Topics Of Sin And Justice In The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter is a novel that requires the reader to look deep into its’ extensive characters in order to find all of the different themes and messages hidden inside. One of these topics, however, is incredibly prominent – this being the search and personal interpretation of justice.
The story is based on a woman named Hester, who is to be punished for committing adultery after the child, Pearl, is born. The official punishment is decided to be that she will have to wear a red letter on her chest for the remainder of her time there, which has enough punishment itself. Sadly, this is not enough to please her husband, an old, obsessive doctor, bent on revenge. This doctor (Roger Chillingworth), Hester, and a tortured minister all come together to find their own versions of justice and wrong. However, Nathaniel Hawthorne writes Chillingworth to go the furthest to find his twisted view of justice, warped by an unquenchable thirst for revenge, though he isn’t one of the lucky ones in the novel in the terms of accomplishment. The way Chillingworth sees justice is largely influenced by Hester’s adultery in his absence. Once he learns of it, he victimizes himself and then becomes so full of anger and hate that he gets a sort of tunnel vision. In it, his view of justice is warped into a personal road of revenge and redemption.
Chillingworth becomes obsessive over finding out who the father isand punishing him. His whole life becomes dedicated to it, using his profession to get close to those he examines. He moves in with the minister, Dimmesdale, under the alias of examining his health. This he does, but his motive is different than what the townspeople would have imagined. It also becomes apparent that his search for vengeance-based justice quickly becomes his only passion. He is absorbed by it, coming to Hester more than once to make sure she doesn’t give away his secret, and thus ruin his chance for justice. He stalks Hester, Pearl, and even Dimmesdale throughout the novel to find out who the father is and how best to punish them. This is shown most blatantly in chapter four, stating “‘We have wronged each other.’ answered he. ‘Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay. Therefore, as a man who has not thought and philosophised in vain, I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between thee and me, the scale hangs fairly balanced. But, Hester, the man lives who has wronged us both! Who is he?’ ‘Ask me not!’ replied Hester Prynne, looking firmly into his face. ‘That thou shall never know!’”.
This quote shows the beginnings of Chillingworth’s obsession. He makes it clear he has no intention of punishing her. He believes they are even, the scales of justice balanced evenly between them. But one person has not been punished accordingly, a fact he finds inexcusable. He asks who the father is so that the justice he sees fit may come down upon the man. Hester’s refusal, if anything, magnifies the desire. Upon realizing she will not tell him, he takes matters into his own hands. “Breathe not the secret, above all, to the man thou wottest of….’ ‘I will keep thy secret, as I have his,’ said Hester. ‘Swear it!’ rejoined he. And she took the oath.”. By binding Hester to an oath, Chillingworth shows that he’s taking this search for justice seriously. Oaths, which usually take place in a courtroom, bind the signers. Essentially, Chillingworth is binding himself and Hester into his desperate search. As shown throughout the story, Chillingworth will do anything to get his justice in full, twisted or not, which only makes the fact that he doesn’t get it so much more interesting. Though Chillingworth is completely absorbed in his work, he never gets all he wants from it.
Dimmesdale, the father, doesn’t suffer the way Chillingworth planned. He admits to the town that he committed the sin and dies, leaving Chillingworth unable to torture him any longer. Though he is able to torture the minister for a short while, he ultimately has it taken from him when Dimmesdale escapes him by admitting his sin to them all. “Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to be departed. ‘Thou hast escaped me!’ He repeated more than once. ‘Thou hast escaped me!’” Chillingworth never gets the extent of revenge he wanted to exact on the minister. He’s in shock as the man dies because he realizes that though Dimmesdale is dying, he’s the one who lost. He goes into a further downward spiral as the book goes on, eventually ending with this. “All of his strength and energy – all his vital and intellectual force – seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up… This unhappy man made it the very principle of his life to consist in the… systematic exercise of revenge…and when…. that evil principle was left with no more material to support it, when, in short, there was no more Devil’s work … for him to do, it only remained for the unhumanized mortal to to betake himself whither his Master would find him tasks enough, and pay his wages duly.” This puts things plainly – Chillingworth essentially goes to hell. He shrivels up and dies soon after the chance for vengeance is gone. Then, he has to answer to the man he was serving – the Devil himself. Chillingworth, while getting some of the justice he so strongly desired throughout the climax, never receives his self-alloted payment in full. Therefore, his search for justice, however vigorous, is never successful.
Essentially, Chillingworth’s search (and ultimate fail) for personal justice outlines Hawthorne’s argument that secret sin causes more pain and suffering that a sin in the open. The way he does everything – from harassing, stalking, spying, and multiple other unrespected practices – and hides it shows the reader what they need to know. But the way he dies – as a withered husk and an implied fiend of hell – shows quite blatantly that secrets and sin mix for nothing but disaster. As the antagonist of the novel, his search for justice usually causes the lessons for the reader. The way he mentally tortures Dimmesdale is one example – it shows just how much hiding a sin hurts.
Another case in which Chillingworth illustrates this is when he speaks to Hester later in the book. Unlike Dimmesdale, Hester doesn’t fear the man as much anymore, proving how those not fighting themselves find it easier to stand up. The refining fire that is Chillingworth causes most of the character development in the story. One example is of when Hester hears about his joining them on the ship to England. “But in that instant, she beheld Old Roger Chillingworth himself… standing and smiling at her; a smile which conveyed a secret and fearful meaning.”. Here is another point where the looming threat of Chillingworth knowing their secret scares the characters. The power he holds shows the reader the consequences of hiding their sin. Once more he shows this, in the scene where the family watches the meteor strike. “…then might Roger Chillingworth have passed them for an arch-fiend, standing there with a smile and a scowl to claim his own… with an effect as if the street and all things else were annihilated.” Roger knowing their secret terrifies Dimmesdale, though Hester remains considerably less afraid. It’s another addition to the theme – of how having a secret sin makes you much more scared and unsure than someone without the same burden. Chillingworth weaves the theme into the plo, rebounding into the reader’s head the threat of secret sin. His unjustified search for justice shows the reader the dangers and consequences of hiding their guilt.
In conclusion, though Chillingworth had a passion and thirst for accomplishment, his search for justice does not come to fruition. The search for justice is the cornerstone for The Scarlet Letter, from it’s villains to its heroines. Each character is trapped in a struggle for the same thing though their views differ greatly as to what it really is. The message of the story is plain – it’s not what we openly run from that will kill us, it’s what we hide in the closet.
- DeMaiolo, James F., and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The scarlet letter. Applause, 1996
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