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Hester's punishment was to spend a little time in jail; she is released three months after the birth of her child, the child her Puritan community believes was conceived in sin since Hester's husband has been missing for two years. Because they have no proof that her husband is living, she is not punished more harshly, but because they have no proof that he is dead, she is considered to be an adulteress.

In addition to the few months of jail time, when Hester is released, she is obligated to stand on the public scaffold in the town center, holding her baby, so that she can be publicly questioned by the town clergymen as to who her partner in sin was. However, the longest part of her punishment requires her to wear a scarlet "A" (for adultery) on her bodice any time she leaves her home. She had to make it herself while in jail, and as she stands on the scaffold, the

Scarlet Letter [appeared], so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.

The letter renders her distinct, different from everyone else, and thus its appearance on her breast isolates her from all the townsfolk.  She becomes a cautionary tale in church services, an object of ridicule to the local children and some of the local goodwives, and town magistrates even consider removing her child from her care. The letter comes to be synonymous with Hester's identity in a way that can never be disentangled, not even by Hester herself.

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