There is a whole lot of changing going on in this novel! The three main characters change significantly during the course of the novel. Considering the main chunk of the novel takes place over quite a few years – seven, I think – one would expect small changes, but these characters are profoundly changed. One of the important things to ponder when a character undergoes a significant change is the factor(s) that caused the transformation, which may lead you to understand more of what the writer feels important. Here are a few changes I noted. Feel free to add more if you like!
(Warning: I’m mentioning material from chapters 12-14, so if you haven’t read this far, feel free to come back later.)
Let’s begin with Hester. In the beginning of this novel, Hester is young and beautiful as she stands on the pillory holding the token of her shame, the baby Pearl. Despite her youth, she is resolute in her decision not to give up the father of the child. She hides in the outskirts of the village, quietly living with her shame and busily sewing to earn a living. She is the object of derision and scorn. Everyone avoids her.
In Chapter 13, appropriately titled, “Another View of Hester,” we get a rather different picture. People speak of her as “the town’s own,” and exclaim over how “kind to the poor, helpful to the sick, and comfortable to the afflicted” she has become. The scarlet letter is referred to as a cross or a “symbol of sacredness.” Her attractiveness has faded to an almost un-womanly form, one in which there was no longer “any thing … for Love to dwell upon…nothing in (her) bosom to make it ever again the pillow of Affection.” Ouch! A “before and after” photo might be handy here. (Maybe the before might be similar to the photo of Demi Moore on the cover of the movie version here.
In other types of changes, Hawthorne says Hester has turned from passion and feeling to thought. In fact, he suggests that, were it not for the presence of Pearl to tie her down a bit, she may have become a prophetess or the founder of a religious sect due to all of her solitary thinking. She is even ready to comfort Dimmesdale and confront Chillingworth. She “has climbed her way … to a higher point.”
What causes these changes? Hawthorne suggests that solitude and the absence of tenderness, passion and compassion (from others) in her life contribute to the changes, all of which are due to the presence of the scarlet letter. And, of course, the presence of the scarlet letter is due to her sin and insistence upon bearing the associated guilt and shame among the community for so many years as her act of penance.
Will there be even more changes in Hester’s character? Keep reading and you’ll see!