The scarlet letter and the nature of sin

From Genesis, the true nature of humanity has been closely associated with sin. While the Puritans vehemently believed that sin degraded both God and human beings, in the Scarlet Letter, it is the very nature of transgression and the resulting scorn which bestows extraordinary powers upon the sinners. For Hester, being made an outcast in such a restrictive society frees her from the conventional feminine role and gives her the ability to observe the nature of Puritan Boston as an outsider. While Dimmesdale’s sin remains repressed, his experience allows him to understand the very truth and nature of human sin and makes him into a far more effective orator in spite of his inner turmoil and ultimate destruction.

“ For years…she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions…all with hardly more reverence than an Indian…. The tendency of her fate …had…set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread…Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers…” (p. 1413.) The intention of the scarlet letter was to belittle and shame, to serve as an example to all under the theocracy that deviance from societal expectations would not go unpunished. Yet, Hester’s branding and the subsequent reaction to that branding produces a stronger woman who serves as a beacon of humanity, compassion, and sensitivity among a cold and puritanical society. It is this action of being made an outcast that thrusts Hester into a relative isolation in which she can reformulate her identity and reflect upon the nature and peculiarities of the society to which she once belonged. In a Thoreauvian fashion, being nearer to the wilderness allows Hester to cast off the shackles of society and allows her to cultivate a sense of self and the self’s relationship to society. Hester’s sin allows her to cultivate a sense of humanity and dignity to which people could look to. “ Such helpfulness was found in her [Hester], —so much power to do, and power to sympathize, –that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.” (p. 1393.)   The cold and calculated faith and doctrine of self-control of the Puritan elders clashes with the deviance that Hester comes to represent. In a sense, Hester becomes the representation of a nineteenth-century Romantic transcendentalist in that she faces the embodiment of what Thoreau or Emerson would have viewed as a great danger to the self.   The original intention of the scarlet letter fails because while bearing its burden, with time Hester becomes a pillar of deviance and strength. Instead of avoiding her, women who are bound within Puritan society eventually seek her out as a guide or symbol of hope and comfort. “ Women…in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passion……came to Hester’s cottage…. Hester comforted and counseled them, as best she might.” (p. 1447.)

Arthur Dimmesdale is a man who is unable to break away from the defining nature of Puritan society. The lack of physical evidence for his participation in the sin allows his sin to remain unknown. Thus, Dimmesdale’s experience of the ultimate result of sin greatly juxtaposes that of Hester’s. While the committed sin destroys Hester’s reputation as a good Puritan, it endows her with a spectacular sense of strength and individualism among a culture of conformity. In contrast, Dimmesdale’s partnership in the sin creates an inwardly broken man who is greatly revered by Puritan society because of his great ability to preach to the people of the true nature of sin. It is Dimmesdale’s participation in sin that allows him to understand sin’s torture and squalor. Although Dimmesdale presents his case against sin while using the nature of his own torturous experience, he wraps his experience in so many allegorical layers that the people of his congregation are unable to see the truth. Dimmesdale knows the nature of clandestine sin all too well and thus was able to articulate it so well through the sublimation of his wretched anguish. Other preachers’ powers were limited to the belief in the debasing nature of vice but they only knew this doctrine by theory and not by actual sinful experience. Ultimately, Dimmesdale’s inability to confess his sin and the self-loathing he feels outmatches even the greatest humiliation of Hester. It is not the sin itself that kills Dimmesdale in the end, but the secret torture that he undergoes that is amplified by the persecution that he experiences under the malicious and watchful eye of Roger Chillingworth. It is Dimmesdale’s disturbed and haunted nature that allows for his great success as an orator and even leads the people to believe that he is all the more holy. What Hester first pays in humiliation upon the scaffold, Dimmesdale pays over the course of seven years in peace, in truth, in love, and ultimately in life.

It is the committed sin and either the burden of the secret or having to bear the humiliation and shame of a great sin that magnifies the abilities of Hester and Dimmesdale. In a sense, it is the sin that creates humanity in a society of ideals in which humanity seems nearly impossible. Hester’s experience demonstrates that definition of the self and strength that is found within has the power to defy society and to live more by one’s own terms. In juxtaposition, the acceptance and reverence of Arthur Dimmesdale by society does nothing to make him a peaceful or content individual. Dimmesdale’s anguish allows the townspeople to understand what they so fear just as Hester’s compassion for others and her rebellion lets others see that there is a quiet alternative to the ultimate submission to the Puritanical ideal.