The story opens with Hester Prynne standing silently on the scaffold in the middle of a town square in 18th century Boston. Hester, holding her small child in her arms, is publicly on trial for adultery. The town people, especially the women, are not happy that Hester has been sentenced only to wear a scarlet letter and to stand on a public platform for a few hours of public humiliation. However, the judge has decided to be merciful to her because, over all, she has been a good citizen up to this point.
Even after hours of questioning by the authorities, Hester still will not reveal the name of the man who committed adultery with her. The father of her child, Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected minister, feels horrible to see her in this situation, but stands by in the crowd and says nothing. Eventually, he even joins in asking her to reveal the father's name. In a way he hopes she will confess and relieve him of his guilt.
Suddenly, Hester recognizes her husband in the crowd surrounding the scaffold. When he realizes that she is on trial for committing adultery he promises himself that he will find the father and make sure that he is also punished. Two years before her trial, Hester arrived in a Boston harbor from Amsterdam, and she is married to an icy scholar, going by the alias Chillingworth, who is much older than she is. He had sent her alone to New England with plans to follow behind much later even though they were newly married at the time. Since then, two years have gone by and he has not even written her a letter. Hester believed that he must have gone down in a shipwreck.
Later, when Chillingworth is allowed into her jail cell as a physician, he pressures her to give up the father's name and she refuses to give in to him. In response, she is ordered never to tell anyone who Chillingworth really is and she promises him that she will not.
The next day, she is released from the prison, and...