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Public punishment can be humiliating for those experiencing it. It can destroy a person, both mentally and physically, but some can overcome the shame. Hester Prynne’s punishment for adultery in The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne is to stand on the scaffold with her baby and wear a scarlet letter “A”. The whole town turns against her and she is forced to live on the outskirts of the village, even though the baby’s father has not yet been revealed. She lives with the letter on her chest for seven years and is able to change the meaning from a negative connotation affiliated with sin and punishment into a more admirable symbol, representing her new life. Hawthorne includes the scarlet letter “A” to show how the townspeople with their Puritan values are wrong in their thinking about Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale.

The townspeople are appalled by Hester’s sin and shun her for going against Puritan values. She is ostracized and forced to live by herself at the edge of town with her daughter Pearl. When Hester was forced to give the name of her daughter’s father, she refused. Hester has a good heart because she did not want the same fate for Dimmesdale, even though he was the one who convicted her. Hester is a strong, independent woman, which persuades the townspeople to shift the meaning of the letter from “adultery” to “able”. The community now accepts her when the meaning changes in chapter 13, “Such helpfulness was found in her- so much power to do and power to sympathize-that 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.” (145) Hester’s rejection from the town empowered her to prove herself worthy again, and show her self reliance and independence. Instead of running from her punishment, Hester stays in town because it is the place where she sinned. When Hester goes to the forest with Dimmesdale, she removes her letter and throws it into a river. Hester was not relieved of all her problems, but when she took off the letter she feels like a new person, “Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call irrevocable past, and clustered themselves, with her maiden hope and a happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour.” (185) The “A” became a part of Hester’s identity, and without it, she still feels guilty for her past actions, so she puts the letter back on. Now the letter has a different connotation than it did when she was first punished. Hester’s scarlet letter “A” was used to manifest her sin and the Puritans could not look beyond that to her true character. Now, she is admired and seen as an angel by the same people who thought she was unworthy.

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Pearl is the illegitimate daughter of Dimmesdale and Hester, which made Puritan Boston dislike her from the day she was born. The town punishes Hester for adultery and forces her to wear a scarlet letter “A”. Pearl is the letter “A” in human form as her presence punishes Hester daily. “It was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!” (91) The other children stay away from Pearl because she is not like them. She is free-spirited, wild, lawless, fierce, and inquisitive. From an early age, Pearl has been infatuated with her mother’s letter on her chest. She always is asking Hester where it came from, and if it has to do with the “black man.” Pearl wanted to be like Hester, so she creates her own letter “A” with seaweed, “… Pearl took some eelgrass, and imitated, as best as she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother’s. A letter-the letter “A”- but freshly green, instead of scarlet! (160-161) Pearl has never seen her mother without the letter, so she knows it is meaningful in Hester’s and her own life. Hester is Pearl’s role model because all they have is each other due to the rejection of their community. However, the governor wanted to take Pearl away from Hester since they believed she was not teaching Pearl the right Puritan values. Hester is defiant in the Puritan community and refuses to let Governor Bellingham take away Pearl because while she is a representation of the letter, Pearl brings Hester happiness along with shame. “Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a millionfold the Power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall not take her! I will die first!” (100). Pearl is also very observative and notices a connection between herself and Dimmesdale. She questions Dimmesdale if he “Wilt thou stand here with mother and [her], tomorrow noontide?’ (137) Pearl can sense that Dimmesdale is high up in the government, and holds him accountable. As the story continues, their relationship grows, and Pearl learns to accept Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale and Pearl shared a father-daughter bonding moment before he died, which shows how Pearl is not the devil child that everyone assumes her to be. She grew up to be an independent woman like Hester because she did not let the Puritan society standards define her.

Arthur Dimmesdale is a pious, well-respected reverend in Boston who doesn’t reveal his wrongdoing in order to maintain his high social status and respect. The townspeople praise him, but the Puritan community would not want a corrupt minister. They would punish him as they did to Hester, and his future in Boston would be ruined. He was the one who originally convicted Hester, and no one suspected him to be the father of Pearl. The guilt from his sin overtakes him, and Dimmesdale punishes himself severely when he is alone. Hester’s ex-husband Roger Chillingworth tortures Dimmesdale throughout the story. He is often described as a leech, who is sucking the life out of Dimmesdale. One night when Dimmesdale was sleeping, Chillingworth saw a mark on Dimmesdale’s chest that confirmed his suspicions about Dimmesdale being the father of Pearl. It was never clear if it was a real letter on his chest, or if it was not a true object and rather a mental punishment for Dimmesdale; however, Chillingworth’s reaction provides evidence that there could have been a letter carved into his skin. In chapter 17, Dimmesdale said to Hester, “ Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! (174). Hester removed her letter temporarily and she felt relieved of the guilt, however, Dimmesdale wouldn’t be able to remove his letter if it was engraved into his skin, therefore he had to live with his sin until death. The townspeople trust Dimmesdale, which is why he could never bring himself to reveal his sin. He starts to meet with Pearl and Hester in the forest at night and realizes that he had to confess if he ever wanted to have a relationship with Pearl or Hester again. When the town is gathered and Dimmesdale gives his speech, he is finally freed of all of the shame and guilt he’s been punishing himself for. During his speech, Dimmesdale says, “He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! (232-233) After his confession, he dies on the scaffold and becomes a better man because he tries to improve himself by owning up to his sins. Dimmesdale shows the townspeople who he really is, even if it killed him and meant ruining his impeccable reputation.

Hester’s scarlet letter “A” does not have the same stigma associated with it at the beginning and then by the end of the book. The Puritans learn to accept her, and she is able to transform the meaning of her original punishment into a more positive object. Hester’s sin punished her daily, and yet she still managed to be kind and respectful to her community even when she and Pearl were shunned. Reverend Dimmesdale did eventually come clean to his town and exposed the genuine side of him the townspeople never knew about. Pearl managed to create a great life for herself when she grew up, despite all the shame and ignominy from her childhood. The Puritans wrongly judged Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale because they all turned out to be the opposite of the reputation they withheld.

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