How did the Puritan society view Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter?
The views of the villagers toward Hester Prynne change dramatically from the beginning toward the end of the novel.
In chapter 2, "The Market Place" the puritanical "goodwives" gather around to sneer at Hester angrily and speak their minds about Hester's punishment. In their opinion, wearing a scarlet letter "A" is not enough. They want physical and psychological pain. Hester has become a pariah through which the inner demons of the villagers are channeled.
If the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not!
Throughout the novel we find that, even when Hester moves to a point quite far from the village, although still located within it, children would make fun of her and Pearl; even at church she would have to hear herself, or her crime, mentioned publicly hence taking away any dignity left in her.
Later on in chapter 13,"Another View of Hester", the latter is found in a condition that contrasts dramatically from her state at the beginning; she has taken to hiding her once lustrous black hair all inside her bonnet; she has given up her femininity and also gave herself completely into caring for others. The view of Hester has greatly changed in the seven years after she was first sentenced to wear the letter.
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!
Hawthorne cleverly explains the change of mind of the villagers. When someone does something extremely wrong, people are quick to judge and hate on them because of their own "fears of themselves". Yet, people have short memories and, years after a fact, even the hardest of hearts is able to recognize when anyone, whether good or bad, has made something good out of their past bad deeds.
In fact, the villagers begin to see the scarlet letter in the same fashion, quoting the narrator, as
the cross on a nun's bosom
Even the "A", which once meant to publicly display Hester's sin of "adultery", changes in the eyes of the villagers who go as far as saying that the "A" actually means "able".
Hester's community of Puritans view her as a "hussy" and "'naughty baggage'" who has brought shame to the town. One goodwife in the crowd claims she heard that "'the Reverend Master Dimmesdale . . . takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.'" Once we meet Dimmesdale, however, we understand that he very likely would not have made such a comment about Hester. Another woman believes that "'they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead'" as punishment for her crime. Yet another townswoman thinks that Hester "'has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die.'" Hawthorne paints them as a merciless, hard, and cruel people who hypocritically treat Hester with terrible judgment.
Then, when Hester appears on the scaffold, having walked out from the prison, people who had known her before were "startled . . . to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped." In other words, Hester's beauty had not been dimmed a bit. The Puritans do comment on her "'skill at her needle'" as a result of the gorgeous letter she's embroidered as a part of her punishment.