The title is significant to every chapter of the book, as the scarlet letter is displayed in many forms. First, Hester is made to wear the scarlet letter on the bodice of her dress as a public acknowledgment of her adultery. In seeming defiance of her punishment, she proudly embroiders the scarlet "A" with threads of gold, which make the letter attract even more attention. Throughout the book the scarlet letter is seen standing out on her dress against the drab gray colors of her clothing, a constant reminder of her sin. As she proudly walks through town with her head held high, the Puritans point at the "A" and scoff at its wearer.
Hester is more pained by a second symbol of her adultery, her daughter Pearl, who becomes a living symbol of the scarlet "A" on her chest. Pearl is not an easy child. She is mischievous and demanding, refusing to be controlled by her mother or Puritan standards. The child is fascinated with the letter "A" worn by her mother; she often touches it or throws things at it. Once she even makes a letter "A" for herself out of seaweed and wears it on her chest. She also tells her mother that someday she will have her own scarlet letter. When Hester pulls off the scarlet letter in the forest and tosses it beside the brook, Pearl grows hysterical; she refuses to come to her mother until the "A" has been replaced on her dress, the child has never seen Hester not wearing it. To Pearl, the scarlet letter is simply part of her mother. Pearl's behavior is a constant worry to her mother, and she feels that the child's impish ways are the result of the sin she has committed.
The significance of the scarlet letter in the life of Dimmesdale, whose guilt remains hidden, is suggested by a hidden scarlet letter on his heart. Pearl notices that the minister is always holding his hand to his chest, as if to hide the shame of the "A" engraved there out of sight. His suffering is escalated by the secrecy of his scarlet letter and his inability to confess its presence in public. Chillingworth, his tormentor, knows the truth about Dimmesdale. One day while the minister is sleeping, the doctor opens his shirt and is shocked by what he sees on Dimmesdale's chest. Shortly thereafter, Dimmesdale, plagued by his hidden letter, mounts the scaffold where he should have stood with Hester seven years earlier.
Ironically, Hester and Pearl walk past the scaffold, and the minister calls for them to join him, for it is protected by the cover of darkness. As the three stand together, a meteor illuminates the night sky. It is in the shape and color of a scarlet "A". Roger Chillingworth also see the illuminated "A", for he has been watching the scaffold scene in the cover of night.
Dimmesdale is still unable to confess his sin. Instead, at Hester's suggestion, he makes plans to flee from Boston, never telling his congregation about his guilt.
On Election Day, however, a change comes over him. After his inspired sermon, he marches in the procession and stops beside the scaffold. He calls Hester and Pearl out of the crowd and mounts the steps with them. With his family by his side, he finally confesses his sin and throws open his shirt so that everyone can see the scarlet "A" upon his chest. Dimmesdale then dies peacefully, no longer haunted by a hidden scarlet letter.
Hester and Pearl leave Boston for a period of time. After Pearl marries and settles down, Hester returns to Boston. She still wears the scarlet letter, even though it is not expected. In fact, when the villagers see the scarlet they think of it as standing for Ability, for Hester has become a friend and counselor to them.
The Scarlet Letter centers round the consequences of sin, especially shame and guilt. It is to be noted that the sin of adultery is, in itself, not the subject matter of the novel. In fact, the novel opens after the sin has been committed and Pearl, the offspring of the sinful, but natural, union is three months old. As Hawthorne himself states in opening chapter, the novel is about human weakness and its resulting sorrow.
Hawthorne's focus of attention is the effect the sin has on Hester and Dimmesdale. They constantly suffer from shame and guilt throughout the novel. Both of them lead joyless lives. Dimmesdale, however, suffers much more intensely than Hester.
Hester is made to publicly acknowledge her sin. A scarlet letter "A" is permanently placed on her dress to symbolize her adultery, and she is made to stand on the scaffold with her baby for several hours of public humiliation. She becomes a social outcast of the Puritan society and lives in isolation on the outskirts of town. Pearl, her lively and uncontrollable daughter, is the daily living proof of Hester's sin. With pride, she dresses her daughter in brightly colored clothing and holds her on head up high. She also concerns herself with doing acts of charity and kindnesses for other people. Even though her life is difficult and drab, Hester, through her own doing, rises about the scarlet letter "A" on her chest.