Themes of Revenge and Sin in The Scarlet Letter

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Written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter primarily centers around the deed of sinning, and the effect it has on those surrounding. Initially, we are presented with Hester Prynne, a young woman who essentially commits the immoral act of adultery. Consequently, those associated with this act of sin ultimately are further consumed by immorality than the sinner herself. Sin in the Scarlet Letter presents itself in two forms; guilt and revenge. Guilt in the novel, is directly proportional to the effects of revenge, as revenge intensifies throughout the duration of the novel, so does guilt. But as guilt manifests in the form of mental decline as revenge is imposed, Minister Arthur Dimmesdale, it is he who engages in the act of adultery with the married Hester, can be noted to experience a landslide in both physical and psychological health and a rapid deterioration of conscience. With a thirst for vengeance allowing for revenge to consume him, Roger Chillingworth, whos wife sinned against him with the minister, is a clear embodiment of revenge and the effect it acts on the mind and body. His obsessive plan of revenge feeds directly from Dimmesdale’s guilt, playing into the significant, common theme of the physical and moral decline of both Dimmesdale and himself, ultimately causing both dormant and painful damage in their lives, as havoc can be recognized as a direct result of the destructive effect of revenge. Revenge in the Scarlet Letter displays itself having the obvious outcome of the decay of moral and physical aspects, as it is a hungry parasite, in which feeds upon the body and spirit. With the havoc it creates, and effects it presses upon individuals connected to the sin of Hester Prynne, revenge presents itself as the greatest, most destructive sin in the story.

The destructive, mental manipulation of Dimmesdale by Chillingworth as a part of his plan for revenge ultimately leads to the downfall in Dimmesdale’s mental and physical status. Being a minister, Dimmesdale is expected to be of righteous values and a role model to the Puritan society. A preacher who is expected to set the standards of living of a pure, moral life. Hypocritical, as he does not practice what he preaches, and defying these expectations of the Puritan church, Dimmesdale a felony in the eyes of the Puritan religion, commits the act of adultery; a sin that is condemnable by execution. As a result of his corruption, Dimmesdale appears to experience mass amounts of guilt, “Mother! Mother! Why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?” (Hawthorne 166). Dimmesdale’s tendency of placing his hand over his heart where the presence of his hypothetical scarlet letter sits, symbolizing his guilt and reveals his attempt at partaking in the suffering Hester withstands. Along with his immoral deviation from the Puritan laws as he sins, Dimmesdale refuses to confess his sin to the public, as he would be outed as the corrupt minister. This abstention from confession further leads Dimmesdale into a pit of guilt, as it eats him from the inside out. In addition to his severe remorse, Dimmesdale’s guilt intensifies as Chillingworth establishes his goal of inflicting psychological pain upon Dimmesdale, and begins enacting his life’s mission of ultimate revenge as Hawthorne reveals, 'This unhappy man had made the very principle of his life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of revenge,” (240). Sicken with guilt, Dimmesdale, as a way to mute his inner troubles and mental pain, begins routinely beating himself with a scourge, “His inward trouble drove him to practices… It was his custom, too, as it has been that of many other pious Puritans, to fast, not, however, like them, in order to purify the body and render it the fitter medium of celestial illumination, but rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance” (Chapter 11 page 3). Even prior to the introduction of Chillingworth into Dimmesdale life is Dimmesdale stricken with intense guilt. Only did Chillingworth unleash a new level of remorse and pain in Dimmesdale, as Chillingworth prioritizes inflicting mental pain upon Dimmesdale. Obsessing over and inflicting retaliation and vengeance upon Dimmesdale to the point of intolerable pain, appear to be most eminent concerns, as Chillingworth is so greatly consumed with the determination to mentally destroy and bring revenge upon Dimmesdale, to the point of his own decline in morality and physical destruction.

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As his name implies, Chillingworth grows cold, as he undergoes a diabolical transformation as a result of his strong thirst for revenge. The longer Chillingworth fixates on his appetite for revenge against Hester’s lover, the more demonic he becomes. His obsessive fetish of intending only harm upon the weak, guilt-ridden, Dimmesdale, and the closer he gets to the minister, more devil-like features and behaviors are developed and revealed. This burning passion for malevolence is the ultimate reason for Chillingworth’s growing satanic nature, “for the hatred that has transformed a wise and just man to a fiend” (158). From once a moral man (to our knowledge), to a “fiend” overwhelmed by his own cynicism, Chillingworth’s self-corruption leads to this switch of gears in his focus, making torturing Dimmesdale his life’s prime objective, “The intellect of Roger Chillingworth had now a sufficiently plain path before it. It was not, indeed, precisely that which he had laid out for himself to tread. Calm, gentle, passionless, as he appeared, there was yet, we fear, a quiet depth of malice, hitherto latent, but active now, in this unfortunate old man, which led him to imagine a more intimate revenge than any mortal had ever wreaked upon an enemy,' (127). As soon as it is made known to Chillingworth that his wife had committed the corrupt deed of adultery against him, he prioritized the quest for Hester’s unknown lover’s identity, that way he could unleash havoc upon this unknown sinner. This desire for vengeance completely consumes him, dedicating the entirety of his life to revenge. Though, once this vengeance has been sought out, his life remains without purpose, as there are no more chores of the devil to complete, “and when, by its completest triumph and consummation, that evil principle was left with no further material to support it, when, in short, there was no more devil’s work on earth for him to do, it only remained for the unhumanized mortal to betake himself whither his Master would find him tasks enough, and pay him his wages duly,” (240).

This search for the identity of Hester’s faceless sinner becomes an obsession of Chillingworth’s. Chillingworth’s want for Hester’s lover’s identity to be made known, ultimately stems from his own love of Hester, as it appears his wishes for revenge concern Hester’s welfare. Once Hester’s offender is known, he would soon share Hester’s suffering. Then revenge is Chillingworth’s to have, “It irks me, nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity should not, at least, stand on the scaffold by her side. But he will be known! He will be known! He will be known” (58). An embodiment of revenge, Chillingworth is eventually is shown with flawed features symbolizing revenge and it’s own flaws. Such features expose his physical deterioration, as revenge eats him from the inside out revealing it’s corrosive effects on not only the mind but the body, “Hester Prynne looked at the man of skill, and even then, with her fate hanging in the balance, was startled to perceive what a change had come over his features, how much uglier they were, how his dark complexion seemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen, since the days when she had familiarly known him” (102). Sure, maybe he was slightly unfair to Hester in terms of the adultery situation, as he was completely remote and out of the picture for years, but Chillingworth had never been unethical or relative to Satan prior to the pollution of his mind with revenge. Revenge not only unmistakably physically mutilates him, but corrupts him in aspects concerning his mental well-being. Revenge clouds his vision, forcing its way to the front of his brain, consuming him, and as a result, cynically transforms from a moral being to an inhuman, devilish creature.

Revenge, a bacteria, in which feeds off of its host, causing utter destruction and contamination for its benefit, feasts off of the soul of Chillingworth, and indirectly through Chillingworth, the life of Dimmesdale. Revenge is manipulative. Revenge transforms a man from righteous to hypocritical. The scarlet letter itself signifies the effects of revenge, as it is a symbol of revenge itself. Hester Prynne’s life is eternally changed when forced with the intended punishment of the scarlet letter. The corrupt meaning behind the symbol is a way of pressing revenge against Hester, as the whole town, including both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, ostracize her for her sinful doings. But later revealed, this punishment originally intended for Hester, becomes a punishment that concerns everyone largely connected to this sin, as it sparks weakness, guilt, doubt, and revenge. The letter itself embodies the principles of revenge. An eye for an eye. Hester’s reputation for adultery. This“ignominious badge,” means for the desire of penalization and vengeance (238). It represents these motivations behind seeking revenge, as seen in Chillingworth. The scarlet letter ultimately symbolizes corruption and a soul’s thirst for revenge that is never quenched. The letter is the reason for Chillingworth’s rapid decay of morality and the fatal guilt of Dimmesdale. The scarlet letter itself represents the destruction of the individuals tied to revenge, and the damage revenge presses against one’s body and mind, as it is the most destructive emotion in the Scarlet Letter.

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Themes of Revenge and Sin in The Scarlet Letter. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
“Themes of Revenge and Sin in The Scarlet Letter.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Themes of Revenge and Sin in The Scarlet Letter. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 May 2024].
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