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Adultery in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's iconic 1850 novel, 'The Scarlet Letter', is the famous story of one woman's punishment for the sin of adultery. But Hawthorne's novel presents a more complex vision of adultery, suggesting that adultery is not what we assume.

Love, Marriage, and Sex

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, tells the story of Hester Prynne, her long-lost husband, Roger Chillingworth, and the man Hester has an affair with, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.

Set in a Puritan community (that is, a community dedicated to the purification of society through strict application of Christian gospels) in 1640s Massachusetts Bay Colony. In this context, Hester's adultery is perceived as a stain on the entire community.

Hester is brought to the scaffold in the middle of the town square, where she has to face mockery and condemnation. Worse, she must now wear a scarlet letter 'A' signifying her adultery for the rest of her life, and she and the daughter she conceived during her affair, Pearl, are excluded from the community. They are excommunicated from the church and banned from any respectable home except when Hester is nursing the sick or hungry.

As the years pass, however, and Pearl grows, Hester's moral values begin to shift. She starts to question all that she had been taught by her community. She begins to reevaluate for herself the nature of right and wrong. She begins to question her assumptions about sin and adultery.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne

A True Husband

To the community, Hester violated not only God's law, but man's. This was an act that could--and at times did--lead to execution.

But as Hester's sense of private morality grows, she begins to question who truly is her husband, who is the man she will stand with at the throne of judgment, who is the man she will spend eternity with. Regardless of what the laws of church and man say, for Hester, that man is Dimmesdale, not Chillingworth.

Hester and Pearl on the Scaffold
Hester Prynne

The Lawful Husband: Roger Chillingworth

Roger Chillingworth did not start out as the diabolical, revenge-hungry fiend he becomes over the course of the novel. He was a scholar and presumably a kind man. He seems to have loved Hester in the best way he knew how.

But he is much older than Hester and his love is the dispassionate love of a man past his prime, trying to build a home before it is too late. Hester is very young and very beautiful and Chillingworth can offer her the home and security that a husband in this era is expected to provide.

Like so many marriages in this period, their marriage is, basically, a business arrangement. Women had virtually no political or legal rights. They often had little education and even less economic opportunities. They were expected to become wives and mothers. Those were the only options.

So Roger Chillingworth ingratiated himself with Hester's family and, through their encouragement--and pressure--he all but bought himself a pretty young wife.

Hester, being so young, didn't know any better. She had no real idea what love or desire are. She did not know what it truly meant to be a wife. Like a good Puritan girl of the 17th century, she let her family and her husband-to-be lead the way. In the end, she married a stranger.

The Unlawful Husband: Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

Hester's affair with Dimmesdale teaches her about love. She is an older, more experienced woman by this time. Her husband has been missing for six years and is believed dead. Presumably, she has learned to live on her own in her husband's absence.

It may be that this independence taught her her own strength, including the strength to pursue her desire. We really don't get to know a lot about the affair itself, but what we do know is that Hester is fiercely protective of Dimmesdale. Even though she and Pearl suffer the ridicule of the community, she cannot subject Dimmesdale to the same fate. Her community condemns her even more harshly for her silence.

Hester's Views Change

Initially, Hester submits to her community's judgment of the affair. She feels the guilt and shame from what is considered her mortal sin.

But Pearl begins to grow up into a beautiful and brilliant child, the light of her mother's life. Hester can no longer so easily think of the act that brought her Pearl as purely evil.

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