When Hester emerges from the prison in the novel's second chapter, she carries herself with dignity and "a haughty smile," refusing to let the anger and scorn of the townspeople intimidate her as they gather to revile her at the scaffold of the pillory. She defies the authorities by refusing to name the father of her child and accepts her social marginalization to the outskirts of town.
Over the course of many years, Hester's patient self-sufficiency slowly impresses many in town; this softening toward her is helped along, to an extent, by the efforts of Roger Chillingworth, who recommends that she be allowed to remove the "A" she wears. Hester's acts of charity to the less fortunate and sympathetic ear to those who find themselves at odds with the theocratic rulers earn her a measure of respect.
Ultimately, Hester is seen as a woman who made a temporary, uneasy peace with the stern, judgmental, and unforgiving Puritans through her own extraordinary efforts. Their final insult is to bury her in a grave that is only marked by the symbol of her crime. Readers are left conclude that while Hester was able to repent her sin and offer her forgiveness to Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, she didn't receive much warmth in return.
Over the course of Hawhorne's novel, Hester Prynne changes from a young woman who is young, bouncy, full of life to one who bears a child out of wedlock and is shamed by the society in which she lives, to one who becomes more like those who shunned her, by becoming drab, serious and severe, and then ultimately finding her own strength of character and authenticity-and, ironically, she ultimately gains the respect of those who shunned her earlier in her life. By the end of the novel, Hester is wearing the "A" of her own free will; the time when she would have been allowed to take it off has long since passed, and interestingly, in yet another irony, the townspeople say that the "A" actually refers to Hester being "Able" as they often seek her counsel when faced with problems and sorrows of their own. Hester's authentic self surfaced over the years of her suffering; she grew up, learned more about herself, made her peace with God, and ultimately led an authentically successful life.