The Scarlet Letter defines the relationship between the individual and society through Hester's alienation from Puritan Boston caused by the sin she committed, and subsequently the scarlet A she wore on her bosom.
Hawthorne's Hester Prynne is a common character among Romantic writers; a rebel who refuses to conform to society's codes. However, in the novel, society is not made out as the sole evil force. While most readers would instinctively feel sympathy for Hester's nonconformist attitude, society had reasons for condemning her. An argument can be made in favor of society insisting that adultery is a crime deserving of a punishment. What Hester and Dimmesdale did was wrong, both of them admit to it, and it was up to society to enact full authority over the criminals. Hester's not wanting to identify Dimmesdale as her accomplice is strictly done by her own will, without contribution from society. Hester's condemnation and alienation from society was brought about by her own accord. Her choice to remain silent about matters concerning her hidden lover was strictly her own. Also, society in no way pressured her to commit adultery; she did so out of her own weakness.
However, there were instances when the Boston community simply alienated Hester out of hatred and fear of the scarlet letter that she was forced to wear. Actions taken to remove Pearl from Hester's care are an ideal example of society overstepping the boundaries of regular punishment simply to expel any sense of happiness Hester has retained. The argument that Hester was not a fit mother because of her sin was used heavily against her. In cases such as these, society wishes to forcefully make Hester repent, thereby, making her an example to the rest of the community.
In contrast with the community and the shackles it presents with its rules and authority, Hester is the ideal radical. Her refusal to make Dimmesdale's actions public displays a deep sense of love and honor with which readers can sympathize. While Dimmesdale's condition worsens because of his hidden guilt, Hester is able to use her discord to her advantage, becoming a stronger and more capable woman. Her constant battle to maintain her own sanity while remaining alone provides her with a healthy outlet for her misinterpretation. Though she is individualized from society, she continually helps the poor and establishes herself as a seamstress. However, upon doing so she still receives constant berating from those that she helps. Through society's treatment of Hester years after her crime, one can find the relationship between the individual and society. Hester has become such an outcast that it has become impossible for her to regain any status in the community. Once she has been branded with the scarlet A, she, in effect, is branded for life.
While the argument that such alienation would usually occur only in Puritan society is certainly valid, one need look no further then to our own President to find example of such treatment in a modern society. Disgust with those who commit such acts is a prevalent attitude. The alienation of individuals has transcended time and is evident in any community. From a nation which questions the sexual activity of their President, to the hatred of individuals by other members of a community subjugated to Megan's Law, society's treatment of its individuals is universal in any community. Once a person is deemed to have acted outside the norms of the society in which he lives, it becomes increasingly harder to maintain status in a community.