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 reflects on Dimmesdale's decline, both mentally and physically. She decides that he must tell him Chillingworth's true identity, and that she has done him wrong to have kept quiet about it for so long. He is the only person who shares her burden and consequently she owes something to him.
Since her first appearance with the "A," Hester's standing within the community has improved. She is still outside of it, but unselfishness and her work for the poor and suffering, has softened the sternness with which she was looked upon. Hester herself is different; she is no longer the radiant beauty she once was, and she no longer possesses the haughtiness that she did in the past. She thinks only of Pearl, but even then, at her darkest moments she believes it would be better if neither she nor Pearl continued living.
Attempting to let go of her darker thoughts, she decides to meet with Chillingworth and inform him of her determination to tell Dimmesdale that Chillingworth was her husband. She soon gets her chance when she meets him along the coast while he is on a plant gathering excursion.
The day after standing on the scaffold at night with Dimmesdale, Hester reflects on Dimmesdale's decline, in terms of his physical state as well as his mental faculties. She comes to the conclusion that part of responsibility lies with her since she has remained silent as to Chillingworth's identity, thus giving his revenge free reign. As a result of her sin she feels tied to him, as to no one else. She is completely outside of the community but she is not outside of her duty to the one other person who shares her burden.
Over the course of the seven years since her first time on the scaffold, Hester's relationship to her community has changed. She refuses to force herself on anyone, or to take part in any part of the community, but she does stay involved, on the outskirts, through the needlework that she has continued to do to earn a living. In addition, her work for the poor, she shows herself to be thoughtful of the needs of others, despite their constant scorn. Her presence is felt in the situations in which it is allowed, scenes of sickness and death, and she becomes a source of comfort to those around her. This is her only real contact with the community, but respect for her grows the more she helps without any thought of acknowledgement from those around her. People begin to realize that she has good in her, and eventually the men in power start to agree. She develops a name for herself as a compassionate helper, and even the attitude towards the symbol of her shame begins to change. People still refer to the badge when speaking of her, but the meaning of it changes, and some people think the "A" stands for "angel."
Hester has also changed; she has less of the glowing, overwhelming attractiveness that she once had. She loses some of the haughtiness and exoticism that she once conveyed, and some of her tenderness and femininity fades. Her demeanor is more detached, but she does not lose all of her warmth. This leads her to reconsider the role women play in her society, and she comes to believe that at some point in the future, the relationship between men and women will and should change. Above all, she believes that life does not hold more for her, and at the worst of times she thinks it is best to send herself and Pearl to heaven at once, and at the best of times, she feels she should just quietly maintain her present life.
For the time being, Hester is dominated by thoughts of Dimmesdale and she feels the need to correct her past wrongs toward him. She resolves to meet Chillingworth and tell him of her plan to uncover his identity. She soon gets her opportunity when she meets him on one of his herb-gathering missions along the coast.
Hester sees Chillingworth and is amazed at how dominated by revenge he has become and how much it has affected his look and demeanor. She tells him that she plans to speak to Dimmesdale about Chillingworth and inform him of their former relationship. Chillingworth tells her that she does not need to feel responsible for Dimmesdale and warns her that Dimmesdale's current situation is better than the alternative of total exposure. Hester remains convinced that it is for the best that Dimmesdale be informed. Chillingworth agrees to let Hester tell Dimmesdale, but maintains his threat of achieving revenge.
Hester asks to speak with him and Roger tells her of a rumor he heard that the magistrates were considering allowing Hester to remove the "A". Hester has no desire for this, as she believes that the letter should remain until it comes off of its own accord, a symbol of heaven's own opinion on the matter. Looking at Chillingworth, Hester is shocked at how grotesque he has become as a result of his quest for revenge. Every good that she knew in him before is gone.
She informs Chillingworth that she plans to tell Dimmesdale that the physician is her husband, in order to right the wrong of seven years ago. Chillingworth argues that she has no reason to blame herself because the result of divulging his identity sooner would have been discovery of the entire affair. Chillingworth claims that anything that he has done is better than the alternative, which would be total honesty in public about the entire situation. Hester believes that anything is better than the torture that Chillingworth is subjecting Dimmesdale to.
During the conversation, Chillingworth realizes the depths to which he has sunk and comes to the conclusion that he has reached as close to being a devil as it is possible for a mortal to become. He still believes that the revenge has not been satisfied and the debt to him has not been paid. Chillingworth does agree that Hester has paid her dues. Hester tells Chillingworth that is going to tell Dimmesdale. Chillingworth accepts this, but adds that he will continue in his own way. He has not achieved his revenge, and he maintains that he will continue until he is satisfied.
Hester, after seeing Dimmesdale on the scaffold, is forced to come to terms with her betrayal of her obligation to him. Over the course of seven years, many changes have occurred. She has grown in the community's esteem, and her quiet acceptance of her role outside, but connected to, the community has won its favor. She chooses not to partake of the society's benefits and this appeals to the community that expelled her. She took its abuse and continued to contribute quietly to the community. She accepts her fate and is honest about it and this is what raises her above those around her. The response to her has changed, and she has changed. Her isolation took away much of her grace and femininity, and much of her time is devoted to thought. No longer being bound by the constraints of society, Hester's thoughts are free to take any shade or direction she desires. She considers most especially the relationship between men and women and the constraints on women in society and general and in the Puritan society in particular. It is these thoughts that lead people to consider Hester Prynne a kind of feminist forbear. She briefly considers the divide between men's roles and women's roles as artificial and deeply feels the frustration of being limited because of her gender. It is in this way that "the scarlet letter has not done its office," as mentioned in chapter 13. If the letter is meant to punish her and reshape her into the Puritan ideal, her isolation has only made her question the validity of such a society's declarations. As a result of her experience she comes to the conclusion that the dictates of a formalized religion are not necessarily true, or benevolent. Her only obligation is to Dimmesdale and she must right the wrong she has done.
In her conversation with Chillingworth she demonstrates the extent to which she has come to terms with her fate and her true identity, as she expresses no desire in having the community remove the letter. She claims that it is no longer in the magistrates control, that the letter will have the fate dictated to it by greater powers. Hester sees Chillingworth's own transformation clearly. He sealed his own fate by taking on the mantle of vengeance and there is no altering his course. Hester informs Chillingworth of her decision to unmask him, and despite Chillingworth's assurances that she did no wrong to keep his secret, maintains her position that she is required to tell Dimmesdale about her husband. Hester confronts Chillingworth about the evil incarnated in him and gives him a chance to repent, but Chillingworth refuses to accept the idea that Dimmesdale's debt has been paid to him, and remains determined to see his revenge through to the end. They part ways each on their own irreversible course.