Throughout the novel, as Hester grows...
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a novel written in the romantic tradition, telling a story of guilt, suffering, and redemption. The end of the story traces the development of the heroine, Hester Prynne, and her erstwhile lover, the Reverend Dimmesdale.
Throughout the novel, as Hester grows in stature, strengthened by her suffering, Dimmesdale goes the other way, weakened by his secret guilt. Hawthorne’s tone in the last several chapters of the novel reflects the complex development of his principal characters.
In chapter 22, Dimmesdale delivers a powerful sermon that moves the members of the church. The tone at this point is ironic, because Hawthorne has fashioned an instance of situational irony.
According to their united testimony, never had man spoken in so wise, so high, and so holy a spirit, as he that spake this day; nor had inspiration ever breathed through mortal lips more evidently than it did through his.
The irony comes from the difference between the parishioners perception of Dimmesdale and Dimmesdale’s perception of himself. Where they see righteousness, he sees guilt—his own guilt.
By the end of chapter 23, following the sermon, Dimmesdale has revealed his own scarlet letter, on his chest. As he lay dying in front of Hester, Pearl, and the congregation, he utters his final words:
"By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever! Praised be his name! His will be done! Farewell!"
These words convey a tone of redemption. Dimmesdale’s suffering has finally redeemed him in his own eyes, setting him right with God. While Hester was able to flourish under suffering, Dimmesdale had to die to overcome his.
Finally, the end of the novel continues to demonstrate the idea of redemption, this time by describing how the scarlet letter itself has changed in meaning:
. . . 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.
Hester herself, because of her personal righteousness, has turned the “stigma” of the letter into something to be admired.