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Hypocrisy in the Scarlet Letter

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Guilt, hypocrisy, love, pain, hidden secrets, these are just a few of the main points that Nathaniel Hawthorne seeks to bring to light in The Scarlet Letter. In a time when The Red Scare was sweeping the nation; Hawthorne dared to defy the groups of accusers in such a time. His use of Hester, Dimmesdale and the costly effect of their actions, is presented in a way to hold a mirror to society and accentuate the prevalent and often ignored problems in civilization. He efficiently reveals the corruption of society through his award winning novel, The Scarlet Letter. In this novel Nathaniel Hawthorne uses a tender love affair to bring to light the cruelty and hypocrisy found in Man’s law and society.

Hypocrisy runs rampant in the Scarlet Letter, demonstrated by the Puritan community which are, portrayed by Hawthorne as being an extreme contrast to Hester through their hypocritical actions, and strict interpretation of Man’s law. Hester’s precious Dimmesdale is one of the main hypocrites, he himself knows that his actions are hypocritical and emplores of Hester in the opening scene to reveal her coconspirator begging her not to “compel him, as it were —to add hypocrisy to sin?'. He then Later speaks to her regarding her repentance :

Else, I should long ago have thrown off these garments of mock holiness, and have shown myself to mankind as they will see me at the judgment-seat. Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years' cheat, to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am! (178).

He speaks his own hypocrisy into reality for the reader, in essence, saying “Oh how lucky you are Hester to get to be ostracized while I get to live my punishment free unrepenting life.” Hawthorne continues to exhibit hypocrisy as a self inflicted act that is not evil due to itself alone but is evil purely because of the consequences of such an existence . Karen Renner states in her paper Critical Insights: Good and Evil “To Hawthorne, hypocrisy is “evil” not simply because a moral law has labeled it so but because of its dire mental and emotional consequences for both the individual and the community” (2). Hawthorne goes as far as to demonstrate the fatal condemnation of hypocrisy on the town of Salem as well as on the perpetrators of the act. The Christian Inquiry wrote, on May 25th, 1850 ”The guilty suffer, confess that they suffer justly live lives of voluntary penance, do works of utmost usefulness, and die deaths of poetical justice--but do not repent; they are just at the close as at the beginning of their guilty career” (Lisa Smith, 4). By such logic one can only assume that the rest of the Puritan community was as tormented and culpable of hypocrisy as Dimmesdale; the pastor that they had confessed their sins too,but never repented publically the repentance they forced and demanded of Hester and her newly born child.Hawthorne provides us with this blatant and obvious presentation of hypocrisy in this Puritan coterie.

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Man’s law and the laws of society also serve as contradistinction to Nature’s law, through Hawthorne’s self-evident illustration between love and civilization. Throughout the novel Hester and Dimmesdale find freedom in the forest, this being the place of the affair and also the conception of Pearl. This being the place of Nature’s law, Hester tries to show Dimmesdale the beauty of a world that is larger than the strict confines of Salem. “Doth the universe lie within the compass of yonder town, which only a little while ago was but a leaf-strewn desert, as lonely as this around us?”(193) She is willing him to see the corruption of Man’s law in comparison to the freedoms available there for them in the untamed wilderness. Dimmesdale's acceptance of which changes his entire mental stature, and stability as he rejoices at the thought of leaving with Hester soon after.

“...for Dimmesdale when he accepts the idea of natural law, it has no authority for anybody but oneself, whereas (at least) a social consensus has validity for numbers of like-minded individuals. Thus, we do not escape from relativism-although we may escape from uncongenial laws--by escaping to nature.” (Nina Baym, 7).In the natural world love and its affairs are rampant and free; and Nature’s law is often shown shining upon it, through a symbolic use of sunshine favoring different characters in different points throughout the course of the novel. It is often shown shining on Hester who freely loved and Pearl who is the product of such a free love.”Love whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!”(p.202) (Sandeen Earnest,3). The symbolism of the light in their eyes, not only represents their passion but the approval of their unbridled love by Nature’s law, unlike the judgment and damnation in the Puritan Society.

Furthermore Hester and Dimmesdale’s love affair although sinful in the eyes of the Puritan community acts in a way to reveal corruption between punishment for the passion of the heart and the sinfulness of the mind. With Hawthorne going as far to describe the Puritan people as “The most intolerant brood that ever lived” (64). He frequently exhibits the Puritans as a cruel unforgiving society that continues to punish those who have openly sinned.“In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne probes the psychological consequences of Puritan belief, many of which he considers debilitating and harmful. For one he repeatedly condemns the Puritans for their cruel treatment of outsiders in their community.” (Renner, 2). Outsiders, meaning not only visitors and newcomers but for but those that are “Outside” their laws of good which they brand as the condemned. Which begs the question. Is Hester repentant because she is ashamed of her actions or because she was told to be? “If Hester is willing to endure “the torture of the scarlet letter, ” it is because she is still in love, not because she is penitent.her suffering is not the price she has agreed to pay for her guilt but the cost she is glad to bear for her love”(Sandeen, 2). This not only demonstrates the extent of her sufferings for what she has done but also the magnitude of passion she feels for Dimmesdale to have stayed for him through those seven years of torment.

Throughout the blossoming of Hester and Dimmesdale’s liaison it is clear to see the suffering and pain they go through as penitence for the sin of their controversial affair. The majority of which is not self invoked pain and torture but instead due to the strict social and political rules put into place by the Puritan community and its various members; who continuously bombard the couple with harsh criticisms, accusations, pressures, and hypocritical actions. Which in turn disturbs the very definition of sin, making it seem murky and incomprehensible. Having no clear cut answer to what is right and wrong, Hester explores what in her heart is true and encourages Dimmesdale to do the same. Hawthorne uses their journey, in contrast to the harsh actions of the Puritan community to unveil the actual source of the villainy and misinterpretation of moral law is society itself.

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Hypocrisy in the Scarlet Letter. (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
“Hypocrisy in the Scarlet Letter.” Edubirdie, 21 Feb. 2022,
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Hypocrisy in the Scarlet Letter [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 21 [cited 2024 Feb 22]. Available from:
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