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Hester is the protagonist of the novel. She is described as a youthful, beautiful, spirited, and proud woman. When she is first presented in the story, there is already a scandal attached to her name that is symbolized by the scarlet letter "A". When she walks to the scaffold from the prison, she holds her head high and remains in full public view without shedding a tear. Her spirit is also reflected in her decorating the scarlet letter with gold thread.
Hester's strength of character in public, is in fact, her way of steeling herself against her inner wounds inflicted by her infamy and scourged by the scarlet letter. Her weakness is revealed in her private vent of her grief through tears. Her silent suffering eventually wins the sympathy of others but still fails to gain her complete acceptance by the Puritan society that surrounds her.
Hester's self-inflicted austerity and her life of seclusion show her determination to seek penitence for her sin. Through her life of suffering, she emerges a stronger person, better able to handle life's agonizing moments. By freezing her world into a small circle containing only Pearl and herself, she shields the two of them from the mockery of a moralistic and cold society. Hester, however, does what she can for charitable causes.
Hester's faithfulness and loyalty to Dimmesdale are reflected in her determination to hide his identity. Her unflinching love for him is reflected in her concern for his health and her desire to escape with him to a new land. She emerges as a selfless lover making no demands on Dimmesdale and accepting her fate without any sign of criticism. Her submissiveness to the minister is not a sign of weakness but merely her acceptance of the situation.
Hester's selflessness is also reflected in the services that she renders to the poor, needy and the sick. Her philanthropic way of living reflects her devotion to those more underprivileged than herself. Her sole purpose in living for others, especially for Pearl, is reflected in her self-transformation into a sexless person; she covers her luxuriant hair and wears dull and sober clothes without any ornamentation or appeal.
Hester is a woman full of motherly love that she showers on Pearl. It is her love and concern for Pearl that make her wonder if her child is abnormal. She worries about her lack of self- control and her shunning playmates. Hester's passionate appeal to the Governor and to Dimmesdale to allow her to retain Pearl shows the significance of the child in her mother's life.
Hester is not a vengeful person. She never complains about her plight to Dimmesdale and never tries to make him feel guilty. Neither does she harbor any malice towards Chillingworth, whom she considers responsible for her defamation. If he had not deserted her, she would have remained his faithful wife. In the end, however, she even tells him that he has been wronged by her. Hester is truly a kind and generous person.
Hester is also a woman of principle. She refuses to reveal the identity of Pearl's father even though she is questioned by Rev. Wilson (the Church), the Governor (the State), and Chillingworth (the People, an evil one in this case). When she pledges not to divulge Chillingworth's true identity, she obediently keeps the vow and seeks his permission before she breaks it. In fact, in all her actions, Hester is presented as a woman with excellent values and noble qualities--except for her one passionate sin of adultery.
Hawthorne develops her as a kind and sympathetic woman who passively suffers her agony, kindly helps those less fortunate than she, and patiently waits for her life to improve. The basic goodness of her character helps to sustain her during her time of trial and to help Dimmesdale in his distress. In her public and private suffering, symbolized by the scarlet letters in her life, Hester remains a pillar of strength.