The story begins in Salem, Massachusetts with a nameless narrator who was the surveyor in a customhouse. He stumbles across a number of documents in the house's attic and among these, he discovers a manuscript bundled with a gold-embroidered patch in the shape of an "A." The manuscript was written by a past surveyor who detailed events some two-hundred years before the narrator's time. He later decides to write a fictional story based on the events from the manuscript and calls it The Scarlet Letter.
The narrator then goes into his book which takes place in 17th century Boston which was a Puritan settlement. A young woman is guided out of a prison with a child in her arms and the letter "A" patched against her breast. An elderly onlooker asks of what is going on and a man in the crowd explains that the lady is Hester Prynne who carries the child, Pearl, of an adulterer and is being charged for illicit sexual intercourse. The man explains to the elder that Hester was sent ahead to Boston by her husband, who is a scholar much older than she, but he never arrived afterward. It was said that he was lost at sea. Apparently, while waiting, Hester had an affair with another since she had given birth to the adulterer's child and she refuses to identify who he is. The scarlet letter publicly displayed across her chest is a punishment for her sin of fornication and her secrecy. On this day, Hester was being led to town and lectured by the town's priests, but she still refuses to reveal the identity.
The elderly onlooker is then identified as Roger Chillingworth, who actually is Hester's missing husband practicing as a medical doctor in disguise. He decides to settle in Boston for revenge. He tells only Hester of his true identity and has sworn to secrecy that he will not tell another. Several years then pass by and Hester is then supporting herself as a seamstress and Pearl grows into a stubborn, naughty child.