Seven years have passed since Pearl’s birth. Hester has become more active in society. She brings food to the doors of the poor, she nurses the sick, and she is a source of aid in times of trouble. She is still frequently made an object of scorn, but more people are beginning to interpret the “A” on her chest as meaning “Able” rather than “Adulterer.” Hester herself has also changed. She is no longer a tender and passionate woman; rather, burned by the “red-hot brand” of the letter, she has become “a bare and harsh outline” of her former self. She has become more speculative, thinking about how something is “amiss” in Pearl, about what it means to be a woman in her society, and about the harm she may be causing Dimmesdale by keeping Chillingworth’s identity secret.
Hester resolves to ask Chillingworth to stop tormenting the minister. One day she and Pearl encounter him near the beach, gathering plants for his medicines. When Hester approaches him, he tells her with a smirk that he has heard “good tidings” of her, and that in fact the town fathers have recently considered allowing her to remove the scarlet letter. Hester rebuffs Chillingworth’s insincere friendliness, telling him that the letter cannot be removed by human authority. Divine providence, she says, will make it fall from her chest when it is time for it to do so. She then informs Chillingworth that she feels it is time to tell the minister the truth about Chillingworth’s identity. From their conversation, it is clear that Chillingworth now knows with certainty that Dimmesdale was Hester’s lover and that Hester is aware of his knowledge.
A change comes over Chillingworth’s face, and the narrator notes that the old doctor has transformed himself into the very embodiment of evil. In a spasm of self-awareness, Chillingworth realizes how gnarled and mentally deformed he has become. He recalls the old days, when he was a benevolent scholar. He has now changed from a human being into a vengeful fiend, a mortal man who has lost his “human heart.” Saying that she bears the blame for Chillingworth’s tragic transformation, Hester begs him to relent in his revenge and become a human being again. The two engage in an argument over who is responsible for the current state of affairs. Chillingworth insists that his revenge and Hester’s silence are “[their] fate.” “Let the black flower blossom as it may!” he exclaims to her. “Now go thy ways, and deal as thou wilt with yonder man.”
Identity emerges as an important theme in this section of the novel. The ways in which a society tries to define a person are often at odds with the way that individual defines him- or herself. As the community reinterprets the scarlet letter, Hester once again has an identity thrust upon her by her fellow townspeople. The meaning of the letter can vary with the desires and needs of the community, because the letter does not signify any essential truth in itself. Like the meteor in Chapter 12, it simply serves to reinforce popular opinion.
Hester’s improved reputation among the townspeople would seem to speak to the community’s generosity of heart, its wisdom and compassion. Yet, because Puritan doctrine elevated faith and predestination over good works, no amount of good deeds can counteract sin; one must be ranked among the chosen. Thus, in a religious context, Hester’s work in the community is futile. Although the community may acknowledge her intentions as good, it will never consider her divinely forgiven, and thus its members cannot forgive her in their own hearts. In the end, this is a society that privileges a pure and untainted soul above an actively good human being. Taken to an extreme, a doctrine that prizes faith over good works may mean that, in terms of everyday life, the pursuit of a transcendent heaven results in a hell on earth.
The town’s reevaluation of Hester is also significant for what it says about Hester herself, about the change she has undergone in earning it. The people of Boston believe that Hester’s charitable behaviors are the result of their system working properly. They think that their chosen punishment for her, the scarlet letter, has effectively humbled her as planned. In reality, “the scarlet letter [has] not done its office.” Hester has become almost an automaton: unwomanly, cold, and uncommunicative. The scarlet letter has not led her to contemplate her sin and possible salvation. Rather, it has led her to unholy speculations—thoughts of suicide and ruminations about the unfair lot of women. In fact, Hester’s protofeminist thinking has led her to realize that she need not accept or pay attention to the town’s assessment of her at all. She refused to flee Boston when Pearl was an infant because at the time she did not believe that her fellow men and women should have the power to judge her. Now, Hester refuses to remove the scarlet letter—she understands that its removal would be as meaningless as its original placement. Her identity and, she believes, her soul’s salvation are matters that are between her and God.
Hester’s new insight into society’s right to determine the lives and identities of individuals is emphasized in her conversations with Chillingworth. Hester feels that her soul is committed to Dimmesdale rather than to Chillingworth, even though Chillingworth is legally her husband. She believes that a deeply felt interaction between two people is more “real” than the church ceremony that bound her to Chillingworth. She and Dimmesdale are bound by mutual sin, and although this may seem a “marriage of evil,” it also unites them in their common humanity. Chillingworth, on the other hand, views his actions as necessitated and sanctioned by his church and by his God. In direct contrast to Hester, he sees the social and religious orders as supreme.