The Sin of Beauty in The Scarlet Letter
Beauty, in every form and aspect, is regarded by the general population as the eighth deadly sin. This becomes strikingly evident throughout the examination of Hester’s plight. Hester Prynne, a radiant example of elegance, begins to find reconciliation in the eyes of the public only once she extinguishes her flame of beauty. Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s condemnation of what Hester’s beauty entails is sharply contrasted with the public’s condemnation of beauty itself.
The public believed that beauty was the direct path to downfall, sin, and ignominy. At the very beginning of the novel, at the height of Hester’s shame and disgrace, she is described as “tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale” (40). This dazzling disposition, however, becomes a source of downfall for Hester. Her blatant refusal to look the part of a penitent Puritan is ill-received by the public. They interpret beauty as sin, as made evident through the self-professed Puritan saints, one of whom suggests branding the forehead of Hester; this other resident was “the ugliest as well as the most pitiless” (39). Those lacking beauty see themselves as the most worthy to pass judgment, condemning those who, in their eyes, are sinful because of their refusal to cast a shadow over their radiance. Hester is gawked at, gossiped about, and shunned from everyday life. She stands out, one bright flower in a sea of gray, making everyone around her not only suspicious, but angered by her blatant refusal to conform, which they see as synonymous with repentance and forgiveness. Hawthorne immediately brings to light the striking difference between Hester and the others. She is, from the very beginning, isolated in her own sphere of shame, kept there not only by her sexual transgressions, but by the sin and shame that her natural beauty brings her. While everyone around Hester passes judgment based upon surface level appearances, Hawthorne dives deeper, not condemning beauty, but condemning the deeper meanings and connotations of Hester’s beauty.
Hawthorne finds fault not in physical beauty, but in the condition of the heart’s interior. Hester, from the very beginning, felt the crushing weight of her sin in the deepest parts of her being. Although her outward appearance relays the attitude of a lack of repentance, she “underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her” (41). She is genuinely regretful, and is earnestly seeking repentance for her sin. Hawthorne is initially critical of the passion that Hester’s beauty entails, not of the beauty itself. As time progresses, Hester turns from “passion and feeling, to thought” (107). In light of the dramatic shift of the deepest parts of her being, Hawthorne praises Hester and her ability to turn away from her sin. Because of this, the reader is made to perceive Hester as a protagonist, as the only one is a town brimming with religious fervor to be truly holy. Hawthorne is capable of discerning what the others cannot: true character. For example, Roger Chillingworth was “a striking evidence of man’s faculty of transforming himself into a devil” (110). Chillingworth is, in the eyes of Hawthorne, the worst sinner in the town. His heart is blackened, and he is perhaps the most unsightly character seen throughout the novel. However, despite his clear attempts at malevolence, he was a “brilliant acquisition” and was “cordially received” by the community (80). The people find no fault in Chillingworth, as he is not suspiciously radiant, nor does he stand out among the crowd. He is exceptionally average in every aspect of his physical being, causing him to be accepted and warmly welcomed into the community. Hawthorne condemns Chillingworth for his awful and sinful internal intents. The community, however, is pleased to live in ignorant bliss, accepting his outward shows of religious life, and passively refusing to look deeper into the true content of his character. Hawthorne connects internal beauty with penance and forgiveness, while the public sees the most beautiful as those with the most sin. Refusing to conform to the Puritan beliefs of an earlier time, Hawthorne condemns a number of the ugliest people in the town, looking past their outward façades, to reveal their true sin and ignominy.
Yet while Hawthorne focuses in on the internal torment of Hester, the crowd only sees her “haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed” (40). Blinded by their strict regulations and stifling laws, the public is incapable of discerning anything but the outward appearance of Hester. Her scarlet letter, “in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread,” prompts immediate assumptions concerning the condition of her heart (40). Her beauty and extravagance and brilliance cause her to be perceived as a sinner beyond repair, and as someone completely worthy of the weight of shame thrust upon her shoulders. However, as time progresses, Hester takes on a humbled countenance, by causing “the attractiveness of her person [to undergo] a…sad transformation” (107). As she extinguishes her flame of beauty, there is a notable shift in the way Hester is perceived. The town showed “its former victim a more benign countenance”, in which the people began to re-assimilate her into their society (106). At the trough of her beauty, Hester experiences the climax of public acceptance, as people turn from scoffing to admiration, from the title “Adulteress” to the title of “Able”.
Scavan Bercovitch, a scholar invested in the study of early American literature and New England Puritan culture, states that “the bond [Hester] thus forges anew with the community lends another moral interpretation to her ‘new birth’ as American” (578). Hester is recreated in the Puritan society. As she “plays the part” of a Puritan, she quietly blends in with colorless dresses and slumped shoulders. In every aspect of a Puritan community, beauty is a sin, made evident through the “sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats” (36). Hester recognizes this, and is aware that she is incapable of being completely penitent while still indulging in sin. Thus, even when she is perfectly able to flee the community of her ignominy, she chooses to return, taking up “her long-forsaken shame”, and living a quiet and humble life void of extravagance (165). Hester does this in a final attempt to reach the point of full repentance, and to find acceptance in the hearts of the people around her by exemplifying her resounding commitment to repentance. Hester herself even begins to believe that beauty is sin, and thus feels the necessity to deprive herself of it. Her lonely sphere of confinement begins to disappear, as she begins to conform to the drab and solemn way of life of the Puritan community surrounding her. This acceptance, however, is not rooted in the transformation of her inner spirit, but rather in the transformation of her appearance. Beauty, according the Puritans, was one of the ways to measure holiness. Regardless of internal conditions, beauty was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a horrible and deadly sin. Hester believes that the “force of necessity attends [her] return, together with that self-denying, self-aggrandizing quest for martyrdom” (578). While Hester does begin to find her own sense of forgiveness, the people of her community are somewhat coerced into seeing her in a pure and golden light, as she submits herself to conformity. In a society constituted by dreariness in every aspect of life, Hester finally becomes a “full-fledged” member as she breaks the barrier between herself and the others, by casting away the radiance of her aura.
Hawthorne views internal beauty as worthy of praise; the Puritans, in sharp contrast, wanted humbled external appearances. During the times of her beauty, Hester is found to be repulsive and untouchable by everyone around her. However, once she begins to cover her radiance and take on a humbled countenance, she finds acceptance and even praise from the community. Furthermore, the actions of the people surrounding Hester serve to show their belief that beauty and purity are incapable of coexisting. Hester finds forgiveness in the eyes of Hawthorne once she becomes truly repentant, while she finds acceptance in the eyes of the public only once her outward being takes on the appearance of penitence.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. The A-Politics of Ambiguity in The Scarlet Letter. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings. Ed. Leland S. Person. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2005. 576-597. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings. Ed. Leland S. Person. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2005. 36-166. Print.
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