Sin 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 question of sin lies at the heart of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 classic, 'The Scarlet Letter'. Hawthorne's novel examines moral hypocrisy and suggests that perhaps the greatest of all is the sin of judgment and condemnation.

The Issue of Sin in a Puritan Community

Set in a Puritan community (that is, a community designed to purify society through the strict application of Christian principles) in 1640s Massachusetts Bay Colony, Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter tells the story of Hester Prynne, her secret (for a time) lover, Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, and their daughter, Pearl.

It tackles all those big issues that humans struggle with: What is morality? It is public or is it private? Does anyone have the right to tell us the state of our own soul? And if morality is truly private, does that mean there's no such thing as sin? When it comes to sin, where do we draw the line?

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne suggests that sin is not a simple, black-or-white, either/or proposition. Sin is messy and complicated, but all too often we humans fear what we can't fully understand, define, or control. Instead, we judge, label, and punish.

So is Hester some abject sinner in need of punishment and endless exclusion? Or is she simply human, just like us?

Hester and Pearl on the scaffold
Hester Prynne

The Clear and Present Danger: Sin's Constant Presence

In the Puritan community, sin is a real and constant threat. Temptation lurks at every corner and only the community's vigilance can prevent the individual from falling, unaware, into the abyss.

The principle of purifying society is the touchstone of the Puritan community, and so sin is seen as a collective taint. The sin of one is the sin of all. The only way to keep the virus from spreading is to ensure that all sins are publicly punished.

This is why Hester Prynne's punishment is so very public and so very prolonged. After a period of imprisonment, she and the infant Pearl are brought to the scaffold at the center of the town square. There, Hester is mocked and humiliated. She already wears the scarlet letter signifying her adultery and now it is on display for the entire town to see.

Reverend Dimmesdale

Rev. Dimmesdale exemplifies the devouring nature of sin. He is consumed with guilt. Hester has refused to identify her lover. She wants to protect Dimmesdale's pristine and growing reputation. To have been found to have conceived a child would have destroyed Dimmesdale's reputation and might very well have led to his execution. It would certainly have led to his expulsion from the church to which he had devoted his life.

The sinful snare into which Dimmesdale has fallen is his awareness of his own hypocrisy. He presumes to be the moral light of the entire town, an example for all to follow. Yet he cannot find the courage to admit his truth. He feels himself a coward because he can't bear to lose his social standing or to face a worse punishment to follow.

He watches silently while Hester and Pearl suffer. They are scorned and he is revered, but inwardly they are the same. If the affair is truly a sin, then Dimmesdale is equally guilty.

Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl on the scaffold
Scarlet Letter

Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Hypocrisy

Perhaps the most devastating consequence of sin is not in the act of sinning itself but in the aftermath, in what it makes of us. Dimmesdale, wracked with guilt, becomes a hypocrite. He assumes a mask of purity that does not reflect his inner truth. He perceives himself to be a loathsome sinner, in violation of his core beliefs, an outlaw to the Gospel commandments that the town believes him to embody.

However, Hester's long-lost husband most terrifyingly represents the hypocrisy of sin. Unrecognized by all but Hester and living in the town under the name Roger Chillingworth, he pursues his revenge against Dimmesdale for seven long years. Chillingworth actually despises the man he has befriended and pretends to care for as a physician. He nurses his hatred of Dimmesdale, cultivates his lust for revenge, and in the process he becomes a fiend.

The Aftermath of Sin

Dimmesdale's and Hester's affair itself does not seem to have the diabolical consequences that sin is supposed to bring with it. The devastation comes after: it is in the town's judgment and punishments; in 'sinners' ' guilt, and in the revenge of those 'sinned' against.

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