But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home. Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But . . . the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too.
This passage, which appears in the novel’s final chapter, concludes the book’s examination of the theme of individual identity in the face of social judgments. After many years’ absence, Hester has just returned to her former home. She resumes wearing the scarlet letter because her past is an important part of her identity; it is not something that should be erased or denied because someone else has decided it is shameful. What Hester undergoes is more akin to reconciliation than penitence. She creates a life in which the scarlet letter is a symbol of adversity overcome and of knowledge gained rather than a sign of failure or condemnation. She assumes control of her own identity, and in so doing she becomes an example for others. She is not, however, the example of sin that she was once intended to be. Rather, she is an example of redemption and self-empowerment.