The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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One of the main themes in The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is sin. The book takes place in a puritan settlement in colonial New England during the early-mid 1600s. The people in this settlement were immensely religious and had left their homes in England to try and form a sort of Christian utopia in the name of God. They hoped that their society would serve as a moral paragon to England and the rest of the world. As such, the puritans were obsessed with sin and religious purity to the point of mania. Hawthorne's friend and neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would describe the entire puritan community as suffering from “the soul's mumps and measles and whooping-coughs,” such was the extent of their religious fervor. The book's context plays an indispensably important role because the factors that act upon the main characters, such as shame and guilt, are magnified exponentially by the specific setting. Hawthorne's story begins in the previously described society where religious uprightness is the criterion for greatness, and where Hester Prynne, a saintly and durable young woman has had an illegitimate child with an unknown man; who, (as the reader later discovers), is actually the town's minister, Reverend Dimmesdale. Hester, as part of her punishment, is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A,” denoting her adulterous and shameful act. Dimmesdale on the other hand, lives his life free of public shame, but has to endure the never-ending guilt that he constantly feels until the day of his death. As Hawthorne demonstrates in his novel, it is better to live a life of public ignominy than to secretly horde sins inside the heart.
Initially Hester felt that her shame was unbearable, however, over time, through her own strength and perseverance she was able to convert public disproval to indifference and eventually to admiration. At first Hester struggled with the weight of her sin. In the public market place, she was placed on a scaffold and made into an effigy of sin by her community and her pastor. She was forced to bear “all that nature could endure,” that day, and all days thereafter she was referred to as the woman of the scarlet letter (61). Whenever she walked into town people would stop and stare. Her neighbors scorned her and children flung mud at her. Ministers would give sermons about her both in the street and in the church on the Sabbath. Worse yet she was deprived of her individuality; “she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast—…at her, who had once been innocent—as the figure, the body, the reality of sin” (70). Hester faced brutal retribution, but endured it all, and never once retaliated. When the poor cursed her she continued to make them clothes, and when other women denounced her, she merely blushed but said nothing; she even went so far as to pray for her numerous enemies! She lived a simple existence without superfluous or worldly possessions, and donated all of her surplus to the poor. Aside from her one instance of passion that consummated in the scarlet letter, Hester lived a pristine life.
Over time the townspeople forgave Hester and eventually grew to venerate her. “It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quite process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility. In this matter of Hester Prynne, there was neither irritation nor irksomeness” (144). Since Hester posed no continual problem to the townspeople, and on the contrary, did everything in her power to help them, they forgave her. People thought that Hester had truly reformed and citied her selfless charity largely in her favor. The magistrates even considered removing the scarlet letter from her bosom, however, upon hearing this she responded, “were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that should speak a different purport” (152). And, although the scarlet letter never magically departed from her breast, its meaning was miraculously transformed. Initially the letter “A” stood for adultery, and the accompanying shame that the crime carried with it, however, many people refused to interpret the letter by its original significance and instead claimed that the scarlet “A” stood for “Able,” so strong was Hester in her powers to help and sympathize (145). So although Hester initially thought that she would have to endure her shame until death, she was largely able to overcome her ignominy. Her ability to change shame to admiration lies mainly in the fact that her sin was open. For, had it been a secret sin, she would have had no way to mend her image and make amends with her community because it would have appeared as though she did nothing wrong.
Unlike Hester, Dimmesdale is unable to cope with his sin because he feels guilt and not shame. The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is a condition felt and inflicted by one's self, upon one's self. Guilt can exist without the knowledge of other people, whereas shame can only be evoked by the acknowledgment of others. Synonyms for shame include: humiliation, embarrassment and mortification all of which require the recognition of others to a certain act. Shame, therefore, can be mended and fixed more easily because it has its basis in the fickle opinions of others, whose minds can be swayed by outward actions. Guilt on the other hand, especially unimaginably secretive and burning guilt, can not be fixed as easily because it is an internal condition. The guilty person may try to perform penance for their acts but will find that only admission of guilt can relieve its pain. As Dimmesdale says, “Of penance, I have had enough! Of penitence, there has been none!” (174). Dimmesdale feels incredibly guilty for his action but can't redeem himself because he has no mechanism for redemption. His guilt is crammed in his heart and eats away at his body making him physically sick. Spiritual wounds, just like those of the flesh, need to aerate and be shown, lest they should fester, infect and ultimately destroy their owner. In addition Dimmesdale acknowledges how much better shame is then guilt by saying, “Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret!” (174). As a minister, Dimmesdale is forced to lie to his congregation daily; his congregants see him as a pristine angel, and they interpret his sermons on his own sin, as modesty, which, only perpetuates his misery. At the end of his life, Dimmesdale admits to his sin in front of the entire town and finally feels relief. He stands on the scaffold in the marketplace with Hester, Pearl and Roger Chillingworth. With all the actors of their terrible drama revealed, Dimmesdale can at last pronounce his sin, “ye, that have deemed me holy!—behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last!—at last!—I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood” (232). In Dimmesdale's final words he expresses not sorrow but victory at dying a “death of triumphant ignominy before the people!” (234). It is ironic then that the same spot where Hester was first brought to bear the scarlet letter should be the spot of Dimmesdale's death and ultimate redemption.
As shame is more easily overcome then guilt, it is better to live with opprobrium then veiled guilt. Shame has its basis in the opinions of others while guilt is solely internal. Furthermore, it is easier to sway the opinions of onlookers then to satiate the heart. Dimmesdale finds this out the hard way, for had he confessed when Hester stood alone on the scaffold, and joined her atop that pedestal of infamy, he could have avoided much of his misery and perhaps not have gone to an early grave. This message can be used to support the Christian concept of confession because it seems as though Dimmesdale can not be free from his sins until he confesses to them at the end. When you live in a society as religiously fundamentalist as colonial New England, sin, guilt and shame can have profound influences on you and can cause not only spiritual but also physical decline. In such a society shame can destroy your image, but guilt can eat away at your soul.

*All quotes are from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne





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