The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of moral and ethical controversy that reigns throughout the entire novel. The novel starts out with a woman named Hester Prynne standing on a scaffold in the city of Boston so all the town could see her. Her crime was adultery with an unnamed man, and her punishment was to wear a letter “A” on her bosom for the rest of her life. Because of the mark of her sin, Hester lived a life of exile, not so much physically, but emotionally. Hester still lived in the town of Boston and was allowed to walk the streets and market place; however, she was not spoken to except to be ridiculed, and the only time people wanted anything to do with her was when they desired her fine skills as a seamstress. Also during this time, a man named Roger Chillingworth appeared in the town and became Arthur Dimmesdale’s physician. The reader knows Dimmesdale to be Hester’s partner in her sin, and Chillingworth is revealed to the reader to be Hester’s husband. Because of Chillingworth’s close proximity with Dimmesdale at all times, Chillingworth discovers Dimmesdale’s secret and torments the man’s soul. Knowing all of this, the reader must ask themselves, “Who is the guiltiest?” The answer is, the Puritan society as a whole, which includes the entire community, and also Hester Pryne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth as individuals.
In order to really determine that the Puritan Society is the guiltiest in this novel, one must first determine what morals and ethics are. In Arthur Holmes book, Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions he explains that, “ethics is about the good (that is, what values and virtues we should cultivate) and about the right (that is, what our moral duties maybe)” (Fider 2). With this definition, one can conclude that all of these people “sinned,” but the way in which others responded was not morally right, especially in Puritan times. In the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters a crowd of people who are about to stone an adulterer and wanting his recognition. However, Jesus looks to them and says, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” (New King James Version, John 8. 7). Therefore, because the Puritan society of their time was based on Church being the law, the people there would be guilty by what should be their own moral terms.
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Hester Pryne committed the sin of adultery which is a sin that is never taken lightly and hurts not only the person committing the sin but also the people involved in his/ her life. Again going back to the Puritan Society being based on Christianity, one can use what should be their own morals to condemn Hester Pryne. In the book of Exodus, Moses is being given the Ten Commandments, one of which being, “You shall not commit adultery.” (NKJV, Exodus 20. 14). Therefore, this alone reveals that Hester did indeed commit a sin and therefore is just as guilty as anyone else in the community because the severity of sin cannot be measured. However, in terms of the moral standards of an average person today, one could say that Hester Pryne is not nearly as guilty as the others mentioned. This is because, Hester recognized her sin of adultery, confessed to it, and then turned away from the sin, and accepting her punishment. Arthur Dimmesdale on the other hand concealed his sin from the public and because he did not confess it, suffered from his sin.
Arthur Dimmesdale is Hester’s partner in adultery. However, Dimmsdale is also a well-respected priest in the town of Boston and therefore hides his sin from the community. However, because he is a lying hypocrite to his congregation, he is deeply plagued by the guilt of his sin. In the book of 1 John 1:9, John is writing while in exile, and he writes, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” (NKJV 1 John, 1.9). Therefore, Dimmsdale is being plagued by his sin because he has not confessed it. However, had he confessed his sin he would have been relieved of his guilt that emotionally ailed him for so many years. Dimmsdale also went against one of the ten basic commandments of the faith which is that one should not lie. Therefore, Dimmsdale is also just as guilty as all of the others because he sinned and you can’t measure the severity of sin. However, one may also say that his sin is worse than Hester’s because he did not confess his sin and then even condemned Hester for her sin when he was the same. Many may also see Roger Chillingworth’s sin to be even worse than both Hester’s and Dimmsdale’s because he violated the sanctity of human life.
Roger Chillingworth appears in the novel as a newcomer to Boston who seems to be an answer to prayer. He is a physician and is welcomed into the town to care for the town’s beloved minister, Reverend Arthur Dimmsdale. However, what the people of the town do not know is that Chillingworth is Hester Pryne’s husband and he is out for revenge against Arthur Dimmsdale. When Chillingworth first starts caring for Dimmsdale, he does it from his own home, and goes and visits Dimmsdale’s place of residence to administer his “medicine.” However, after Chillingworth had been doing this for some time, the community of Boston decided it would be better if Chillingworth were to be able to move into the residence of Arthur Dimmsdale. Once with Dimmsdale, the reader can start to see Chillingworth’s kleptomaniac behaviours unfold. The first sign of this behaviour is seen when some people in the town start to see something ugly and evil taking over the face of Roger Chillingworth but they can not quite figure out what that something is.
However, the reader is aware of what goes on inside of the residence of Dimmsdale and Chillingworth. Chillingworth, who the reader knows is aware of Dimmsdale’s sin, will constantly pressure Dimmsdale on the topic of forgiveness and confession. He does this in a manner that makes it seem like he is just looking for answers in his own life; however, it is quite obvious that these questions are tearing away at Dimmsdale’s soul. Chillingworth sees the effect he is having on Dimmsdale and is deeply pleasured by Dimmsdale’s torment of the soul, proving just how evil Chillingworth is. Romans 12:10 says, “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honour giving preference to one another.” (NKJV Romans 12. 10). Chillingworth obviously was not kindly affectionate to another and therefore just like everyone else in the Puritan Society and everyone else in the world, was a sinner and therefore is at just as much fault as everyone else in the puritan society.
When dealing with the topic of sin, it is impossible to really say that one person is guiltier than someone else because sin is sin. In the eyes of God, one sin separates us from him. Romans 6:23 says “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NKJV Romans 6:23). This means, that when people sin, their punishment should be death. Therefore, it is easy to say that everyone in the Puritan society was the guiltiest because they all sinned and sin is equal in the eyes of God. However, the verse also says that the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus. This is referring to Jesus Christ coming to the earth and taking our sin upon the cross and cleansing us of all unrighteousness. However, in order for one to receive this free gift of salvation, they must accept Christ as their saviour and confess their sins and turn away from them. Therefore, one could use this part of the verse to blame some for their sin more than others.
While Hester Pryne did in fact commit adultery, she confessed her sin and turned away from it, and began living the life of a Christian woman. Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmsdale however, both concealed their sin from the world and did not confess them, which could be said to make them guiltier. However, if one looks a little deeper into the two, it is possible to say that Chillingworth is the guiltiest because he showed no signs of remorse and never did confess his sins. Dimmsdale eventually was so plagued by his guilt that he stood on the scaffold of the town where Hester once stood as punishment for her sins and confessed to the entire town his sin of adultery. Chillingworth on the other hand never seemed to even be bothered by the fact that he was tearing away at a person soul. Therefore, it is possible to say that of all the people in the Puritan Society of Boston, Chillingworth is the guiltiest. However, his sin does not make the sins of any other sinner in the community any less and therefore makes the Puritan Society as a whole, the guiltiest in terms of morals and ethics.
Fider, Carol J., ed. Moral and Ethical Issus in the Scarlet Letter. 20 June 1999. Institute for
Christian Teaching. 18 Nov. 2007 <http://www.aiias.edu/ict/vol_24/24cc_117-135.htm>.
Macarthur Study BIble. 4th ed. Uninted States: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1987.
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