1850 The Scarlet Letter opens in an Algonquin village, where the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and his close companion, Running Moose, have come on a peace mission. Arthur is at home among the indigenes, but he is special in this regard. "You're the only [white man] who comes [to us] with open heart," says the tribal chieftain, Metacomet, who then proceeds to list the settlers' injustices. Metacomet's remarks sound an ominous note. It turns out that Arthur and Running Moose have a "great experiment" in view, involving racial harmony and social diversity, but their dream is not to be. Not yet. The time is the sixteen-seventies, when, historically, a series of attacks by the federated local tribes devastated the English settlements. As the story ends, the assault is underway. And yet the conclusion is hardly tragic. For one thing, it's clear that the settlers have brought their troubles upon themselves. More important, a romance has flowered between Arthur and the beautiful Hester Prynne, a romance that actually occupies most of our attention, and whose harvest is a little Pearl. Finally, as things unfold we learn that the Puritans are not all bad. Potentially they are indeed a diverse community, comprising not only dogmatists and invaders, but ecumenicals, free-thinkers, Quakers, antinomians, and former members of the Merry-Mount colony. So the mood is hopeful as the story draws to a close. The community survives, and with it, presumably, the prospects for the great experiment. Prospectively, too, the experiment moves outward across the continent, where the Dimmesdale family, riding off together into the sunset, goes in search of a new life.

The Scarlet Letter is the founding classic of that American heroic tradition. Needless to say, this does not make it a partisan tract. The novel is no more a polemic against individualist democracy than it is a polemic against adultery. The materials it's made of provide a full-scale representation of the dynamics of liberal democracy, civic and individualist principles entwined, legal obligations interlocked with personal rights. Entwined, interlocked: The Scarlet Letter has a double plot. It is a love-story narrated in the context of historical continuity, and vice-versa.