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They averred that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth tinged in an earthly dyepot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the nighttime. And we must needs say it seared Hester’s bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit. (5.12)
Infernal fire, eh? That's a pretty hefty thing to have to carry around on your chest everyday. And yet, people seem to be more taken by its color and its glowing qualities than they are by what it represents (adultery, temptation, the Devil). We get a feeling that these townspeople are kind of in awe of the scarlet A and not for entirely negative reasons. It almost seems like the townspeople talk more about the A than they do about Hester's sin.
Dames of elevated rank, likewise, whose doors she entered in the way of her occupation, were accustomed to distil drops of bitterness into her heart, sometimes through that alchemy of quiet malice, by which women can concoct a subtile poison from ordinary trifles, and sometimes, also, by a courser expression, that fell upon the sufferer’s defenceless breast like a rough blow upon an ulcerated wound. (5.8)
Alchemists were like (emphasis on the "like") scientists who were primarily concerned with (1) turning everyday metals into gold, and (2) concocting the elixir of life. Here, our narrator describes the coldness of the "elevated" ladies toward Hester. Their mean words are like those cool little sponges that, when dry, are the size of your pinky nail, and that, when wet, grow to be the size of your hand. That's where the alchemy comes in —these women say civil things to Hester, but these words have huge, hurtful meanings beneath them.
Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast,—at her, the child of honorable parents,—at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, —at her, who had once been innocent, —as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. (5.1)
"Sin" may be an abstract noun, but it's not abstract to the Puritan community. Now they've got Hester in their midst to make an example of. (Hey, every community needs a scapegoat.)