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Hester is our homegirl. She's a self-sufficient single mother in one of the gloomiest most austere moments in America's history; she finds a way to support her daughter in a time when women were just supposed to support their husbands; she uses her innate strength to transform the meaning of her punishment; and she actually questions the insane, hypocritical morals of her community. Yep, she pretty much rocks our world.
So let's take a closer look at how this decided not well-behaved woman went from a young, neglected wife to a pillar of her community.
We don't know much about Hester when the book opens, but we know two things: (1) She's been alone in New England for the past two years because her husband, a wealthy English scholar, sent her ahead to the Massachusetts Bay Colony while he took care of business alone. And (2) she has a three-month-old baby.
If you're wondering how the math on that adds up, put away that TI-83: it doesn't. Having that baby is enough evidence to convict her of adultery, which was an actual, punishable crime in Puritan communities. Why did she commit the crime? We don't know. After a brief tour of the prison, we open in medias res, as Hester stands in front of a crowd of townspeople and acknowledges her guilt. And just look at how she does it:
wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. (2.10)
We don't know about you, but this doesn't exactly sound like a penitent sinner to us. She has a "haughty" smile and an "unabashed" glance—and that scarlet A she's wearing looks a lot more like a decoration than a badge of shame. At the same time, she is "blushing." She's not a hardened criminal, but she's not about to let these gossipy women and hypocritical men get her down.
So: you experience a public shaming. Do you (A) Leave town in the middle of the night; (B) Go up to the Governor and flip over his table; (C) Stay in town and resolve to use the "torture of [your] daily shame" to "at length purge [your] soul" (5.3)?
If you chose (C), congrats: you've won the Hester Prynne Award for Nearly Incomprehensible Actions.
See, instead of leaving town, Hester decides to stay—because it's where she was shamed. She admits that she's done wrong, accepts her punishment, and decides to "work out another purity than that which she had; more saint-like, because the result of martyrdom" (5.3). In other words, she's no longer a pure woman—because she's had sex outside of marriage—but she can become a saint if she's able to put up with the scorn of the town.
Hester manages to support herself and her little daughter, Pearl, through sewing and embroidery, but they're not exactly living the Real Housewives of Massachusetts Bay dream. It's a pretty meager existence. Still, she manages to give to and tend to the poor, becoming a "self-ordained … Sister of Mercy" (13.3). She even manages to win the grudging respect of the townspeople, because she's full of "helpfulness," and so much "power to do, and power to sympathize" (13.3).
In the end, she even manages to rewrite the meaning of her "A": "many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength" (13.3).
No matter how much Hester might look and act like the perfect Puritan woman, she's hiding some major turmoil. For one, the narrator accuses her of actually being unwomanly:
Some attribute had departed from her, the permanence of which had been essential to keep her a woman. Such is frequently the fate, and such the stern development, of the feminine character and person, when the woman has encountered, and lived through, an experience of peculiar severity. If she be all tenderness, she will die. If she survive, the tenderness will either be crushed out of her, or—and the outward semblance is the same—crushed so deeply into her heart that it can never show itself more. The latter is perhaps the truest theory. She who has once been woman, and ceased to be so, might at any moment become a woman again, if there were only the magic touch to effect the transformation. (13.5-6)
Translated, the narrator is telling us that living through tough times can crush the tenderness out of women—or crush it so far down into their hearts that it might as well be gone. Hester might nurse the sick and clothe the poor just like any charitable Puritan woman, but all the soft, womanly feelings are gone from her heart.
In their place? Rebellion. When Dimmesdale says that he doesn't want to go off by himself, she basically rolls her eyes and asks him who said anything about going by himself—she's planning to go, too.
It's hard to think of a modern day equivalent, because most of us just don't live in communities that have rules like this—but it's basically the same as if Hester proposed going to live on the moon. Running off with your lover is just not something that a good, or even a bad, Puritan would do. But Hester isn't evil. It's just that she's been forced to live outside of society for so long that she looks at it with "hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church" (18.2).
Basically, society has disrespected her—so she disrespects it right back.
Given what a bummer life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony has been for Hester, you might expect her to get out as soon as possible, which she does. But you'd also expect her to stay out, which she… doesn't. Long after the events of the book, when her story has become almost more of a legend, she returns to the scene of her crime (and punishment), because it represents her "real life": "Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence" (24.11).
So, you could say that it indicates the strength of her character, that she understands that both the sin and the shame have made her who she is. Or you could say that it indicates how people can never fully leave behind their cultural upbringings. (Or, you could just call it Stockholm Syndrome.) Either way, Hester ends up a respected and almost beloved member of the community.
As a wise songstress once sang: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.