The theme of Sin and Redemption in ‘The Scarlet Letter’
‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the story of Hester Prynne, the protagonist of the novel. She is a married woman living in Boston. She commits the sin of adultery and her partner in sin is Arthur Dimmesdale. Hester Prynne is deeply sinned and she is guilty of adultery. However, the public humiliation she faces because of her confessed sin does not destroy her inward spirit but rather redeems her from her sin. As a result of her repentance, she is charitable to the poor and sympathetic to the broken-hearted.
She is able to gather strength and courage and flourishes in spite of the “A” symbol and people begin to interpret the A as meaning “Able” rather than “Adultery.” In contrast to Hester, Dimmesdale always puts his hands on his heart to hide the fictional “A” on his soul. His self-condemnation due to his un-confessed sin utterly destroys him physically and psychologically. He is redeemed at the end of the novel when he releases his secret sin openly.
Hawthorne portrays Hester as a strong-minded Puritan woman who bravely faces her audience while standing as a culprit on the scaffold. She does not share her humiliation with her partner in sin but bears the punishment alone: “Never,” replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman. “It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony as well as mine!” (Chapter 3, Howthorne). As punishment, Hester lives with her daughter in a secluded cottage near the outskirts of the city. Hester’s needlework skills allow her to maintain a stable life.
She takes care of her child Pearl and in her spare time helps the poor and the needy. Her reputation changes over the seven years since she gave birth to Pearl. Her devotion towards serving the sick and needy allows her entrance into almost every home. The Scarlet Letter which at first symbolizes Hester’s seductive and sinful nature, later through her evolution of personality, many people refuse to interpret the scarlet A by its original significance. They rather interpreted as meaning Able due to her strength as a woman. The narrator mentions that “the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom.”
As Hester not only publicly confessed but also takes responsibility for her actions, the town people follow her lead and start forgiving her. Certainly, the scarlet letter now begs reevaluation, and it comes to stand for “Able” rather than “Adultery”.
Dimmesdale as a person is a coward and a hypocrite. From the beginning of the story, he is somewhat pale and weak. And as he lives his life ridden with guilt, he grows paler and weaker by the minute. He is very much overwhelmed with shame and remorse and as a result he becomes famous of his sermons. As a speaker, his ability is enhanced due to the fact that he felt himself more sinful than most of his audience. In Dimmesdale there is a split between his private and his public self, his purity and his passion. If he wants to continue with his ministerial role, he should bury his sensuality and wrap himself with a cloak of sanctity. The terrifying fact is that it leaves half of Dimmesdale out, the flesh or the spirit has to go. There is no way for him to integrating both.
He is torn between the desire to confess and atone and the cowardice that holds him back and in the process, Dimmesdale goes a little insane. He becomes a masochist. He uses chains and whips to beat himself in the closet. Furthermore, he undertakes long fasting without eating and drinking as a form of penance. One night he stands on the scaffold to repent for his sin. Perhaps he was unconsciously seeking absolution. Perhaps he believes that if he stands in the same place as Hester, he will attain some degree of peace without public confession.
He imagines that he has a scarlet letter on his chest which is viewed by the entire world. Later Hester as well as Pearl joins him there. However, he is aware of his guilt and this act is not enough. He cannot make peace with the guilt of preaching all these years to a congregation and whom he betrayed with his own behavior. Whereas Hester wears a scarlet letter on her clothes but has not taken it to heart, Dimmesdale’s scarlet letter is hidden, and which is slowly becoming inextricable from his flesh.
Dimmesdale is aware of his actions of course. “Subtle, but remorseful, hypocrite”. However, the dark stain he perceives on his soul is spreading now, undermining the meaning from life and the power from his will. If he stays, he has to face Chillingworth and he does not know how to escape his gloating eye. If he goes, he can have Hester and the dream of love which so long he has not permitted himself.
It is like a glowing face in the firelight and an embrace which infuses strength. Also, there is England with the sweet and deep-sounding bells of Cambridge. Also, the soft winter after New England’s penetrating cold. Dimmesdale almost embraces the shining vision of the new life that Hester holds out to him in the forest. Yet, he rejects it with every ounce of strength. He stands on the scaffold and confesses instead.
The character of Dimmesdale makes the readers realize that the guilt associated with un-confessed sin gives greater pain than the humiliation of confessed sin. Hester found freedom from guilt when she stood on the scaffold and endured the humiliation of her confessed sin. She thus achieves redemption from her sin. But Dimmesdale is still considered as the paragon of virtue in the most stringent of societies. He is unable to bear the weight of this guilt. Dimmesdale increasingly suffers to the point where the deterioration caused by his cowardice and untold truth, embodies his whole existence: “To the untrue man, the whole universe is false–it is impalpable–it shrinks to nothing within his grasp.
And he himself in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist. The only truth that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth was the anguish in his inmost soul”, (Chapter 11, Hawthorne ).Dimmesdale experiences relief only when on the scaffold with Pearl and Hester he publicly confesses his adultery. In this way, he gains redemption from his sin. He finally frees himself from his guilt and Chillingsworth by admitting his sin, and thus dies peacefully.
“Major Themes”. 16 July 2008 <>
“The Scarlet Letter”. 16 July 2008 <http://www.online-literature.com/hawthorne/scarletletter/>
“The Scarlet Letter Notes”. 16 July 2008 <http://staff.gps.edu/gaither/scarlet_letter_notes.htm>
“Sin of the Flesh in The Scarlet Letter”. 16 July 2008 < http://www.123helpme.com/assets/14729.html>
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