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The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Summary Chapters 23–24
Summary Chapters 23–24

Unlike Pearl, Hester can never escape her role as an emblem of something larger. She leaves Boston, presumably to give her daughter a better chance at a happy life, but in so doing ensures that her scarlet letter will become a “legend” and take on a kind of existence of its own. Having sacrificed her humanity and her individuality to her child, and to the letter on her chest, Hester now becomes a spokeswoman for larger issues. She becomes an advocate for women and takes on a role in the community similar to that of a minister: she cares for and attends to the spiritual needs of her fellow human beings. Hester’s burial speaks to the eventual sacrifice of her private self to her public, symbolic role. Although she and Dimmesdale are together at last, the distance between their graves and the design of their shared headstone seem to call out for interpretive readings. The simple romantic relationship between them is overshadowed by its larger representations.

By the time Hester dies, the meaning of the scarlet letter on her chest has become confused and ambiguous. While it gives her authority and even respectability among some people, it will always mark her as guilty of what society still considers a sin. The fates of the other characters also suggest that it is not always easy to differentiate between hate and love, between essential identity and assigned symbolism, or between sin and righteousness.