In chapter 17, Dimmesdale asks Hester if she has found peace. She does not answer and just smiles. Does Hester find peace through the scarlet letter?

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Hester found peace because she was dealing with something that required acceptance of external punishment rather than dealilng with the intense blame and guilt of Dimmesdale . In fact, Hester becomes a vital part of the community, often helping others who are in need --- this despite the fact that...

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Hester found peace because she was dealing with something that required acceptance of external punishment rather than dealilng with the intense blame and guilt of Dimmesdale. In fact, Hester becomes a vital part of the community, often helping others who are in need --- this despite the fact that her good work is not appreciated.

Thus it was with the men of rank, on whom their eminent position imposed the guardianship of the public morals. Individuals in private life, meanwhile, had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay, more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since. "Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge?" they would say to strangers. "It is our Hester--the town's own Hester--who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted!" Then, it is true, the propensity of human nature to tell the very worst of itself, when embodied in the person of another, would constrain them to whisper the black scandal of bygone years. It was none the less a fact, however, that in the eyes of the very men who spoke thus, the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness, which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril. Had she fallen among thieves, it would have kept her safe. It was reported, and believed by many, that an Indian had drawn his arrow against the badge, and that the missile struck it, and fell harmless to the ground.

Although this judgment appears at the end of the book, I am certain that it's something that Hester felt throughout. Unlike Hooper in The Birthmark, Hester was able to take off the letter, at least in the forest with only her family present. She put it on when she returned to the world and, of course, to bring reality back to Pearl who didn't recognize her without it ... for practical and symbolic reasons. Even when she returns from the Old World, she puts the letter back on, even though no on would have minded if she had not.

Of course she lived a life without the man she loved, and that must have taken some of the happiness from her life, but her internal compass was always directed by her own words: "What we did had a consecration of it's own! We felt it!"

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I'm inclined to believe that Hester does not find peace in the novel. The fact that she feels compelled to return to Boston, to her cottage, and to the place where she is known for her sin, seems to indicate that she could not find peace in a different locale. Further, the narrator describes her as she returns to her home, saying,

On the threshold she paused,—turned partly round,—for, perchance the idea of entering all alone, and all so changed, the home of so intense a former life, was more dreary and desolate than even she could bear.

Thus, she does not seem happy to return, but, rather, she seems obligated by some personal sense of responsibility to do so. She does not smile, as though she feels peacefully, but, instead, she seems affected by how dreary her life will be now. "Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence." If she is still repenting for her sin, then it seems likely that she has not yet achieved peace with it yet. Further, she keeps the scarlet letter on her breast for the rest of her life, and this would seem to indicate that she does not yet feel at peace with some aspect of her past: perhaps the sin itself, perhaps her relationship with Dimmesdale, perhaps his death.

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Hester finds peace through the acceptance of her own humanity with all its limitations.  Hester accepts the punishment of the community because she knows that she has violated one of their regulations; violation of the legitimate regulations of any community can result in legitimate punishment.  Her often quoted line, by me at least, "What we did had a consecration of its own" explains how she has made peace.  Unlike Dimmesdale, who is supported by an "iron framework" of belief that, while supporting him confined himself in his own prison, Hester believes that what they did, while wrong in the eyes of the community, was "consecrated," a word with very specific religious connotations.

Hester finds peace within herself, with her knowledge or belief that there was something "sacred" (consecrated) in what they had done.  This forgiveness is beyond Dimmesdale, and because of this he will never experience the peace that Hester found.

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I think Hawthorne does want the reader to know that Hester has found a sense of peace through her punishment. The letter has forced her to be independent and to think for herself.  With her sin being out in the open (i.e, having to wear the letter, serve prison time, and stand on the scaffold), Hester has not been tortured by her guilt as Dimmesdale has for years. The letter allows her to act freely in a sense because others have low expectations of her.  However, by not fulfilling their low expectations, Hester not only "gets the better of them," but she also feels a sense of self accomplishment.  She establishes herself with a needed skill and truly ministers to others in their time of need.

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