The Scarlet Letter shows many types of sin. Some are the only sin in the Puritan eye, some are internally blamed sin and some is sin only defined back in the time period of pre-Romanticism. Three main characters; Hester Prynne, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth are the ‘sinners’ of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorn gives each one very different a consequence and remedies for each one’s sin. Hester is publicly punished right away, Dimmesdale has to dwell on his sin for years and Chillingworth is punished abruptly when his sin comes to an end. Each punishment is different and holds its own lesson.
Hester was forced into the marriage of a man she did not love, and after being separated for a long amount of time, she became attracted to another man. She then falls into a spell of passion with Reverend Dimmesdale. She then becomes pregnant with Dimmesdale’s baby, obviously revealing her ‘sin’. She is sent to the Scaffold to be mocked by all and is forced to reveal the father of the child. She refuses and then for her sins, received a scarlet letter, “A” which she had to wear upon her chest for the rest of her life in Boston. She wondered the streets and was given bitter looks from all. This was the Puritan way of punishing her for her then-criminal action of adultery.
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The Scarlet Letter on her bosom does the exact opposite of that which it was meant for. Eventually, Hester upsets all the odds against her due to her courage, pride and effort. Hester goes beyond the letter of the law and does everything asked of her in order to prove that she is “able”(158).
Hester, even though she was more appreciated by the Puritans, she still was not respected and her life was never the same. This eventually caused so much mental and physical anguish that she eventually questioned why she should live if it weren’t for her Pearl. Pearl was a bundle of life sent from god to remind her of her wrongdoing each and every moment and as a walking sermon to preach against sin for others. The symbolic Pearl helped Hester overcome her guilt.
Hester becomes a highly respected person in a Puritan society by overcoming one of the harshest punishments, the scarlet letter. After Dimmesdale’s passing away, she remains in the small Boston town as payment of her sin and more importantly as an example to other future women of the town. Hester endures her punishment without a word against it, and grows from it, making her stronger and a woman to be admired by her puritan counterparts, and women today.
While Hester tries to make the best out of her situation, Dimmesdale becomes weaker by letting guilt and grief eat away at his conscience, reducing him to a shrivelling, pathetic creature. Since Dimmesdale is a devote Puritan, he cannot accept the loss of innocence and go on from there. He must struggle unsuccessfully to get back to where he was. Dimmesdale punishes himself by believing that he can never be redeemed. He feels that he will never be seen the same in the eyes of God and that no amount of penitence can ever return him to God’s good graces.
He is so touchy on this subject that when Hester says his good deeds will count for something in God’s view, he exclaims, “There is no substance in it! It is cold and dead and can do nothing for me!” (202). The Reverend seems to want to reveal himself, at times he realizes his double standards and comes to the verge of confession, only to goes back to vague proclamations of guilt. But Chillingworth’s influence and his own shame are stronger than his weak conscience. Dimmesdale cannot let go of the untarnished identity that brings him the love and admiration of his congregation. He is far too engaged in his everyday image to willingly reveal his sin.
This inability to confess causes Dimmesdale great anguish and self-hatred. At one point he lashes himself with a whip, and at the end of the book, we find that he has inscribed the letter “A” into his own chest. Dimmesdale also believes that his sin has taken the meaning out of his life. His life’s work has been dedicated to God, and now his sin has tainted it. He feels that he is a fraud and is not fit to lead the people of the town to salvation. The feeling is so unforgiving that the chance of escaping his work and leaving with Hester and Pearl makes him emotionally (and probably mentally) unstable.
Hester and Dimmesdale decide they will leave the Puritan town that is tying them down. For a short while, Hester frees him of his worries when he knows he will not feel the guilt of his everyday life. He walks through the town with an “unaccustomed physical energy”(211), and he barely stops himself from swearing to a fellow deacon. When the eldest member of the church approaches him he cannot remember any scriptures whatsoever to tell her, and the urge to use his power of persuasion over a young maiden is so strong that he covers his face with his cloak and runs off. But this is only a short stage in Dimmesdale’s collapse.
The largest cause of Dimmesdale’s breakdown is the fact that he keeps his sin a secret. As God’s servant, it is his nature, to tell the truth, so the years of pretending and hypocrisy are especially hard on him. His secret guilt is such a burden that instead of going with Hester to England and perhaps having a chance to live longer, he finally triumphs over his weakness. On Elect day, after delivering a moving sermon, he goes up the scaffold and admits that he committed adultery with Hester and that Pearl is his daughter. After it is done, he dies in Hester’s arms, free from the unbearable worry of his secret. His death signifies the solution to his sin and he goes to Heaven.
Like the two other main characters, Chillingworth is both a victim and a sinner. He is a victim, first of all, of his own physical appearance and self-isolation. He is small, thin, and slightly deformed, with a shoulder being higher than the other. This, coupled with the fact that he has devoted himself almost entirely to his studies, serves to cut him off from the rest of humanity. He is also a victim of the events that took place before his arrival to the colony. First, the Indians capture him. Then, while he is held captive and presumed dead, his wife had a child by another man.
Chillingworth’s sin is far greater than either those of Hester or Dimmesdale. His first sin was when he married Hester. He knew that she would never marry him, and yet he made her marry him anyway. He admits this to Hester while they are talking in the jail cell. “Mine was the first wrong when I betrayed they budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay.” His second, and main sin is allowing himself to become obsessed with revenge against Dimmesdale.
Chillingworth reacts to his wife’s betrayal by sacrificing everything in order to seek revenge. After he discovers that his wife given birth to another man’s child, Chillingworth becomes a far different and evil old man. He used to be a scholar who dedicated his best years “to feed the hungry dream of knowledge,” (74), but his new duty becomes finding and slowly punishing the man who seduced his wife. He soon becomes obsessed with his new mission in life. Once he targeted Reverend Dimmesdale as the possible parent, he dedicates all of his time to becoming his confidant in order to destroy Dimmesdale’s sanity. This obsession turns him from a peaceful scholar into a “fiend”.
Revenge was also one of the reasons that Chillingworth gives up his identity. The only way he can truly destroy Dimmesdale is to live with him and be by his side all day, every day. He succeeds for a long time wearing down Dimmesdale until Hester sees that he was going mad and finally revealed that “That old man!-the physician!-he whom they call Roger Chillingworth!-he was (her) husband!”(190). His largest sacrifice is by far, his own life. After spending so much time dwelling on his revenge, Chillingworth forgets that he still has a chance to lead a life of his own. So, consequently, after Dimmesdale reveals his secret to the world, Chillingworth dies because he has nothing left to live for.
In closing, Hawthorn shows the sins of several different kinds of people and the consequences and remedies of their sins. Hester is publicly punished right away, Dimmesdale has to dwell on his sin for years and Chillingworth is punished abruptly when his sin comes to an end. Each punishment is different and holds its own moral lesson. The sins described are sins that we take for granted because people “commit” them in our present day, all the time, and these are excepted and normal. Hawthorne’s opposing idea of Puritanism is beneficial because it can be put into terms in today’s world. The Scarlet Letter is one of the few books that will be timeless, because it deals with alienation, sin, punishment, and guilt, emotions that will continue to be felt by every generation to come.
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