The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne discloses the tale of a woman, living in an early American Puritan settlement, whose pregnancy reveals her sin of adultery, but who refuses to share the name of her partner in sin. Opening with Hester's walk of shame from prison to the punishment scaffold, readers then follow both Hester and other villagers important to her tale through seven years of humiliation, remorse, fame, and infamy. Hester Prynne is made to walk, with her infant child, through the streets of her town and stand for several hours on the scaffold, as punishment for her sin. The titular punishment given is that of the scarlet letter A on the breast of her gown, worn at all times. Upon the scaffold, before all the townspeople, the young minister Dimmesdale urges Hester to make known the father of her child, that he may accept his punishment and therefore begin his path back to mercy and forgiveness. Hester stoutly refuses and stands firm before her punishment.


On the surface, this story appears to be a cautionary Puritan tale of the evils of sin. It deals specifically with sins of passion - both the passion of adultery, and that of hatred and vengeance. However, the nearly satirical or critical tone often found in passages speaking of Puritan tradition carries a more subtle lesson against pride and hypocrisy. Hawthorne seems to to be pointing out, as the Puritans had forgotten, that all sins are equally grave in God's sight. The Lord cares little for laws, such as the town leaders upheld, or outward appearances of righteousness, such as defined the minister Dimmesdale's life. Rather, He values the condition of a man's heart. As Dimmesdale's life and words taught, truth is above all else.
Flowery language and symbolism, as was typical of the time, can be found at nearly any point in this novel. However, the plot is not dry, abrupt, or disappointing, as can sometimes be true of the fiction of that time. The Scarlet Letter is not a happy tale tied off with a bow such as modern readers enjoy; neither does it focus entirely on moral lessons or harsh reality. Instead, Hawthorne strikes a balance between skilled storytelling and moral application, making his lessons all the more powerful as the readers can appreciate the medium through which they are taught.