The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who has had an illegitimate child. Despite being publicly humiliated by wearing a large scarlet letter 'A' on her dress, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child's father, even as the vindictive newcomer Chillingworth becomes determined to make her confess. This story explores the themes of sexual liberation, sin, and vengeance.
Hester possesses a unique character that sets her off from the drabness of the community, and her progress through the novel follows the path of a woman who comes to terms with the limitations placed on her by society. They are the limitations of her gender, which are compounded by the restrictions placed on her as the result of her sin.
When she first appears, wearing the scarlet letter, she is beautiful and haughty, which allows her to stand up under the stares of her initial punishment. Her natural energy and confidence lend her the support she needs to bear the daily torture of her isolation. She maintains her daily existence with her skill with her needle, and slowly makes her relationship to the community, if not comfortable, at least easier to bear. She does not allow herself the exotic decoration she initially desires, but exercises her imagination by sewing exquisite dresses for Pearl to wear.
It is this quiet acceptance of her situation that wins the community over. As the novel progresses, Hester's beauty fades, and her haughtiness softens. She uses her skill to help the poor, and she offers her support for the sick and dying. The community begins to see the good in her more clearly than the evil, and the meaning of her letter begins to change.
Though she does not challenge the community in an outright way, as she might have done at the beginning, she does maintain her stubbornness and strong-will, which gives her the strength to stand up to the Governor when he tries to take Pearl away, and to confront Chillingworth on Dimmesdale's behalf. She maintains her love for Dimmesdale throughout the novel, but is not aware of it until he withholds his forgiveness from her because of her oath to Chillingworth. Once he does forgive her, she allows her unrestricted mind to consider escape a possibility and thus betrays the honesty of her situation. She maintains this delusion until Dimmesdale's death, when she then is left to accept her fate, again, alone. Throughout the novel, her isolation allows her to consider her situation outside the limitations placed on her and she begins to consider broader issues about woman's place in the world. At one point, she wants to make her opinions known, but by the end of the novel, she is a kind of advisor for young women in the community, and lets her influence rest there.
Arthur Dimmesdale, the town's revered clergyman, and Hester's secret partner in sin, has a gentleness of spirit that is loved by all of his parishioners. His melancholy eyes betray his sensitive nature and he has a slightly nervous disposition which is prone to weakness. Educated in Oxford, and extremely eloquent, he has the respect of all that he meets.
He is intelligent, but at the beginning of the novel, he lacks a real understanding of humanity. He stands by as Hester is punished, ignoring his own involvement in the affair, and imagining that the silence she maintains about his identity can protect him while he performs his penance in secret. He soon grows weak and frail as his tormented soul wreaks havoc on his weak frame. His cowardice causes him to keep his secret, but his spirit suffers from his dishonesty to himself and to the world.
As he lets Chillingworth into his life, the physician's presence causes the effects to worsen and Dimmesdale labors under the spiritual torture of self-abuse and the involvement of someone intent on destroying him. He grows in popularity as his eloquence is increased by his growing understanding of pain and suffering. He attempts to be penitent, but it is false, and his midnight vigils are a farce. It is on the night that he stands on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl and is confronted by the meteor claiming his guilt, that he realizes the need for confession and grows steadily worse as he refuses to make that public declaration. Hester takes responsibility for placing him within Chillingworth's hands and he discovers that outside forces that have been contributing to his decline. At this moment, like Hester, he believes that escape is possible. After giving his last sermon, with the superior understanding he gained as a result of his meeting with Hester and by confronting his sin, he realizes he is dying and the only way for him to find peace is through confession. Once he climbs the scaffold, and overcomes his cowardice, revealing his own scarlet letter to the world, his transformation is complete.
Hester's former husband, he begins the novel calm, wise and sensitive to the world's ways. He prides himself on his education and his understanding of people. Having been separated from Hester for two years as a result of trouble during his travels, and knowing that Hester never truly loved him while they were married, Chillingworth does not blame Hester for her actions. He redirects all of his energy and hate toward the father of Hester's child.
Once he makes the vow to find out the identity of Hester's lover, his fate is sealed and his transformation into evil incarnate begins. After swearing Hester to secrecy about his identity, he sets himself up as a town physician and soon singles Dimmesdale out. Once his suspicions are confirmed, he pursues his revenge with a singleness of purpose dictated by the rage he feels. As he is dominated more and more by his thirst for revenge, his mild physical deformity which makes one shoulder stand higher than the other worsens, and he becomes a devil in look as well as deed.
He continues his quest even when his identity is made known to Dimmesdale, and the only way he can be stopped is by total exposure, which is what Dimmesdale achieves before he dies. After Dimmesdale's death, Chillingworth's single reason for living vanishes and he soon dies.
Pearl is Hester and Dimmesdale's daughter, and a true union of the two. She changes moods in a moment and does not accept any kind of discipline or guidance. She is tied to her mother completely, sharing her isolation from the beginning. She has no other children to play with, but her imagination supplies her with plenty of entertainment.
Above all, she is absolutely fascinated by the scarlet letter. She delights in all contact with it, and seeks to know its meaning and purpose. Hester refuses to tell her, but Pearl cannily makes connections between Hester's letter and Dimmesdale's hand over his heart.
In her own way, she rejects any lack of truth or hypocrisy; she makes Hester confront her letter, to consider its meaning, and she repeatedly challenges Dimmesdale to stand with her in the daylight, in the marketplace. It is she who first recognizes the futility of a plan for escaping the letter and its consequences when she forces Hester to put the letter back on. Likewise, she rewards Dimmesdale when he defends Hester in front of the Governor, and takes his hand and lets him kiss her brow as she does not in the forest.
Hester often expresses the fear that Pearl is the evil incarnation of the result of her sin, but she serves a particular purpose, lessening her mother's sorrow while testing her truthfulness to her situation, as well as confronting Dimmesdale's cowardice. Once Dimmesdale accepts his position and all is revealed, she rewards him with the kiss she once denied him and the spell that seems to hold her in its grasp, casting a glow of otherworldliness about her, is broken. Though it is not certain what happens to her after she leaves Boston with her mother, the narrator suggests that she married happily and settled in Europe.