The Idea of Sin in The Scarlet Letter

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The word and meaning of sin is a very prominent subject in the book The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne the author likes to delve deep on the meaning comparing it to the context of Puritan society. In puritan society, sin was taken as a bigger deal and a heavy burden on the soul. There was sin going on in Puritan society but it would be dealt with very publicly or privately. It is important how to deal with sin and know the effects it can take on you. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, he mentions sin, if Hester had sinned alone, and the effects that sin can have on different people. The effects of sin are shown very clearly between the two characters Hester and Dimmesdale.

The plain definition of sin is “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.” This is a very flat meaning and it doesn’t show the complexity of sin. In The Scarlet Letter sin is the worst thing imaginable and you try to avoid sinning at all costs. For example, when Dimmesdale was talking with the youngest sister of the church members she was very concerned with her sin which was that she didn’t listen to her mother. The scenario is described as, “Satan, that afternoon, had surely led the poor young girl away from her mother’s side, and thrown her into the pathway of this sorely tempted, or—shall we not rather say?” (208). These quotes show the harshness that sin had on the Puritan society. Today that wouldn’t be considered as a terrible sin but it is quite literally saying that Satan himself led her away. This isn’t that bad of a sin but there are terrible sins. This is known as different degrees of sin. The types of sin are mortal and venial sins. Mortal sins are very terrible sins that ultimately lead you away from God’s saving grace. You need to repent from every sin but this one especially or you might be strayed away from God forever. Examples of Mortal sins are sins like murder that you have full intent on doing and you plan to sin. Moving onto Venial sins, they are regular everyday sins that don’t completely damage your soul. Examples of these sins are like being lazy and greedy. Hester commits adultery which would be considered a mortal sin but what makes her sin different from a mortal sin she didn’t intentionally plan out her adultery. Going back to when Dimmesdale has his encounters with six people in the community. The six people he encounters are with the deacon, the oldest female member of the church, the youngest sister, puritan children, drunken sailor, and finally Mistress Hibbens. Also, the number six represents something and what it represents is the devil because six is a symbol of the devil. These six encounters in a way represent the degrees of sin. It goes from the holiest which is the deacon to the unholiest which is the witch Mistress Hibbins. This decline in holiness is shown here when Mistress Hibbins is talking with Dimmesdale: old Mistress Hibbins, the reputed witch-lady, is said to have been passing by. She made a very grand appearance;- Whether the witch had read the minis- ter’s thoughts or no, she came to a full stop, looked shrewdly into his face, smiled craftily, and—though little given to con- verse with clergymen—began a conversation. (209).

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This explains that she is very judgemental by saying that she “looked shrewdly into his face”. She is known to be a sinner but still gives judgment upon others. In The Scarlet Letter as shown sin is displayed in different degrees and shows that sin is something that should be avoided.

In the puritan society, sin is taken very seriously and can affect people in different ways depending on how they handle it. The two characters that have the most opposite ways of handing their sin were Hester and Dimmesdale. Beginning with Hester, her sin was adultery. She committed adultery when her husband Roger Chillingworth was away and she thought he was dead. Going back to sin having different degrees Hester had committed adultery which was a very punishable sin during that time. In Hester's case, she didn’t plan to commit the act right when her husband left and she didn’t think about it at all until she fell in love with Dimmesdale. She did it out of love and it just happened and she didn’t do it to spite him either. This sin was a sin of passion that happened in the moment. Hester didn’t do this out of malice and planning. The consequence of her sin was wearing the scarlet letter A and standing on the scaffold in front of the public. The letter A is described as, “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surround- ed with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.” (47). This is explaining that she tries to make a bad thing good by being strong and confident against the judging eyes of the people. The effects that this sin had on Hester is that she felt guilt for what she had done. This shame is displayed on her chest for everyone to see. In the beginning, this has a very negative effect on her by her feeling alone because no one wants to associate with her. This is shown by the author saying, “to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes! these were her realities—all else had vanished!” (53). This quote is saying that other aspects of her life weren’t as important anymore because she was full of shame. Her daughter Pearl which was a product of sin was a very negative aspect of her life because she was a constant reminder of her adultery. Also, the fact that Pearl didn’t really fit in with the other puritan children and that didn’t make Hester's life any easier. Then in later chapters, Hester's sin became more positive than a negative. The letter A no longer means adulterer it now is described as, “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.” (152). This is saying that Hester was no longer known for being the adulterer and people didn’t want to call her that anymore. It now meant able because she did so many positive things for the community. This letter once meant something unholy now it doesn’t. Hester took a negative situation and made it positive. She grew from the experience and became a better person. Hester finally became the rose that she was meant to be and getting rid of some of her thorns. Her having this transformation helped these things continue in a positive light.

On the other hand, Dimmesdale took things in an opposite route. The sins that Dimmesdale committed were adultery and lying. He committed adultery with Hester but continued to keep that part of his life a secret even though it killed him inside. I think that him keeping it a secret was another way to torture himself. Dimmesdale does not turn this into a positive experience like Hester. The effects these sins have on him is he can’t take the pain in his soul so he tortures himself. He goes in the darkness of the night and stands out the scaffold to think about what he has done and he holds all of this inside. Also, the fact that his clergymen think he is perfect eats him alive even more. He whips himself because he wants to suffer while he is alive. Dimmesdale is so sick from sin that he laughs while whipping himself then does it even more and he fasts until he can't barely stand up. Lastly, he holds these nightly vigils while he prays in agony. These sins have a physical toll on him by him looking weaker and sickly. Each chapter he looks worse and worse. While standing on the scaffold he experiences this event: And thus, while standing on the scaffold, in this vain show of expiation, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great hor- ror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain. (139).

This quote is describing that Dimmesdale feels like there is a scarlet letter on his heart and this pain of this has been eating him alive. Even when talking to Mistress Hibbins he feels the guilt by saying, “Have I then sold myself,” thought the minister, “to the fiend whom, if men say true, this yellow-starched and vel- veted old hag has chosen for her prince and master!” (210). In this quote, Dimmesdale is questioning whether he has sold himself to the devil because he believes he has done the worse thing imaginable. He keeps his sin a secret until the end of the book where he gives a sermon in front of everyone. He reveals the truth that he is Hester's lover. Dimmesdale calls up Hester and Pearl when he does this. While continuing he is getting iller and then says that God is merciful and that is shown in the example of Dimmesdale. Suddenly Dimmesdale while on the ground dies. This is explained by him saying, “Farewell!” That final word came forth with the minister’s expiring breath.” (242). This quote explains that said farewell and dies right there. His death was ultimately caused by sin and him making himself sick over it but it also helped him stay alive. He revealed his sin and knew it was time to go home to God. He was shaken up because he couldn’t be the perfect puritan they thought he was which ultimately led to his demise. The guilt fully engulfed him until it ultimately took his life and didn’t turn it into a positive like Hester.

The main question of The Scarlet Letter that goes towards sin is if Hester had sinned alone? Hester hadn’t sinned alone because of the sins of the townspeople and other characters of the book. Characters such as Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Dimmesdale had the sins of adultery and lying. Roger had the sin of seeking and planning revenge towards Dimmesdale and is even depicted as the devil. When the question, “Had Hester sinned alone?” (81), is asked she feels alone and that she is dealing with this by herself. Hester then soon realizes when Pearl looks at her that she isn’t alone. She also realizes by mentioning that, “She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts.” (81). This is explaining how she comes to terms with the fact that other people have sins hidden in hearts which proves she isn’t the only sinner. In chapter 5 it discusses that the scarlet letter gave her a special power by saying, “she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense.” (81). This quote is describing that the scarlet letter gave her the ability to see other people that had sins hidden and she could help them with that. It is shown through the entire text that the Puritan society is full of sin but people keep it in their hearts. This shows that Hester did not sin alone and deeper into the book she doesn’t feel as alone anymore.

As expressed sin is a prominent subject in The Scarlet Letter. It can show how people can rise and fall from sin. Comparing Hester and Dimmesdale it is evident what they struggled with the most. I feel like many could learn what to do and what not to do from these two characters in their experiences with sin. It's important to repent and recognize your sin but you shouldn’t make yourself crazy over it. Hester turns the scarlet letter into a positive then other people see it as positive as well. With positivity, it can outshine the bad going on in your life and Hester is a living example of that. Pearl helped her regain the hope and strength that she needed. Even though she wasn’t seen so positively, in the beginning, she proved herself to be a bright person. Pearl could always see the good in Hester when people couldn’t look past her sin. She has always been by Hesters side, keeping her aware of her actions in the good and bad. Hester is truly a strong character and made things happen by her own will. She finally fully became the rose that she was meant to be while dropping some of the thorns that were weighing her down.

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The Idea of Sin in The Scarlet Letter. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 19, 2024, from
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