In the classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne utilizes the extraordinary power of description and word choice to illustrate the tragically harsh lives and expectations of 19th century Puritans. The story begins with the ostracization of Ms. Hester Prynne, and quickly escalates toward a much deeper and darker focus: sin. Sin can be defined as the deliberate disobedience of Puritan morals and man-made law. To sin will always be bittersweet: the immediate effects enjoyable, but the long-term effects should lead to suffering.
Evil corresponds directly to sin.
Being the “biggest” sinner means not only enjoying and accepting sin, but also feeling no remorse or guilt and not even having to suffer. For that reason, Chillingworth is not only the biggest sinner but genuinely evil. And for the same reason, neither Hester nor Dimmesdale fit as the biggest sinner, due to the guilt they each endure, the amount they suffer, and the attempts made towards repentance. Throughout the story, Chillingworth’s thirst for revenge drives him mad, his personality progressively souring to the point of pure evil, making him the biggest sinner.
From the moment he pleads with Hester for the father’s identity, the demise of his sanity begins. Because the scarlet letter gives her the ability to read souls, Hester immediately detects a negative energy as Chillingworth looks at her with “a gaze that made her heart shrink and shudder, because familiar, and yet so strange” (50). After the gaze, his outer appearance and frequent smirks begin to reflect his evil tendencies and how genuinely he enjoys causing pain.
Merely three chapters later, Chillingworth’s vengeance on Dimmesdale starts to take a toll physically: “Old Roger Chillingworth, with a smile on his face, whispered something in the young clergyman’s ear. Hester Prynne looked at the man of skill and was started to perceive what a change had come over his features, -how much uglier they were, – how his dark complexion seemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen” (77). The amount of joy Chillingworth feels while he tortures Dimmesdale sickens Hester. The ore he enjoys the torture, the uglier he appears each day. His revenge takes sin to the next level, as he forces Dimmesdale to reflect upon his sin daily, never realizing Chillingworth’s true identity or intentions. In an attempt to destroy any hope for Dimmesdale to suppress his sin, Chillingworth “strove to go deep into his patients bosom, delving among his principles, prying into his recollections, and probing everything with a cautious touch, like a treasure-seeker in a dark cavern. Few secrets can escape an investigator” (85).
Not once does Roger mention any sense of guilt, but rather, he seems to progressively enjoy himself more as Dimmesdale slips further into a depression. After the discovery of Dimmesdale’s “scarlet letter”, Chillingworth transcends his previous deformed appearance and “imagines a more intimate revenge than any mortal had ever wreaked upon an enemy” (96). It’s as though the more he sins, the better he feels, and the worse he looks. And his use of the word “mortal” suggests that Chillingworth’s actions surpassed mortal evil, because only the devil could be this cruel.
In a third conversation with Chillingworth, Hester’s faced with the worst form of the physician that she’s seen thus far and could see that “there came a glare of red light out of his eye; as if the old man’s soul were on fire, and kept on smoldering duskily within his breast” (116). At this point, he hit rock bottom and transformed into a form of the devil. Solely, his evil plot for revenge provides enough evidence to prove him to be the biggest sinner, but even still he does worse. He does not feel guilt for what he put Dimmesdale through, but rather, feels that he saved the man’s life.
As Hester argues that Dimmesdale would have been “better he has died at once” then suffer what he did, Chillingworth practically agrees, boasting at the pain he inflicted upon this man: “Never did mortal shudder what this man has suffered. And all, all, in the sight of his worst enemy! He has been conscious of me. He has felt an influence dwelling always upon him like a curse… it was the constant shadow of my presence! –The closest propinquity of the man whom he has most vilely wronged! And who has grown to exist only by this perpetual poison of the direst revenge! ” (118). Not only does he continue to live with a clear conscious after inflicting unearthly suffering on this man, but he suggests that Dimmesdale always sensed the physician’s true identity. Finally, Chillingworth even admits that he “exist[s] only by this perpetual poison of the direst revenge”, which proves him not only to be the biggest sinner, but pure evil. Only a tool of the devil would inflict revenge severely enough to develop such an unpleasant infatuation.
Hester Prynne, adulteress and wearer of the scarlet A, logically would be the biggest sinner, but Hawthorne forces his reader to feel certain sympathy for her as her life begins to deteriorate. Although she undoubtedly committed an appalling sin, she takes the bronze for biggest sinner because of her success at repentance for the adultery and her subjection to agonizing and ongoing suffering for her mistake. With just the company of a newborn, Hester promptly transforms into a social outcast, and due to the social stigma that would arise otherwise, Dimmesdale, the man she loves, forces himself to stay quiet about being the father.
As if this weren’t enough, to pay further for her sin, she must wear the scarlet A, as well as, return to the scaffold with Pearl everyday. Unlike Chillingworth, she suffers daily and will continue to, with constant reminders of her wrongdoing right by her side. Setting herself apart from the other sinners, she accepts her punishment (not her sin), and wants to grow to be a better person from her experience. Rather than just accept sin, she will repent it.
During an isolated trip to the scaffold, Hester justifies staying in New England: “Here, had been the scene of her guilt and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saint-like because the result of martyrdom” (55). She admits both to feeling guilty, and to believing that one day she may recover her soul from what it’s endured, something Chillingworth would never imagine doing. And as she had hoped, Hester succeeds in redeeming her reputation after years spent in the process of repenting.
Not only did the Puritans forgive her, but “nay, more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin, for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since” (111). Besides a gross accomplishment of repentance, and the suffering she enduring for her sin, Hester made one other important decision, which excludes her as a possibility for the biggest sinner, refusing to give up Dimmesdale’s identity. Which in turn, establishes one example for Dimmesdale’s defense against being the biggest sinner.
Those arguing for Dimmesdale as the biggest sinner should consider the reasoning behind his lies. As the town’s clergyman, he holds responsibility for the condition of the citizens’ faith in God. And as time goes on, and as Pearl grows older, so does the guilt Dimmesdale feels for what happened. But his role in town remains, and he must swallow the pain he is feeling, and continue to preach values and morals he neglected. And by the time he realizes he physically craves release from his guilt, it’s too late to admit the truth because of how pure the town perceives him to be.
Even if by some miracle the citizens believed him, it would tear apart the infrastructure of the colony: religious faith. Though he sins each day while preaching false morals, his intentions are selfless, thus proving his character to be undoubtedly kind and not evil. Had he admitted the truth to the town sooner, perhaps he may have even avoided his inevitable death from grief. As opposed to Chillingworth, who enjoys the sins he commits, Dimmesdale not only feels ashamed, but maims his own body and “fast[s] rigorously, and until his knees tremble beneath him, as an act of penance” (99).
Not only does he continue each day to attempt to repent, but also he reaches the point where he must physically punish himself to help endure his familiar guilt. As if his guilt weren’t enough, he suffers exceedingly more each day both physically and mentally by his own doing and by that of the evil physician, Chillingworth torturing him with delight. The sins committed by Hester and Dimmesdale cannot be defended against being referred to as “big”. But in comparison to Chillingworth’s, the biggest sinner, any argument against the others is futile.
Unlike them, Chillingworth’s sin begins as merely an empty threat towards revenge, but before having any chance to contemplate where it may lead him, he’s blinded by the devil. Thus, allowing his life to be plagued with ongoing cruel impulses and escalating to the point where loosing Dimmesdale, the object of his malice, leaves him nothing left to live for. Needless to say, any man who complies with the devil with such pleasure will be considered a bigger sinner than those who suffer, repent, and feel judged by god each and every day.
Cite this Scarlet Letter Biggest Sinner
Scarlet Letter Biggest Sinner. (2016, Oct 26). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/scarlet-letter-biggest-sinner/