Revenge 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.

The power of sin and guilt are central themes in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 classic, 'The Scarlet Letter.' This lesson explores Hawthorne's portrayal of revenge in the novel, and his suggestion that vengeance may be one of the greatest sins.

The Consuming Cancer: Revenge in The Scarlet Letter

In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne tells the story of an extra-marital affair between Hester Prynne and Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale two members of the Puritan community of Massachusetts Bay Colony during 1640s. When Roger Chillingworth, Hester's long-lost husband, arrives in the colony and discovers the affair, he is consumed by a desire for revenge. For Hawthorne, revenge is a devouring cancer, destroying the mind, body, and spirit. In the havoc it creates, revenge proves itself perhaps one of the greatest sins described in the novel.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne

From Wronged Husband to Demon of Revenge

More Sinned Against Than Sinning

Roger Chillingworth once loved Hester, but with the clumsy kind of love a bookish, middle-aged man has for a much younger and very beautiful woman. It wasn't reciprocated, at least not as it maybe should have been. The couple leave England and settle in 17th-century Puritan New England, which was dedicated to the purification of religion and life through the strict application of the Christian scripture.

Chillingworth disappears during a voyage from England to Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he is presumed dead. Alone in New England, Hester falls in love with Dimmesdale and discovers true love and true passion.

Chillingworth returns, unrecognizable after years of captivity with the Native Americans, and finds his wife on a scaffold, the scarlet 'A' signifying adultery sewn onto her dress, and another man's infant, Pearl, in her arms. Unable to associate himself with Hester's shame and reveal his identity as the husband she publically wronged, he assumes the name Roger Chillingworth and begins plotting his revenge against Hester's unnamed lover.

On the scaffold
Scarlet Letter

More Sinning Than Sinned Against

Thus begins the slow, diabolical transformation of Roger Chillingworth. Even the name he takes is pretty accurate. He does grow very, very cold.

Hester refuses to name her lover, and Chillingworth, once a brilliant scholar, vows to discover it and to take his revenge. It doesn't take long before he figures out it's Dimmesdale. Overcome by his own guilt, Dimmesdale grows weak and sickly, and Chillingworth, posing as a doctor, rarely leaves his side.

The Hypocrisy of Revenge: One of the worst aspects of revenge, Hawthorne suggests, is its hypocrisy. Revenge seeks to right a wrong by committing an even greater wrong. Yes, Chillingworth is a wronged man who suffers when he learns Hester has been unfaithful.

But what does he do? He cozies up to a man tormented by guilt; he pretends to be his friend and healer, but intends only harm. He becomes as false, as two-faced, as the man he hates. Revenge turns a righteous man into a hypocrite.

The Corruptions of Revenge: Hawthorne's novel graphically traces Chillingworth's deterioration. The more Chillingworth seeks revenge, the longer he fixates on it, and the closer he gets to Dimmesdale, the more demonic he becomes. His soul is consumed by a thirst that will never be satisfied. The sight of Dimmesdale's physical and moral agony delights Chillingworth. More than once the pleasure he takes in Dimmesdale's suffering is compared to the delight of the fiend or of Satan.

Perhaps this would not be so bad if Chillingworth had been born bad. But we don't have that comfort as readers. Every indication is that Chillingworth had lived a quiet, moral life. Yes, he may have been a bit aloof to his wife, holed up with his books and his academic work, but he wasn't a devil. He didn't delight in another's pain. And he certainly didn't delight in inflicting pain. Not until the germ of revenge contaminated his spirit.

Hawthorne demonstrates how corrosive revenge as when he chronicles Chillingworth's physical deterioration. The man literally shrinks; his body buckles beneath the weight of his hatred. He begins to look like an imp, like a devil's mask. Revenge is eating its way from the inside out like a cancer.

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