Initially, the people of Boston—especially the women—judge Hester very harshly. One woman suggests that the magistrates who decided on Hester's punishment were too lenient and that "'they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead.'" She calls Hester a number of mean names and is supported by another woman who argues that Hester "has brought shame upon [them] all and ought to die" for it. Merciful and forgiving they are not.
Within a few years, however, people's view of Hester has changed. Whenever someone in the town suffers, "There glimmered the embroidered letter, with comfort it its earthly ray." Hester and her letter come to be much more positively associated. The letter's meaning begins to change, and people "sa[y] that it mean[s] Able, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength." Instead of being seen as a weak sinner, as she once was, Hester is seen now as a strong woman who comforts others in their need. Now, when strangers arrive in town, people claim Hester:
Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge? . . . 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!
Instead of shaming her, as they used to, the people of Boston now seem to be proud of Hester and her humble service.
In the very end, after some absence from New England, Hester returns to her little cottage. By now,
The scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence, too. And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble.
Women especially come to seek out Hester's advice and counsel, and she evidently comforts them by speaking of a time when men and women meet one another on more equal ground.