As the novel progresses, the scarlet letter changes from a symbol of sin and ignominy to a symbol of strength and benevolence, due to Hester’s actions in the community. When the scarlet letter first appears in chapter two, it is meant to be a symbol of Hester’s shame, and is supposed to make her feel abject. As Hester does charitable deeds throughout the book, it becomes a symbol of her compassion and sympathy.
In the first scene, Hester was brought before a large throng of people to exhibit her shame and her child. On her chest, she wore the scarlet letter, the physical symbol of her sin. At this point, it served its intended purpose, which was to make Hester into an outcast, and to bring out the immorality of her actions. It also set an example for the rest of the community, showing them that they will also be scorned and punished if they commit adultery. Although Hester was supposed to feel remorse for her actions, she outwardly rebelled against her punishment by embroidering the letter beautifully with golden thread. This showed her fortitude and pride, even thought they were meant to be suppressed.
In chapter seven, Hester visited the governor’s house to deliver the gloves that he had ordered and to plead her case for keeping Pearl. While she and Pearl were waiting for the governor, they examined the elaborate suit of armor in the main room of the house. Pearl observed that both the helmet and breastplate distorted the image of Hester, magnifying the scarlet letter to dominate her figure. This likeness is intended to symbolize how the rest of the community sees Hester: not for her as a person, but only for the letter and its significance. This shows how the letter has expanded from just representing her sin to representing Hester as a whole.
Even though Hester was shunned by the community, she did a lot to give back to it. She donated food to and made clothing for those less fortunate than her. Hester was “so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted,” (page 127). By chapter thirteen, members of the community began to reject the original meaning of the scarlet A, adulteress, and instead interpreted the letter to stand for Abel, “so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength,” (page 127). This is because her outstanding community service led her to be considered an apotheosis of a model citizen, just as Abel was. This shows that Hester’s actions were able to change the scarlet letter’s meaning as well as her status in the community.
As they naturally do, rumors quickly spread about Hester and the scarlet letter. It was said that the letter had an effect similar to that of a cross around the neck of a nun: she could “walk securely amid all peril,” (page 127). This ability to walk among peril was implemented during her everyday life: just living in a Puritan community as a sinner was dangerous. An especially strange story arose that an arrow shot from the bow of a Native American struck the scarlet letter and fell harmlessly to the ground (page 127). In keeping with the basic trend of all rumors, they changed the way that many viewed Hester Prynne, even creating a mystical aura about her, which might lead people to believe that she was in league with the Black Man. This adds graver meanings to the scarlet letter: witchcraft and Satanism.
“Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” (page 202). This relates directly to Mr. Dimmesdale, because he held his sins in and did not tell the truth. Because of this, he was forced to suffer inwardly for seven long years, in which his sin ate him alive from the inside. This led him to finally expose his sin, which allowed him to die peacefully. Although applied to Mr. Dimmesdale, it also shows in Hester. This is because she did not actually confess anything to the community, but instead Pearl came forth to allow the community to infer what Hester had done. It stresses the importance of being true, because, had Hester told the truth in the first place, she would not have had to suffer the scarlet letter for so many years.
Even though Hester grew on the community, she was still considered an outcast. For example, during the procession, there was still a vacant bubble around her in the crowd because no one wanted to get too close to her. This changed however, later on, when Hester returned to Boston. The scarlet letter “ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became… looked upon with awe, yet reverence, too,” (page 204).
In the end, the scarlet letter transforms to symbolize Hester’s entire life. Inscribed on her gravestone were the words “On a field, Sable, the letter A, Gules,” (page 205). This inscription shows that all she will be remembered for is the scarlet letter – not her charity, not her community service, but the letter. The letter itself takes the lengthy journey from a symbol of sin, to that of charity, to that of remembrance. The letter is a conflicting symbol, but as Nathaniel Hawthorne himself was conflicted, it is to be expected.