Scarlet Letter: the Nature of Sin

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The nature of sin is a debated subject in society. A man who is unkind at heart but does not act on his malicious intentions is seen as praiseworthy. However, an otherwise respectable person who makes a mistake is condemned. Nathaniel Hawthorne explores this peculiar perception in his novel, The Scarlet Letter. “Thus she will be a walking sermon against sin… ” (58) remarks Roger Chillingworth, the most sinful character in the book. It is an ironic statement, coming from a hypocrite.

The man, who had the darkest sin in his heart, was the one whom people revered. They revered him because he helped their young minister when he was sick, and Chillingworth took a sick, twisted pleasure in his ailing health. This reverence was for the true sinner, for the hidden sins of a holy man and the obvious sins of a precise repenting woman. All these differences are woven into the web of aspects that are revealed behind closed doors among the citizens of Puritan Boston. Sin truly depends on the perspective of the observer; there is never a clear distinction between right and wrong. ”

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Arthur Dimmesdale, the clergyman burdened with the secret of a bastard child, observed a look of pain etched across the face of Hester, a sight he would have preferred to spare himself from witnessing. Despite this, Dimmesdale believed it to be better for the sufferer to openly display their pain, as Hester does, rather than concealing it within their heart. His daily self-punishment for his sin does not bring him any joy, especially considering the anguish it inflicts upon his lover, Hester. It is perplexing how a man with such profound compassion can also be condemned as an eternal sinner for his transgressions.

However, the physician’s ecstasy was distinguished from Satan’s by the trait of wonder in it. This was written by the author himself, comparing Chillingworth’s cruelty to man with Dimmesdale’s compassion for all living things. Yet, isn’t it strange that Dimmesdale is considered the sinner? The author of the Scarlet Letter conveys that sin is not a simple question, but one that requires time and extensive knowledge to answer. While Dimmesdale sinned, he repented for his fall from grace in a way that Chillingworth did not care to. Chillingworth, on the other hand, disregarded the sins committed by divine prophets. Sin is not Dimmesdale and Hester’s act of adultery, but rather Chillingworth’s act of revenge and finding happiness in suffering. Sin can be described in various ways, but when its intentions are pure, can the act truly be considered a sin? This is one of the many questions Hawthorne wanted readers to contemplate while reading his book.

Hester and Dimmesdale committed a sin, but they repented daily after that. Their action was not intended to harm anyone; if anything, it was a way for them to find solace in each other. However, Chillingworth takes his sin to a higher level by seeking revenge and being willing to cause harm. He derives pleasure from Dimmesdale’s suffering, using his illness as a form of torture. Chillingworth, through his medical skills, prolongs Dimmesdale’s life only to ensure that he suffers longer. Chillingworth himself admits that he knows keeping Dimmesdale alive will cause him great suffering. Technically, Chillingworth has not committed a sin as he has used his medical abilities to heal and preserve Dimmesdale’s life, allowing the illness to do the harm instead. Throughout the book, the sins are depicted on a scale of forgettable, forgivable, and eternally condemned.

Chillingworth occupies the top of the pyramid due to his eternal condemnation caused by his sin, which stems from the hatred in his heart – the black area of sin. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, occupies the middle of the pyramid with his forgivable sin of adultery. What further complicates Dimmesdale’s sin is his inability, driven by an internal force, to confess that he is Pearl’s father. This represents the gray area of sin, a stumble on the sacred path that everyone must experience at least once before their journey ends.

Dimmesdale’s sin is forgivable in many ways, except for the fact that he falls in love with a married woman and they have a child together. The child was conceived during a moment of seeking happiness, which is not an unreasonable desire. All humans long for peace and happiness, so why could Dimmesdale not grasp these two sacred elements with his own hands? If Hester and Dimmesdale had met at a different time, their union would have been entirely acceptable.

In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays the grey aspect of sin – the futile desire of two individuals to be together, with no mal-intention behind their actions. The lowest level of the pyramid represents the forgettable sin. Hawthorne establishes the significance of the scarlet letter from the start, signifying Hester’s sin of adultery, a transgression typically punished with death for women. However, as the story progresses, the original societal connotation of “adultery” loses its relevance. Instead, it transforms into “Able,” symbolizing Hester’s capability. Being “Able” denotes possessing necessary power, resources, skills, or materials. This word accurately describes Hester Prynne, who lives independently and strives for redemption in spite of her challenging circumstances. She raises her illegitimate daughter, Pearl, without any assistance, while facing the disapproval of the community. Hester’s determination to create a suitable environment for her child reflects her commitment to repentance for the sin that led to Pearl’s existence.

She continues to wear the scarlet letter on her chest daily, although over time the meaning has been forgotten. The author writes, “Individuals in private life, meanwhile, had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; 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 for so long and dreary a penance, but her many good deeds since.”(142) This passage explains how Hester’s acts of charity transformed her label of “adultery” into “able”. She diligently works to atone for her wrongdoing.

In this passage, the vacillation of our sin is highlighted. The sin committed by the woman is deemed forgivable because she openly confessed it and made efforts to repent, which is a commendable act. Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of The Scarlet Letter, aimed to convey a lesson about the nature of sin and what can be forgiven versus what is condemned. Through his three main characters, he portrays sins that vary in their level of wrongdoing: some are easily forgotten, some can be forgiven, while others are forever condemned.

The author aims to demonstrate their sentiment to the audience through three distinct differences. Their sentiment is that sin cannot be measured based on the actions one commits, but rather on the intentions in one’s heart before and after the epidemic. Sin is truly subjective, as it is neither entirely good nor entirely bad. Instead, it exists in various shades of grey that enchant the majority. This fascination extends to all individuals, as everyone sins, and those who have sinned can recognize the sin in others. The essence of this concept is not absolute darkness or absolute purity, but rather a captivating shade of grey.

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Scarlet Letter: the Nature of Sin. (2017, Feb 24). Retrieved from

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