Hester Prynne is the protagonist of the novel. She serves as the central force inciting conflict because she gives birth to an illegitimate child, and then refuses to identity the father of the child. Hester’s refusal to name the father creates conflict between her and the community of Boston, who treat her as a sinner and an outcast. Hester is also in conflict with both her former husband, Roger Chillingworth, who becomes obsessed with finding out the identity of her lover and punishing that individual, and with her former lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is tormented by guilt but too afraid to publicly confess his sin. Hester wants to find a place for herself and her daughter within the Boston community, and she also wants to keep her secret and protect Dimmesdale. Chillingworth is the major obstacle standing between Hester and her goals, because he is determined to torment and expose Dimmesdale.
At the beginning of the novel, Hester is proud and defiant. She refuses to name the father of her child, explaining that “my child must seek a Heavenly father; she shall never know an earthly one.” She also fights to be allowed to keep Pearl when Governor Bellingham suggests she is an unfit mother, explaining that “Ye shall not take her! I shall die first!” When Hester suggests that she and Dimmesdale run away together, she also shows courage, independence, and a desire to make her own choices, even if they challenge social expectations. By the end of the novel, Hester has become resigned to her fate and is no longer trying to run away from her identity as a woman who has sinned. Instead, she has found a way to use that identity for good because it allows her to show compassion and be trusted with the secrets of others. Hester changes as she witnesses Dimmesdale being tormented by guilt, and finally redeeming himself by publicly confessing. These events help her to feel at peace with the consequences of their affair. Her behavior throughout the novel changes the other characters because it prompts the townspeople of Boston to eventually respect her and forgive her for her transgressions.