After it was published in 1850, critics hailed it as initiating a distinctive American literary tradition.
Ironically, it is a novel in which, in terms of action, almost nothing happens.
At this moment, the narrator introduces an aged and misshapen character, who has been living "in bonds" with "Indian" captors. The brief story is told: two years earlier, Hester had preceded her husband to New England. In the meantime, she bore a child; the father of the infant has not come forward.
As this stranger stares at Hester, she stares back: a mutual recognition passes between them.
When the prison door opens, a young woman named Hester Prynne emerges, with a baby in her arms and a scarlet letter "A" richly embroidered on her breast.
For her crime of adultery, to which both the baby and the letter attest, she must proceed to the scaffold and stand for judgment by her community. In particular, she remembers the face of a "misshapen" man, "well stricken in years," with the face of a scholar.
He makes Hester swear to keep his identity a secret.
Now freed, Hester and her baby girl, Pearl, move to a secluded cabin.
Reverend Dimmesdale makes a particularly powerful address, urging her not to tempt the man to lead a life of sinful hypocrisy by leaving his identity unnamed. After the ordeal of her public judgment, the misshapen man from the marketplace—her long lost husband—visits her, taking the name Roger Chillingworth.
When she refuses to identify the father of her child, he vows to discover him and take revenge.