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The Scarlet Letter's Big Question
Nathanial Hawthorne the author of The Scarlet Letter tells a story of a woman named Hester Prynne, who has been caught committing adultery in the Puritan society and must wear an embroidered “A” on her chest. Throughout the whole book the town’s people despise her and some even want to end her life for this sin. Her daughter, Pearl, conceived through sin, is considered evil. Daughter and mother are shunned by this Puritan society, and this sin haunted them throughout this book, and became Pearl’s identity. Hawthorne brings up the question while reading, “Can evil actions produce good consequences?” Many of us would say that sin is sin and cannot, nor never will be forgiven. Hawthorne agrees that though you can be forgiven, you must still bear the consequences. We can gain support in the text by seeing Hester shunned for life because of one sin of adultery which produces a child.
Hester is a strong and rebellious character. She has not always done wrong as the townspeople may judge, and she still honors her society and religion and lives in it. She stays faithful and true to her God. She knows she committed a sin and that her punishment is to wear the scarlet A. She knows that society will never forgive her. She took all of the external punishments upon herself, which she bore for seven long years, because she felt worse about what had happened to Dimmesdale; “but she could not bear the frown of this pale, weak, sinful, and sorrow-stricken man.”(177)
Hawthorne is trying to explain that Hester grows from her sin; she quietly bears the consequences given to her by society, and so even though her sinful actions cannot produce good, she can learn and grow beyond the sin.
The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dare not tread. Shame, despair, solitude! These had been her teachers- stern and wild ones- and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss. (182)
This is telling us that she fully accepts the punishments inflicted upon her and thus grows and is able to rise above her sinful actions.
The Puritan society believed that if the mother of a child had sinned, that the offspring of the mother would also be forever condemned; “an evil imp”. Pearl is described to be an evil and suspicious child. She says the following:
The sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. Now see! There it is, playing, a good way off. Stand you here, and let me run and catch it. I am but a child. It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet! (166)
Pearl simply states that her mother cannot be seen with the sun for it runs away from her, because of her scarlet letter A. However, Pearl says that she does not wear anything on her bosom yet; which tells us that though society may view both mother and daughter as evil, Pearl herself seems to understand that she is not. Unfortunately, Pearl is condemned by society for even existing, thus showing that the evil committed by her mother produced only unfortunate consequences for her child.
The sin of adultery produced only unfortunate consequences for Dimmesdale as well. He bore his internally, but the weight of the sin was eventually too much to bear. “He was broken down by long and exquisite suffering” (183) He was struggling with the balance between being a hypocrite and being a spiritual leader. We know he is feeling guilty because he is constantly putting his hand over his heart; which we come to know is his secret “A”, which he has burned into his flesh.
We can see throughout this story that the Puritan society was unforgiving and relentless. They condemned both Hester and Pearl outwardly because of the sin of adultery. The man Dimmesdale suffers in silence, knowing he would have the same fate should he announce himself as Pearl’s father. Thus we see that evil actions cannot produce good consequences; each character in the story had to bear his or her own consequences. The sin may be forgiven, and lessons learned, but all actions have consequences.