Hester Prynne

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Last Updated on May 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

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The main character of The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, is a beautiful young woman whom readers first witness standing on the scaffolding of the town pillory. Hester is a widow who has been accused of committing adultery and having a child out of wedlock. The Puritan townspeople of Boston publicly torment and humiliate her. She holds her infant daughter, Pearl, close to her chest in an effort to conceal the letter “A” which has been sewn into her gown and which she must wear as a public reminder of her adulterous sins. Despite the torment Hester endures, she remains stoic and brave. Throughout the novel, she demonstrates compassion and an indomitable strength of character.

Since Hester is a widow—her husband is presumed to have been killed by Native Americans—town officials show mercy on her. They do not sentence her to the standard punishment of death; instead, they make an example of her through public humiliation, social ostracism, and the scarlet letter she must wear on her bodice for the rest of her life. Though she is at first isolated from the rest of the community and living on the outskirts of town, Hester makes a name for herself as the town seamstress. She sews beautiful, sparkling dresses for her daughter Pearl and becomes a counselor within the community. She acts with humility and provides comfort for many of the Puritan women. Once an outcast, Hester finds her place in society, offering help to the needy and the sick. The scarlet letter, which had before represented “adulterer,” now stands to many of the townspeople for “able.” Once a “badge of shame,” the scarlet letter now “glimmered… with comfort in its unearthly ray.”

Hester primarily demonstrates her strength by refusing to name the father of her child, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale. Her character provides a stark contrast against Dimmesdale, who harbors his guilt inwardly. Hester wears the “A” humbly on her chest, transforming it from an object of shame and scorn to one of reverence and praise. In addition, when Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, returns to enact vengeance on the father of her child, Hester does not show fear. Despite the failings of both Dimmesdale to confront his guilt and Chillingworth to provide for his wife, Hester lives a fulfilling life and raises Pearl according to her own values. At the end of the novel, both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth die. Hester lives in Europe with Pearl for some time before returning to Boston, where she continues to live on the outskirts of town. She lives selflessly and modestly, devoting herself to women who are “wounded, wasted, wronged, [and] misplaced.” She vows to fight against injustice and imagines a future in which men and women have equal standing.

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Arthur Dimmesdale