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.
In the final chapter of The Scarlet Letter , the narrator suggests that the most important moral of the novel can be summed up in the sentence: "Be true! Be true! Be true! Show yourself freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!" This is a theme that is expounded throughout the novel, most especially through Pearl's interactions with Hester and Dimmesdale. Pearl is a symbol of Hester and Dimmesdale's secret sin that cannot be hidden. She represents the consequences of their action, good and bad, that are there for all the world to see. She points out the inconsistencies in people's behavior, and keeps Hester honest about her situation. Just as she prevents Hester hiding her letter on that first day, just by existing, she continues to keep the wound fresh for Hester until she admits to herself and to the world the full consequences of her actions, which includes her inability to live her life with Dimmesdale, something which the bounds of their romance does not permit.
Hester has no choice but to share her secret with the world, but she still resists the consequences of her situation. Pearl constantly reminds her of it, almost in an attempt to convince her of the need to be honest with herself as well as everyone around her. She knows she cannot hide the letter, but her pride prevents her from feeling its full weight. It is not until she realizes her betrayal of Dimmesdale that she recognizes the power of her sin and the fate that she cannot resist. Though she is temporarily blinded by the thought of a happy ending, Dimmesdale's confession on the scaffold convinces her of her true fate.
Dimmesdale, on the other hand, lies to the world about his true nature, but is more truthful to himself about his state, though he mistakenly convinces himself that he can purge himself of his guilt secretly, without the need for public exposure. Pearl constantly encourages him to show his relationship to her and Hester in the daylight, and it is not until he does so that Pearl acknowledges him in return. She does so once before the moment on the scaffold, in the governor's mansion after Dimmesdale argues on Hester's behalf to keep Pearl. On that occasion, he demonstrates his connection to them in a public way, and in return she takes his hand and he kisses her brow, which is the part of her that most resembles him. Honesty and openness are rewarded, and concealment is shown to be destructive. It is because Dimmesdale hides his sin that Chillingworth is able to cause him such torment. It is partially the fear of revelation that Dimmesdale fears, but it is also the knowledge of his own hypocrisy that drives him to attempt to purge himself of the guilt through physical means, such as whipping himself and keeping vigils, but it is only exposure that will dispel the shame that he feels.
As a one-time Transcendentalist, Hawthorne seems to maintain some of the remnants of their influence in The Scarlet Letter , especially an interest in personalized spirituality, which can be found in the novel. Taking as a backdrop a community in which religion is dominant and extremely formalized, Hawthorne explores the nature of spirituality, and the extent to which formal religion can inhibit spiritual and personal growth. The Puritans that surround Hester do not seem interested in her growth as a person or a spiritual being. With an emphasis on punishment and control, outward satisfaction of rules and regulations becomes far more important than seeking understanding or wisdom. Hester finds herself sinning in a community known for its intolerance and she feels the full force of sternness and lack of sympathy. The narrator emphasizes the community's tendency toward unnecessary strictness in Chapters 1 and 2, as the prison and Hester's first punishment are focused on. The women that surround the prison door have no flexibility or kindness; they want the worst punishment, no matter the crime.
This is not an environment in which a person can grow spiritually. It is only once Hester is isolated and she is left to herself and to her own thoughts that she is able to grow in understanding. Freed from the constraints of a formalized religion, she is able to explore areas of thought that she had not been able to consider before. She examines her own relationship to the world, as well as the place of women in general in it. Though the thought of the futility of her own existence causes her to despair, it leads her to a greater understanding of the people around her, and will be drawn on later in her life as she offers counsel to the people of her community. She wishes to make a change in the way that gender is considered, but she comes to understand that it is not her place, as an outsider, to make such a change. The change that she has experienced herself, though, is evident. She comes to the conclusion that the obligations she places on herself, to Dimmesdale, to Pearl, to herself, are far more important than following the colony's edicts.
Hester, who is ostracized by the community because of her outward failure to follow the rules of the society, is contrasted with Roger Chillingworth, an incarnation of evil, but who is accepted by the community because he follows all conditions and fits their model of ideal citizen. In the beginning they respect his intelligence and experience and lack of blemish, and so accept him into the community, and encourage the very behavior which will damage their beloved minister. Once his sinister purpose becomes clearer, they are unable to retract their support since he is a model member of society. He rejects his personal responsibilities and thinks only of an obligation to revenge, and his spiritual growth is distorted and grotesque.
In the Puritan society, good is dictated by outward adherence to the laws of the Bible and the community. It is in this environment that Dimmesdale is held in highest esteem. He is intelligent, wise and eloquent. Physically frail, but spiritually strong he seems supported by angels and sent by God himself. He gains the respect of his congregation as a result of his understanding of sin and his ability to translate the complexities of religion and the spiritual world into language common people can understand. They assume that his ability is a reflection of his purity, which is a commentary on the misleading nature of appearances and the equal potential among all people for acts of good and evil. Dimmesdale's ability comes from his secret torment, which imparts a humbleness to his speech that his parishioners attribute to his goodness. When Dimmesdale confesses his sin publicly, the crowd is shocked and disbelieving. The group of people described in the conclusion who refuse to believe there was any connection between Hester and Dimmesdale demonstrates how far people can go to maintain their illusions about who is good and who is not.
Hester, on the other hand, is referred to as a "malefactress," a "hussy," and "naughty baggage," by the women who gather outside the prison door. There is no pity for someone who has fallen. The Governor, when considering Pearl's care, believes that since Hester "has stumbled and fallen among the pitfalls of the world," that she is unable to care for her own child. In this sense, Hester is bad and forever will be and can only cause harm to her child. Hester is looked down upon, but her own kindness and unfailing generosity toward people in need eventually softens most people's feelings toward her. She develops the role of a "Sister of Mercy," looked to for support in times of sickness and death, and yet she is still held at a distance from society. Hester eventually does not want to rejoin society because it is not her place, but even so, she is still not invited. Her realm is in the sick chamber and next to the deathbed, it is not allowed in places of health or love.
Both Dimmesdale and Hester sinned in the same way, but because of the secrecy of both, and the reputation of each, Dimmesdale is a saint and Hester is a whore. The townspeople refuse to admit that all people within the town have the potential to stumble in the same way. It is the knowledge of this that causes Hester sadness as she recognizes her own guilt in the eyes of those around her. It is this understanding that Dimmesdale reaches after his meeting in the woods with Hester.