What is most remarkable about Hester Prynne is her strength of character. While Hawthorne does not give a great deal of information about her life before the book opens, he does show her remarkable character, revealed through her public humiliation and subsequent, isolated life in Puritan society. Her inner strength, her defiance of convention, her honesty, and her compassion may have been in her character all along, but the scarlet letter brings them to our attention. She is, in the end, a survivor.
Hester is physically described in the first scaffold scene as a tall young woman with a "figure of perfect elegance on a large scale." Her most impressive feature is her "dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam." Her complexion is rich, her eyes are dark and deep, and her regular features give her a beautiful face. In fact, so physically stunning is she that "her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped."
Contrast this with her appearance after seven years of punishment for her sin. Her beautiful hair is hidden under her cap, her beauty and warmth are gone, buried under the burden of the elaborate scarlet letter on her bosom. When she removes the letter and takes off her cap in Chapter 13, she once again becomes the radiant beauty of seven years earlier. Symbolically, when Hester removes the letter and takes off the cap, she is, in effect, removing the harsh, stark, unbending Puritan social and moral structure.
Hester is only to have a brief respite, however, because Pearl angrily demands she resume wearing the scarlet A. With the scarlet letter and her hair back in place, "her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed, like fading sunshine; and a gray shadow seemed to fall across her." While her punishment changes her physical appearance, it has a far more profound effect on her character.
What we know about Hester from the days prior to her punishment is that she came from a "genteel but impoverished English family" of notable lineage. She married the much older Roger Chillingworth, who spent long hours over his books and experiments; yet she convinced herself that she was happy. When they left Amsterdam for the New World, he sent her ahead, but he was reportedly lost at sea, leaving Hester alone among the Puritans of Boston. Officially, she is a widow. While not a Puritan herself, Hester looks to Arthur Dimmesdale for comfort and spiritual guidance. Somewhere during this period of time, their solace becomes passion and results in the birth of Pearl.
The reader first meets the incredibly strong Hester on the scaffold with Pearl in her arms, beginning her punishment. On the scaffold, she displays a sense of irony and contempt. The irony is present in the elaborate needlework of the scarlet letter. There are "fantastic flourishes of gold-thread," and the letter is ornately decorative, significantly beyond the colony's laws that call for somber, unadorned attire. The first description of Hester notes her "natural dignity and force of character" and mentions specifically the haughty smile and strong glance that reveal no self-consciousness of her plight. While she might be feeling agony as if "her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon," her face reveals no such thought, and her demeanor is described as "haughty." She displays a dignity and grace that reveals a deep trust in herself.
In this first scene, Dimmesdale implores her to name the father of the baby and her penance may be lightened. Hester says "Never!" When asked again, she says "I will not speak!" While this declaration relieves Dimmesdale and he praises her under his breath, it also shows Hester's determination to stand alone despite the opinion of society. Hester's self-reliance and inner strength are further revealed in her defiance of the law and in her iron will during her confrontation with the governor of the colony.
Despite her lonely existence, Hester somehow finds an inner strength to defy both the townspeople and the local government. This defiance becomes stronger and will carry her through later interviews with both Chillingworth and Governor Bellingham. Her determination and lonely stand is repeated again when she confronts Governor Bellingham over the issue of Pearl's guardianship. When the governor determines to take Pearl away from her, Hester says, "God gave me the child! He gave her in requital of all things else, which he had taken from me . . . Ye shall not take her! I will die first!" When pressed further with assurances of Pearl's good care, Hester defiantly pleads with him, "God gave her into my keeping. I will not give her up!" Here Hester turns to Dimmesdale for help, the one time in the novel where she does not stand alone.
Hester's strength is evident in her dealings with both her husband and her lover. Hester defies Chillingworth when he demands to know the name of her lover. In Chapter 4, when he interviews her in the jail, she firmly says, "Ask me not! That thou shalt never know!" In the forest scene, even Dimmesdale acknowledges that she has the strength he lacks. The minister calls on her to give him strength to overcome his indecisiveness twice in the forest and again as he faces his confession on Election Day.
What is the source of this strength? As she walks out on the scaffold at the beginning of the novel, Hester determines that she must "sustain and carry" her burden forward "by the ordinary resources of her nature, or sink with it. She could no longer borrow from the future to help her through the present." Her loneliness is described in the Chapter 5 as she considers how she can support herself and Pearl, a problem that she solves with her needlework. Yet she continues to lack adult companionship throughout her life. She has nothing but her strength of spirit to sustain her. This inner calm is recognized in the changing attitude of the community when they acknowledge that the A is for "Able," "so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength."
A second quality of Hester is that she is, above all, honest: She openly acknowledges her sin. In Chapter 17, she explains to Dimmesdale that she has been honest in all things except in disclosing his part in her pregnancy. "A lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side!" She also explains to Chillingworth that, even in their sham of a marriage, "thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any." She kept her word in carrying her husband's secret identity, and she tells the minister the truth only after she is released from her pledge. This life of public repentance, although bitter and difficult, helps her retain her sanity while Dimmesdale seems to be losing his.
Finally, Hester becomes an angel of mercy who eventually lives out her life as a figure of compassion in the community. Hester becomes known for her charitable deeds. She offers comfort to the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden. When the governor is dying, she is at his side. "She came, not as a guest, but as a rightful inmate, into the household that was darkened by trouble." Yet Hester's presence is taken for granted, and those that she helps do not acknowledge her on the street.
Hawthorne attributes this transformation to her lonely position in the world and her suffering. No friend, no companion, no foot crossed the threshold of her cottage. In her solitude, she had a great deal of time to think. Also, Hester has Pearl to raise, and she must do so amid a great number of difficulties. Her shame in the face of public opinion, her loneliness and suffering, and her quiet acceptance of her position make her respond to the calamities of others.
In the end, Hester's strength, honesty, and compassion carry her through a life she had not imagined. While Dimmesdale dies after his public confession and Chillingworth dies consumed by his own hatred and revenge, Hester lives on, quietly, and becomes something of a legend in the colony of Boston. The scarlet letter made her what she became, and, in the end, she grew stronger and more at peace through her suffering.