I don't agree that, in the end, Hester's is the morally superior position. It's true that she wears her shame openly, but that was not done by her choice. If she had not become pregnant, I have no doubt Hester would have continued to hide her sinful relationship with Arthur. Because she has had to admit to her shame, she appears to be penitent. She is anything but that. The letter is a punishment, but Hester's heart is not repentant. In fact, we know she would pick up right where the relationship left off if she could. In contrast, Arthur committed the same sin and is convicted about it. He is strong enough to repent privately, but he is too weak (and prideful) to proclaim his sim publically. In addition to public shame and punishment, the Puritans believed they needed God to forgive their sins. Hester never asks God's forgiveness and Arthur does. Though Arthur is weak in his flesh, his character is superior to Hester's morally and spiritually.
Oh, I thought it would be fun to play devil's advocate here. Superiority over Dimmesdale? How can Hester have superiority to someone who is so obviously made a "Christ Figure" throughout the novel? The culmination of Dimmesdale as Christ Figure comes when he endures (and resists) his three temptations (just as Christ did in the desert). Immediately following, Dimmesdale makes the ultimate sacrifice: the sacrifice of his life.
Yes, yes, I understand the points of the posts above (and secretly believe every word), but it's so extra fun to take the opposite side and prove it! : )
It is Hester who best illustrates Nathaniel Hawthorne's theme that he expresses in Chapter XXIV "Conclusion":
Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!
From the beginning of the narrative, Hester's sin is highly visible; she wears almost unabashedly the A upon her breast, "fantastically embroidered with gold thread." Because she must wear the mark of her sin, and because she accepts this condition, there is no hypocrisy within her. Thus, her good deeds are eventually recognized by the community as genuine, so much so that they reinterpret the meaning of her scarlet letter as signifying "Angel" or "Able." So positive a symbol does the A become that in Chapter XIII, Hawthorne writes that
the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross upon a nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of scaredness, which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril.
Through her admission of sin, Hester is able to regain some redemption from her wrongdoing and acquire self-respect as well as respect from others.
On the other hand, there is a veil of falsity that covers the soul of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. For, like other Puritans, he carries loathsomely his secret sin within the dark chambers of his heart, and like a worm, his hypocrisy eats away at him in his vain shrinking from his Creator. And, despite his self-flagellation and other self-imposed punishments, the weaker Dimmesdale cannot rid himself of his guilt. Thus, his sin blackens his life until, desperate for relief, he confesses.
The Puritan minister represents for Hawthorne the Puritan guilt that he himself carried; its hypocrisy he abhorred. Hester Prynne, marked by the hypocritical Puritans and imprisoned as a criminal, proves that a sinner can, indeed, be redeemed. For this reason, Hester Prynne, the one who is "true," is clearly the superior character of the parable of The Scarlet Letter.
It is safe to argue that in the novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's attitude toward Hester Prynne clearly shows that he intends to make her character more virtuous, more dignified, more strong, and more worthy of pity than that of Dimmesdale.
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes.
Throughout the novel, Hawthorne is makes Hester display at all times the most dignified behavior, even defending Dimmesdale from public shame by not revealing that he is Pearl's father. Contrastingly, Hawthorne treats Dimmesdale differently: As his name implies, Dimmesdale "dims", or fades away in the story, becomes weaker, and ends up dying a sad and pitiful death while revealing his secret: That he carved a scarlet letter A on his chest, out of guilt. This is ironic considering that Dimmesdale is the model of virtue, dignity, and admiration of the settlement. Yet, Dimmesdale- a religious leader and elder - is the causative factor of Hester's fall and of her banishment from the settlement. After all, he is the un-named father of Pearl, Hester's child, and the product of their illicit affair.
Dimmesdale always remains in the back: Always weak, always scared, and always depending on Hester's strength. Hawthorne uses Dimmesdale as the epitome of the hypocritical religious individual who preaches heavily against sin but sins as much, or more, than his flock.
He was a person of very striking aspect, with a white, lofty, and impending brow, large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth which, unless when he forcibly compressed it, was apt to be tremulous expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast power of self-restraint. Notwithstanding his high native gifts and scholar-like attainments, there was an air about this young minister,--an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look,--as of a being who felt himself quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own.
From this brief illustration it is clear that Hawthorne has very different attitudes for each of his main characters. Hester is portrayed as the tragic hero, as a martyr, and the strongest character. Hester rises above every obstacle and makes her life worthwhile.
Lonely as was Hester's situation, and without a friend on earth who dared to show himself, she, however, incurred no risk of want. She possessed an art that sufficed, even in a land that afforded comparatively little scope for its exercise, to supply food for her thriving infant and herself.
Therefore, Hawthorne clearly shows that Hester is to be the heroine of his story from beginning to end.