The Scarlet Letter

How did Hester's life change after getting the Scarlet Letter?

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Hester Prynne

Character Analysis

Hester Prynne is like a Swiss Army Knife. She constantly makes herself useful, and she is powerful. She uses her innate talents and gifts to transform the meaning of her punishment, and she ultimately becomes a legend in her Puritan society. She is sharp as a knife, adventurous (she crosses the big blue ocean alone, leaving her family behind to live on the frontier), and she is a self-sufficient single mother in one of the gloomiest, most austere moments in America’s history. She finds a way to support her daughter in a time when women were expected to either serve men through marriage or to serve God. She pretty much rocks our world.

At the start of the book, Hester is a young woman with a newborn baby. She has been alone in New England for the past two years because her husband, a wealthy scholar from England, sent her ahead to the Massachusetts Bay Colony while he took care of business at home. The arrival of a baby was sufficient evidence to convict her of adultery. It is difficult to know what kind of person Hester was before the book begins. However, the book opens with her sudden acknowledgment of shame as she stands before a crowd of citizens and realizes, for the first time, that she wears a scarlet A on her dress for all to see her guilt.

For seven years, Hester is weighed down with the burden of guilt and humiliation over her sin and over the public nature of her punishment. Yet, she makes the curious choice to stay in the community where everyone scorns her. Although the narrator never explains why she chooses to remain, he does suggest that people tend to stay near the places where they’ve experienced a significant event that has changed their lives.

Hester chooses to give to the poor, despite her own poverty and despite the fact that the poor also look down on her as a sinful woman. This could be a part of her personal penance, but her generosity also suggests that she is a woman with naturally charitable instincts. She works so diligently and is so kind to others that people begin to reinterpret the scarlet letter. They note that Hester is very capable, and that there is clearly goodness in her – the kind of goodness that protects people from evil.

At the end of seven years, Hester comes to understand that her failure to identify Roger Chillingworth publicly as her husband has cost her lover, Dimmesdale, much anguish and guilt. She realizes that her sin has been tripled: not only did she commit adultery and sin against her husband, but her sin has twisted and corrupted her husband’s soul as he seeks revenge. What’s more, her failure to warn the Reverend Dimmesdale has led to his downfall.

Hester’s conscience is acute, and she feels deeply the wrong she has done to others. However, it is also true, as the narrator points out, that in her isolation, Hester has been wandering in a moral wilderness. Thus, when Dimmesdale claims that he does not have the strength to evade Chillingworth’s evil plan, it is easy for her to suggest that they escape together. This denial of society’s basic mores is evidence that the "scarlet letter" has not done its work, claims the narrator.

(We’d like to point out here that the narrator is somewhat inconsistent. First, he judges Puritan style punishments to be too harsh, then he suggests that Hester Prynne has changed the meaning of the scarlet letter through her diligence and hard work. Yet, the narrator next tries to convince us that Hester has been wandering in a moral wilderness, after all, and that the past seven years of isolation have prepared her for this moment where she quickly jumps on sin’s bandwagon.)

Ultimately, after the death of both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, Hester is able to escape her identity as a fallen woman. She and Pearl spend many years in the Old World (England). Yet, when she returns to Boston at long last, she voluntarily takes up the scarlet letter A.

There are many possible interpretations for why she does this, but the narrator offers the opinion that Hester returns because the Massachusetts Bay Colony is where "real life" has occurred for her. "Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence." (24.11). So we are able to see Hester’s spirit grow and change over the course of her life.