The Scarlet Letter was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850, in Salem Massachusetts. Some refer to the novel as a recollection of the story of Adam and Eve. Just as Adam and Eve were exiled for eating an apple from the Garden of Eden, Hester is exiled from the Puritan community (Kaul, 1986, p.13). Just as sin is a common theme in the story of Adam and Eve; sin is also a common theme in The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays the theme of sin through Pearl, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth’s varying representations of sin. Pearl
To begin, Pearl is the result of Hester’s sin. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester compares Pearl to the scarlet A when she states, “She is the scarlet letter only capable of being loved” (Sterling, 2008, p. 234). Hester goes further to state, Pearl is an “emblem and product of sin” (Sterling, 2008, p. 234). Pearl has wildness to her nature. She is referred to as an “airy sprite,” “little elf,” “spirit,” and “little laughing image of a fiend.” In the Puritan view nature represents wildness and wildness represents untamed passion, which in turn results in sin (Wagenknecht, 1998, p. 57). This natural wildness in her does not allow her to follow the rules. This connects her to the scarlet letter because it, like Pearl, represents the inability to follow the rules (Brodhead, 1986, 167). Some people think of Pearl as a demon child. She pretends to destroy the children of the Puritan elders. For example, Hawthorne states, “the ugliest weeds of the garden (she imagined were the elders’ children) whom Pearl smut down and uprooted most unmercifully” (Jago & Pasquantonio, 1997, p. 311). The sole connection of Pearl to a demon child shows that she is connected to sin. Overall, Pearl demonstrates the theme of sin because she is the physical result of Hester’s sin and because she acts in a manner which Puritans view as sinful. Hester
Hester, although a main character, does not initiate much action in the novel. Instead, the plot advances through her sin, adultery, which happen prior to the novel’s beginning. This is necessary for Hawthorne to effectively portray the full impact of Puritan laws and values1 (Wagenknecht, 1998, p. 56). Throughout the novel, Hester is determined to serve her punishment without complaining. She accepts her status of adulteress, but does so on her own terms. For example, Hester decorated the scarlet letter with beautiful gold embroidery. She also seems to feel the need to do penance by giving to charity and other good works (Bender, 1998, p.64). Hester’s quiet reluctance allows the readers to gain a firsthand view of the injustice and sensitivity of the Puritan community (Wagenknecht, 1998, p. 55). Hester is spared the psychological destruction of guilt because she defines her own sins and acts with amends. She does not feel her action has sinned against God, for God has never been a real presence in her life. She believes that God does not see her as a sinner because He blessed her with a beautiful child (Trodd, 2006, p. 2).
By nature she is affectionate and passionate and has not violated any laws of her own beliefs. The only law, of the community, which Hester feels she has broken is the law of order. She is aware that her scandal has caused disorder in a traditional and orderly town (Gerber, 1968, p. 107). Although Hester does not feel she has sinned against the community, she does feel as if she has sinned by agreeing not to reveal Chillingworth’s identity. Her silence allows Chillingworth to seek revenge on Dimmesdale. Therefore, she has sinned against her own natural affection and idea of truth. On the other hand, Hester feels guilty that her sin might be the cause of Pearl’s unruly behavior. She feels the need to dress Pearl in bright colors, just as she feels the need to decorate the scarlet letter. In the end, Hester and Dimmesdale commit a much more serious sin when they decide to continue their guilty relationship and escape the community (Wagenknecht, 1998, p. 63).Overall, sin surrounds Hester everywhere. The theme of sin is carried out by Hester, not only by her original sin itself, but also through her own definition of sin.
Dimmesdale, unlike Hester, must deal with secret sin. As pastor he is supposed to pry out the name of the child’s father from Hester. This is of course ironic because Dimmesdale himself is the father. He is supposedly godly and is conscious of the fact that he has sinned against the Lord (Temple, 2010, p. 1-2). By hiding his sin he is violating the basic principle of the community’s moral code. This adds sin against the community to his original sin against God (Gerber, 1968, p. 109-110). Dimmesdale knows that he must confess his sin, he states, “Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom; mine burns in secret” (Sterling, 2011, p. 1). However, he has much to lose because he is the youngest minister, so he chooses to protect his reputation rather than stand with Hester and Pearl at the scaffold. Dimmesdale tries to confess his sin at the scaffold at mid-night. However, he does not realize that this is not a true confession, but a vain attempt to go through the motions. By doing so he only succeeds in renewing his sin of concealment. When Pearl asks him if he is going to stand with Hester and her publicly, Dimmesdale answers on “judgment day.”
This day comes when the sky is illuminated by “the light that is to reveal all secrets” (Brodhead, 1986, p. 168). Furthermore, when Dimmesdale tries to confess his sins to the congregation he uses generalities and the congregation ends up admiring him as a humble man. Consequently, this tortures him more (Jago & Pasquantonio, 1997, p. 314). Dimmesdale tells Hester that “they have never violated the sanctity of the human heart,” which is the worst sin in his view. However, now he has violated the sanctity of his heart. He knows the truth will set him free and this causes spiritual turmoil and deterioration in health. His conception of his own sin makes him feel guilty and his psychological makeup prevents him from coping with either his sin or guilt (Wagenknecht, 1998, p. 62-63). Overall, Dimmesdale portrays the theme of sin through his inner turmoil over his duty as pastor, his sin against God, and his sin against the community. Chillingworth
The character that appears to be the most sinned against actually ends up being the biggest sinner (Evans, 2010, p.1). Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Chillingworth commits three sins. The first is the wrong he did to Hester when he married her. When speaking to Hester he states, “mine was the first wrong.” This is the only sin to which he admits fault (Gerber, 1968, p. 109). The second sin of which he is guilty is ignoring Hester by concealing his identity and deceiving the community by posing as a doctor. His concealment of his identity is a sin against his marriage vows and human affection. However, does not feel that deception is a sin, but instead a simple means to an end. Chillingworth’s third and worst sin is his obsession with finding Hester’s lover and taking revenge (Swisher, 2003, p. 64-65). These sins make Chillingworth appear to be evil. Hester, Pearl, and Dimmesdale refer to him as the “black man.” In addition, Hawthorne states, “There came a glare of red light out of his eyes; as if the old man’s soul were on fire.” Both examples show that Chillingworth was seen as a Satan-like creature, linked to the devil. His sole evil purpose of revenge makes him “more wretched than his victim.”
This shows that Chillingworth’s revenge is greater than the “terrible” sin of adultery. Furthermore, his deformity2 is an outward expression of his inward condition. His deformity grows in correlation to the growth of his evil intent (Brodhead, 1986, p. 171-172). However, Chillingworth was not always evil. William Bysshe Stein explains, in “Chillingworth and Faust:” Chillingworth was not always evil. In the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, he keeps the welfare of mankind in sight. In fact, he marries Hester in hopes that she will inspire him to be better and do great things. She represents his dedication to humanity and shows his sympathy, tenderness, and love. She connects him to the deep heart of the universe. Chillingworth sends Hester to the new world with faith in her integrity (Stein, 1999, p.1-2). Chillingworth transforms into an evil person because he arrives to find his wife has committed adultery. The emotional distress from this realization causes him to lose hope in humanity. The grief separates him from Hester’s emotional world, and as a result, he “sells his soul to the devil” (Stein, 1999, p.1-2). Overall, Chillingworth portrays the theme of sin through the corruption that occurs because of Hester’s sin and through his own sins. Conclusion
To conclude, critic John C. Gerber states,
“There is, for example, no such thing as uniformity in the concept of sin. To assume this is to confuse the characters and to misinterpret most of the important speeches. Sin in The Scarlet Letter is a violation of only what the sinner thinks he violates” (Gerber, 1968, p. 62). Hawthorne demonstrates this idea of sin through each character’s own versions of sin: Pearl is the living epitome of Hester’s sin, Hester does not believe she has sinned in the orthodox sense of sin, Dimmesdale knows he has sinned, but does not realize the effect it has upon him, and Chillingworth does not see his worst sin, revenge, as a sin at all. Collectively, the theme of sin is the heart of The Scarlet Letter. It allows Hawthorne to portray his own ideas about Puritanism taken from the position of a moderate transcendentalist (Brownson, 2007, p. 4).
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