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The Effects of Secret Sin in the Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne Argumentative

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The Scarlet Letter of Nathaniel Hawthorne explicates in detail four distinctive levels of sin. They include the sin of adultery, the sin of vengeance (for it was believed that only god could pay vengeance on the deserving), the sin of hypocrisy and above all, the communal sin of humankind who treated those who committed some mistakes knowingly or unknowingly as outcastes.

Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale have committed adultery before the book begins. Being Puritans by nature, to each, his or her conscience is important. Hence each suffers because of his or her conscience. Yet, there is a basic difference in the two persons. Whereas Dimmesdale suffers in secret and becomes weak, Hester suffers publicly and she is an activist. Dimmesdale is broken by his awareness of sin; Hester stands firm.

The difference between Hester’s awareness of her sin and Dimmesdale’s awareness of his sin is due to the fact that though, nominally, Hester is a woman, she is firm and courageous, while, nominally, though Dimmesdale is a man, he is timid and weak-willed. Being hypocritical before his congregation aggravated his sense of crime. Perhaps, Dimmesdale’s mortified awareness of sin is either due to his position as a religious minister or due to his intellectual superiority over Hester. Hester, on the other hand, is a common woman – proud, dignified, sensitive, but bold.

Then, her public censure at the beginning of the book has perhaps lessened her strong and morbid feeling of guilt that a secret sinner like Dimmesdale might have. Also, her public acceptance of sin is not without benefits – people permit her to move about much more freely than they would an ordinary Puritan woman, for instance. Pearl’s presence also saves her from drastic course of rebellion against her society. She does suffer from people’s stares and exposure that the scarlet letter and pearl enforce upon her, as also from the Puritan children’s jeers. Yet, she manages to find a way around her suffering and to convert it into a kind of triumph by her good deeds and humility. Work is her salvation and she achieves a kind of peace out of her suffering.

She transforms her punishment into a virtue. She becomes the ambassador of mercy. The letter ‘A’ on her bosom in the beginning meant “Adulteress”. Later it meant “Able” and much later, “Angel”. Thus we see Hester, the sinner, slowly changing into a better person. The scarlet letter, with its many meanings, symbolizes these changes.

Dimmesdale, on the other hand, we constantly find as shut up in his rooms or surrounded by his congregation, so that his is a passive, as opposed to Hester’s active life. He lacerates and tortures himself because he hates himself for his secret sin. He makes half hearted attempts to confess his sin (chapters XI and XII), but without much success. No doubt, his suffering brings him his “tongue-of-flame”, which makes a direct appeal to the hearts of other sinners at the time of his sermons. Yet, he is frail and tremulous, that is, he has a feminine quality that is evident in his vanity too- he wants to leave the settlement only after he has delivered his election sermon, a blaze of glory.

Yet, whereas Hester’s activism only leads to her improving status in the community, Dimmesdale, who is a hypocrite (as Mistress Hibbins recognizes in chapter XX) and a coward, achieves salvation with his dying confession and changed behavior in chapters XXII and XXIII. His greater sensitiveness to sin brings a spiritual triumph for him, as Hester’s greater resilience brings her an improving status in society. Both find their own ‘regeneration’ out of a common sin – Hester as a heroic figure and Dimmesdale as a religious figure.

The structural beauty of the novel is very much enhanced by the three scaffold scenes. In chapters II and III, Hester and Pearl stand on the scaffold. Here Hester’s public shame symbolized in the presence of the vivid scarlet letter on her bosom and the baby Pearl in her arms, contrasts sharply with Dimmesdale’s apparently respectable position in this community as well as with Chillingworth’s apparent lack of status in this community. In the middle chapter XII, Dimmesdale is joined on the scaffold by Hester and Pearl at midnight. Now Hester has already been half way through to her regeneration as a nurse and Dimmesdale himself is half way to regeneration by torturing himself through self-mortification and there is the added, but not yet obvious, irritant of Chillingworth. These two factors make his conscience tingle. However, he is still not ready for a public admission of his sin. In the climactic chapter XXIII, Dimmesdale is joined on the scaffold by Hester, Pearl and later, Chillingworth in the full view of the Boston crowd. Here we see the crowd effectively separating Chillingworth from the threesome on the pillory, thus enabling Dimmesdale to ‘escape’ Chillingworth’s vindictive designs through a triumphal death.

Chillingworth is undoubtedly a cold-blooded murderer whose only intention is to destroy the human soul. His only worth is that he has been betrayed by Hester and Dimmesdale. Yet he sins more than he is sinned against. He betrays the sanctity of the human heart, as Hester and Dimmesdale never did. The fire in his laboratory and his blue eyes suggest that he is connected with hell. He is a hypocritical physician who harms the physique and psyche of his patient which adds to the intensity of his sin.

We see Pearl grow from a child in arm to a girl of three to a girl of seven and later we hear that she is married of to an aristocratic family. She is presented as a cruel girl but it is justified by her tormented childhood being born out of wedlock. She constantly reminds her mother of her sin in public. Moreover, she torments her mother with her antics, but she will also defend her against Puritan children. She has an instinctive nature and feels an early sympathy towards Dimmesdale. Yet, she is the most cruel when she sympathizes the most. She always harasses the minister with the question as to when he is going to acknowledge Hester and herself publicly. No doubt, she is the prime victim of the forth and foremost level of sin in The Scarlet Letter that is the crowd who throws stones at the sinner even without the slightest provocation.

Works cited

“Essay on The Consequences of Sin in The Scarlet Letter.” 123HelpMe.com. 20 Jun 2008

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter, W.W. Norton and company, Inc., New York, 1962.

Turner, Arlin.  Nathaniel Hawthorne: An Introduction and Interpretation, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1961.

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