Adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, in a Puritan society a woman has a child by the minister while her husband was missing and refuses to name the father.
Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson) is a respected minister in colonial Boston, and he is told that Hester Prynne (Lillian Gish) broke the Sabbath by running and playing. In church he warns her, and she is put in the stocks by a committee. Dimmesdale lets her go, and she kisses his hand.
Hester does her washing and hides her underwear from Dimmesdale according to the law. She runs after him to talk with him. She asks why her thoughts of love are sinful. Dimmesdale admits that he loves her. He tells her that he is going to England with a message for the King and asks her to be his wife. She shows him her wedding ring, and he is enraged and disheartened. She explains that her husband was lost at sea, and he forgives her.
Months later Dimmesdale has returned and wants to share her punishment, but she wants him to continue his good work. At a large gathering Hester carries her baby to the platform, and Dimmesdale asks her who is her fellow sinner. She says she will not betray him. The Governor (William H. Tooker) sentences her to wear an A for adulteress the rest of her life.
A committee comes to take Hester's child to be raised by a Christian woman. Hester clings to her baby, and Dimmesdale comes in to defend her. He says he will baptize the child, and Hester names her Pearl.
Pearl is a happy child and makes an A in the sand. Other children run away from her. The physician Roger Prynne (Henry B. Walthall) asks the court to ransom him. He was shipwrecked and held by Indians for seven years. Hester comes in because Pearl is sick. Roger goes to treat Pearl, but Hester fears his vengeance and tastes the medicine. Roger says that Pearl will live and asks Hester who is the father. Dimmesdale comes in and speaks of "our child." Roger leaves.
Hester tells Dimmesdale that she is sailing on a Spanish ship, but he says he is too ill. She tears off her A and embraces him, but Pearl puts the A back. People gather after Dimmesdale's sermon. Roger tells Dimmesdale that he is going on the ship too and will follow them. Dimmesdale stands on the platform and confesses his sin with Hester, showing an A on the skin of his chest. She holds him and says she loves him. Dimmesdale removes her A.
This drama reflects the religious repression of a theocratic
Puritan government and the intolerance for minor sins it breeds.
As happens so often with sexual morality, the woman bears the
social shame while the man has secret guilt.