In the story The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne has a plethora of thematic subjects, but the one that sticks out the most is the nature of sin, guilt, and blame. From start to finish the idea of sinning, and an inner guilt is prevalent in the entire story. Every character has something that they are holding in or have something against another. To go along with the obvious, Hawthorne presents the theme in many symbols and situations to make it pop out even more than the reader can even grasp at the surface of the information. The overall theme that stuck out as far as this topic is concerned is to not have the blame that others put on one for their sin let their guilt eat them alive, and define who they are.
In The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne, the characters develop the ideas of sin, guilt, and forgiveness in multiple ways. Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister of the town, who is loved by so many, lives with an insane amount of guilt for an act that he had committed years prior. Dimmesdale is the father of Hester’s daughter, and if the town knew he would be seen as a sinner as well. Knowing this Dimmesdale lives with an extreme amount of guilt and starts to blame himself for all of Hester’s issues, even though she was just as much a part of the incident as he was. Dimmesdale couldn’t live with his guilt so much, that it caused him to go insane. “It is inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration tortured him” (98). This quote is showing how the guilt was eating up Dimmesdale internally knowing the backlash it would have if he were to admit it. “In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders.”(99). Dimmesdale got so built up with guilt he would start to stress, have nightmares and harm himself to make up for his sins. He did end up confessing to his sin at the very end of the story, but because he held it in for so long he became sick, and he died as soon as he admitted to the sin.
The setting of the story The Scarlet Letter lays out a perfect dystopia for the theme to thrive in. Taking place in Boston, Massachusetts in a very Puritan society, the acts committed by the characters in this story make for the community to be very judgmental and cause the characters to feel guilt and know that they have sinned. For example, the act of adultery is a very serious crime in the Puritan religion, and once the community found out about Hester they automatically see her as a sinner and Pearl gets the same treatment, “How strange indeed! Man had marked this woman’s sin by a scarlet letter, which had such potential and disastrous efficiency that no human sympathy could reach her, save it were sinful like herself” (61). Even though Pearl doesn’t know why, she knows that the community blames something on her and her mother, but she feels angry about it, not guilty, so she retaliates in ways, instead of feeling guilty as most of the other main characters do. The town really judges the sinners and Hester and Pearl get it the worst. Because of this stigma that society has on Hester and her child. Dimmesdale feels guilty for being apart of such a thing, knowing the people of the town (who loves him so much) are going to look down upon what he has done. “ I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!” (99). At this point in the story, Dimmesdale, knowing how judgemental the community he lives in is, he feels that he must tell them before they find out and he gets the blame even worse. This is another point relating back to the theme as Dimmesdale being eaten alive by his paranoia from guilt on how the community will view him.
Imagery created from the symbols in The Scarlet Letter is everywhere as one reads. The symbol used throughout the book that represents the blame and judgement of the townspeople towards the sinners, and the guilt of the ones who are stereotyped as sinners is the scaffold. The scaffold seems to be a part of every deep scene in the book where one is getting a verdict or revelation. In the opening of the book Hester is on the scaffold awaiting her verdict, “Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders at the scaffold.” (35) and that is when she is first pronounced a sinner by the community. Later on when Dimmesdale is described as “ Thus, while standing on the scaffold, in this vain show of expiation, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror 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.” (102). Starting to be overcome with immense guilt he goes back to the scaffold by himself to give himself the idea that he is the one to blame for the sin, and he breaks down because of all the guilt built up. This is another example of Hawhtorne’s main theme as Dimmesdale Once again, because of being at the scaffold which represents all the sins and judgements that the town has put on people he becomes weak because of the guilt he keeps inside of himself. The last scene of the book happens on the scaffold as well. In this scene Hester is awaiting her new verdict as to whether or not the letter should be removed. The town has stopped blaming her so much for sinning, and Hester really has no guilt left inside her. On the other hand Dimmesdale and Chillingworth are there as well. Chillingworth who doesn’t want people to know the secret because it will allow Hester and Dimmesdale to live happily ever after is sitting there built up with the guilt, knowing that he can’t have Dimmesdale do that even though that is the right thing to do for both Hester and Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale also has the guilt built up inside him on the scaffold, and it causes him to do the act that Chillingworth feared so much, “With a convulsive motion he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed!” (175). He confessed to his sin, and let all of his guilt out, just so people know not to blame Hester anymore. This sums up the last action of the book and it so happens to happen at the scaffold. The scaffold was there in Hawthorne’s vision, not as just a setting in the story, but as a symbol admitting sins, and being open about problems. This symbol is Hawthorne telling the reader to find their place to let their problems out, and not hold it back because in this case, because Dimmesdale let this out it made things clear up and let everything go to the way they should have been.
Nathanial Hawthorne paints a perfect picture to a reader of a dystopian Puritan society in his book The Scarlet Letter. The true guilt that grew on to people because of the very Puritan, judgemental community at the time makes for a theme that is universal to everyone. He pinpoints his theme of being open, and not letting guilt from other people’s blame eat one alive. From the characters, to the setting, to the deep symbolism in the story, Hawthorne hits all sides of a story, and presents readers with some real life wisdom.