cry.
Chapter 3: In the crowd that surrounds the scaffold, Hester spots her husband, who sent her to America but never fulfilled his promise to follow her. Though he is dressed in a combination of traditional European clothing and Native American clothes, she recognizes him by his slightly deformed shoulders. Hester’s husband (who in the next chapters calls himself Roger Chillingworth) gestures to Hester that she should not reveal his identity. He then turns to a stranger in the crowd and asks about Hester’s crime and punishment, explaining that he has been held captive by Native Americans and has just arrived in Boston. The stranger tells him that Hester is the wife of an educated Englishman and was living with him in Amsterdam when he decided to immigrate to America. The man sent Hester to America and stayed behind for business, but he never joined Hester in Boston. Chillingworth says that Hester’s husband must have been thoughtless to think he could keep a young wife happy, and he asks the stranger about the identity of the baby’s father. The stranger tells him that Hester refuses to reveal her fellow sinner. As punishment, she has been sentenced to three hours on the scaffold and a lifetime of wearing the scarlet letter on her chest. The narrator then introduces us to the town fathers who are in judgment of Hester Prynne: Governor Bellingham, Reverend Wilson, and Reverend Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale, a young minister who is famous for his articulate speaking, religious passion, and theological expertise, is told to demand that Hester say the name of her child’s father. He tells her that she should not protect the man’s identity out of pity, but when she repeatedly refuses he does not press her further. Reverend Wilson then steps in and delivers a disapproving sermon on sin, frequently referring to Hester’s scarlet letter, which seems to the crowd to glow and burn. Hester bears the sermon patiently, hushing Pearl when she begins to scream. At the conclusion of the sermon, Hester is brought back to the prison
Chapter 4: Hester and her husband come face to face when he is called to her prison cell for medical reasons. Chillingworth has promised the warden that he can make Hester more “amenable to just