Hypocrisy in The Scarlet Letter

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

Hypocrisy is one of the main themes in Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter.'' This lesson provides an overview of its presence and role in the novel.

Hypocrisy is in the Air

The book The Scarlet Letter is a classic American novel, a darkly romantic book that is steeped in hypocrisy, a state of being in which people condemning others for behaviors they themselves exhibit, almost always in private. This lesson will show how hypocrisy is to be found in the lives of three of the book's most notable characters.

In his novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne paints for us a picture of Salem, Massachusetts, in the mid-17th century. The citizens of Salem are laboring under austere regulations and restrictions imposed by their Puritan theocracy. Hester Prynne is condemned to wear a scarlet letter 'A' on her chest as a punishment for the sin of adultery, but it seems that plenty of the other citizens of Salem are harboring similar sins without admitting them. They go on acting their part as pious Puritans--hypocrites hiding the truth.

Oddly, Hester finds that her badge of shame 'gave her a sympathetic knowledge of this hidden sin in other hearts.' Hester experiences moments of intuition in which 'the red infamy upon her breast would give a sympathetic throb' while passing one or another of the well-respected citizens of Salem. Blushing maidens, venerable officials, and solemn matrons alike could be responsible for one of these throbs. It seems no one was safe from the taint of sin, but very few would admit it outwardly.

Governor Bellingham and his Crazy Sister

Governor Bellingham (in addition to being a bit of a hypocrite himself by dressing luxuriously while enforcing Puritan plainness on the people he governs) provides us with a physical metaphor for hypocrisy. He shares his home with his sister, Mistress Hibbins, who claims to be a witch. We see the (supposedly) upright, pious governor and the self-professed devil-worshiper Mistress Hibbens both living under the same roof.

This direct contradiction provides a metaphorical representation of the way the other citizens of Salem present one face to the world (represented by the Governor) and while hiding their sins and true selves (represented by Mistress Hibbins). The people of Salem are like this house: containing two conflicting beings. Their desire to hide the one and show only the other symbolizes how hypocrisy permeates the town.

Roger Chillingworth

Hester Prynne's presumed-dead husband adopts the name of 'Roger Chillingworth' to be able to live in Salem without disclosing his identity. When we first meet him, he seems a fairly decent sort of guy. He has dedicated much of his life to charitable works. He forgives Hester for her infidelity. Revenge, however, creeps into his heart and warps him. Despite this, Chillingworth retains the appearance of virtue on the outside. The people of the town refer to him as 'an absolute miracle' because of the medical aid he is able to give their beloved minister, Reverend Dimmesdale.

If they only knew, however, that instead of truly helping Dimmesdale, Chillingworth wants to exact cruel revenge on him. Reverend Dimmesdale was Hester's partner in adultery, which Chillingworth has discovered. While keeping the minister bodily alive, Chillingworth delights in causing him to 'die daily a living death.' He experiences raptures of glee when he describes to Hester his joy in having fooled the minister into thinking him a friend. Chillingworth becomes a malevolent hypocrite as he feigns friendship for Reverend Dimmesdale while enacting a plan of vengeance filled with hate on the unsuspecting man, torturing him slowly over a period of several years.

Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

Reverend Dimmesdale is the most obvious example of hypocrisy in the novel. He is the town's minister. The people believe him to be so good that, if he were to die, they would assume it was because 'the world was not worthy to be any longer trodden by his feet.' So strong is the people's love and reverence for their minister that he cannot shake it; not with neglect, not with contradiction, not with anything.

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