The crowd outside the prison grows restless waiting for Hester Prynne to appear. The faces in the crowd are grim, yet familiar, since Puritans gathered often to watch criminals be punished. The narrator says that the Puritans considered religion and law to be almost identical.
Puritans, like the prison, are supposed to hate sin, but seem to thrive on it. They gather with a kind of grim fascination to watch sinners get punished and even executed.
Some of the Puritan women waiting outside the prison say Hester deserved a harsher sentence. One states that Revered Dimmesdale, Hester's pastor, must be ashamed that a member of his congregation committed such an awful sin. Another says that Hester should have been executed for her sin.
The comments about Hester paint the Puritans as cold and harsh. The mention of Dimmesdale's shame foreshadows his association with Hester and her crime.
Hester exits the prison holding a three month-old infant. The prison guard puts a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugs him off and goes out alone, with "natural dignity," looking proud, radiant, and beautiful.
On her chest Hester wears a scarlet letter "A," affixed with beautiful embroidery that strikes some women in the crowd as inappropriate. The narrator describes the letter in detail, noting that its "fertility" and "gorgeous luxuriance" pushed it beyond the Puritans' boundaries of acceptable dress.
Hester is tall, with a head of dark glossy hair, and a beautiful face with deeply set black eyes. She has a lady-like dignity, which the narrator says never was more powerfulor beautiful than when she emerged from prison.
Hester's appearance again contrasts with the drab Puritans. Despite her sin, or perhaps because of it, she is a vibrant individual.
As the crowd stares at Hester, the crowd focuses on the scarlet letter, which transfixes everyone. The letter sets Hester apart, enclosing her in "a sphere by herself" outside the watching crowd.
The letter isolates and distinguishes Hester. In a sense, it defines her identity.
As part of her punishment, Hester must stand before the crowd on the scaffold for several hours. Her walk to the scaffold is inwardly agonizing, though Hester never reveals her suffering. The narrator observes that once upon the scaffold, the beautiful Hester took on the image of "Divine Maternity," and yet her beauty also had the "taint of deepest sin."
Divine Maternity is a name for the Virgin Mary. Hester suggests this symbol of purity to the crowd only by contrast. But the narrator seems to imply the symbol really does fit her.
Governor Bellingham, a judge, and other officials observe the "spectacle" of Hester's punishment on the scaffold. The crowd, aware of the presence of authority, remains serious and grave. Hester feels the urge to scream at the crowd and leap off the scaffold, but she restrains herself.
Hester wants to rebel, whereas the Puritans all remain quiet conformers. The Puritans make Hester suffer to create a "spectacle" to scare people away from sinning.
Hester thinks about her past in order to endure her time on the scaffold. Lost in reminiscence, the harrowing scene before her eyes seems to vanish. Hester thinks about her youth spent in poverty in England. She envisions her parents' faces and sees also the face of a "misshapen scholar," her husband.
Hester overcomes being shamed by retreating into her own mind. Her sense of self serves as a shield against the Puritans' judgments.
Finally Hester's thoughts return to the present. She looks out at the menacing crowd assembled before her. Hester touches the scarlet letter and squeezes her baby, Pearl, so tightly that Pearl cries. Hester then realizes that the letter and her baby are her only reality.
Hester is surrounded by symbols of sin: herself, the letter, Pearl. The letter splits her identity into a public self that the Puritans dominate and a private self she controls.