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The year is 1642. The place is Boston, a small Puritan settlement. Before the town jail, a group of somber people wait with stern expressions on their faces. They are expecting Hester Prynne, a woman convicted of adultery and condemned to stand on the village scaffold for three hours of public shame.
Hester appears, carrying an infant in her arms, and wearing a scarlet letter A (for Adulteress) as a badge of her disgrace. A careful look at Hester's face, however, shows she is not contrite, as the crowd expects, but rather quietly defiant. Three hours on the scaffold do little to change her attitude. When pressed by the magistrates to repent of her crime and name her lover to the authorities, Hester answers with a silence that echoes through the market-place. She scorns her judges. To one man alone does she show any sign of fear.
That man is Hester's husband who has just arrived in town, having sent Hester ahead from Europe two years before. Taking quick stock of the situation, he disguises his identity and assumes a new one, that of Roger Chillingworth, physician. Before Hester's ordeal is over, Chillingworth has made his plans. He will stay in Boston and search out his unnamed rival.
That night, Chillingworth visits Hester in prison to secure her promise of secrecy. The world must not know him as her husband. Hester agrees to Chillingworth's demands, partly out of exhaustion, partly out of fear that her husband will indeed find and expose her lover. It is a promise she will live to regret.
The years go by. Hester, released from prison, moves with her daughter Pearl to a small cottage on the outskirts of town. There she earns a meager living as a seamstress. Though Hester's conduct is now quiet and modest, her life is made hell on earth by the unforgiving citizens of Boston who shun her, or insult her, as the woman of the scarlet letter.
There is even an attempt, led by the Governor himself, to take Hester's child from her. But the attempt fails when Hester goes to the Governor's mansion to fight in person for Pearl. There she enlists the aid of Arthur Dimmesdale, the colony's revered young minister, who argues convincingly on Hester's behalf. In the meantime, Chillingworth has made quite a name for himself as a doctor. He has approached Dimmesdale, who is not well, with an offer of his services. Dimmesdale is gently pressured into accepting medical treatment. And Chillingworth takes the opportunity to cement first a professional relationship and then an intimate friendship with the minister.