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Sin of the Flesh in The Scarlet Letter




The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a highly acclaimed work which centerpiece is the focus on the effects of sin in Puritan society. Hawthorne carried a heavy burden of truth hidden within the Puritan code, which has in turn created frenzy for his book since its publication in 1850. The age-old tale is of Hester Prynne a married woman in Boston, who is charged with adultery with an unknown partner. As punishment Hester must adorn a Scarlet A symbolizing her sin and shaping her existence. When one vigorously analyzes the overall theme of the novel, sin and its corollaries appear to be the main premise for the storyline. There exist little in The Scarlet Letter that cannot be traced back to the dark, debilitating, and destitute repercussions correlating with fleshly sin. Moreover, the effect of sin in The Scarlet Letter materializes through the evolution and individualization of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl.


In the Scarlet Letter Hester Prynne sin of adultery, alters her interaction with society and evolves her personality with ought destroying her inward spirit. Hawthorne portrays Hester as a strong-minded Puritan woman willing to ostracize herself inclusively from society with the adornment of the Scarlet A. Even though she understands she can easily share her humiliation with her partner in sin she bears the cross alone: "Never!" Replied Hester Prynne looking not at Mr. Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman [Dimmesdale] ... Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony as well as mine" (64; ch. 3). Furthermore, Hester's personality yet flourishes amidst her drab appearance and haughty symbol. The Scarlet Letter at first symbolizes Hester's seductive and sinful nature, but through her evolution of personality "Many people refuse to interpret the scarlet A by its original significance. They say that it means Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength (148; ch.13). Once Hester comes to grips with the implications of confessed sin she is "able" to revitalize her spirit and live as a woman proud of her fortitude and grounded by her substance. Hester's confessed sin does not destroy her inward spirit; instead she gathers strength and courage, and flourishes in spite of the symbol. In disparity, to Hester, Dimmesdale's un-confessed sin utterly destroys him physically and psychologically until he releases his surreptitious sin openly.


The effect of sin in the novel The Scarlet Letter is exemplified through Dimmesdale's overwhelming guilt, physical ailments, and untimely demise. Dimmesdale's costly punishment for his sin is mainly the guilt and self-condemnation that overwhelms him daily. Through the characterization of Dimmesdale the reader realizes that the guilt associated with un-confessed sin acts as a greater catalyst of pain than the humiliation of confessed sin. As the novel progresses, one finds that Dimmesdale suffering increases to the point that the deterioration caused by his cowardice and untold truth, embodies his whole existence. "To the untrue man, the whole universe is false, it is impalpable, and it shrinks to nothing within his grasp... The only truth that continued to give Dimmesdale a real existence on earth was the anguish in his inmost soul" (134; ch.11). Even his brief moment of freedom that in turn provokes happiness is a result of Dimmesdale's sin. Sadly, Dimmesdale only experiences this relief when he publicly confesses his adultery on the scaffold with Pearl and Hester. By admitting his sin, he finally frees himself from his guilt and Chillingsworth and thus dies peacefully. Yet, in Dimmesdale own morbid views he takes no solace to his belief that the remainder of this life and his next will be filled with the same self-knowledge, pain, and guilt associated with his being. " Hush Hester... when we forgot our God, when we violated our reverence ... it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in everlasting and pure reunion. Dimmesdale character will never alone provide keen example of the aftermath of a sinful act; the full embodiment of such action is found in Pearl as well.


Directly formed as the result of sinful passion and union, Pearl is the quintessential effect of sin; and its products seep into her very being and personal. Hawthorne clearly reveals Pearl's peculiarities transferred from the womb " The child could not be made amendable to the rules... The mother's impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant in rays of its moral life; ...the warfare of Hester's spirit, at that epoch [time] was perpetuated in Pearl" (83; ch.6). In this quote, and others Hawthorne denotes that Pearl is an unusually sprite-like child, who is unpredictable and mischievous as a result of her sinful creation. "There was fire in [Pearl] and throughout her; she seemed the unpremeditated offshoot of a passionate moment" (93; ch.7). Throughout the novel Pearl reveals a side to her personality well beyond her years, which exemplifies maturity and an uncanny level of understanding. "Truly do I!" Answered Pearl, looking brightly into her mother's face. "It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart" (163; ch.15). Indefinitely, if Hester had understood the effect her sin would have on her offspring she would never gone through with the passionate moment. Part of Hester's punishment, is Pearl's obsession with the Scarlet A and its true meaning. Pearl continually pushes to know the purpose behind the symbol; furthermore, when she observes her mother without the A she's thrown into a demon like rage. How could she accept her mother if she lacked the first thing Pearl noticed about her? Pearl depends on the A's existence as a mysterious, but integral part of her mother's whole being. However, in the end as Pearl identifies clearly her father, and her method of creation she finds peace and can go on with her life. Moreover, Pearl's early devotion to the symbol of sin could only come from that sin's full embodiment within her.


Intertwined in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is a profound process of redemption from sin, deeply rooted in the Puritan code. One must first experience a period of personal evolution and individualization. Next there arises a necessary degree of suffering and separation that sin involves. For Dimmesdale this suffering is the most emphasized of the process. Hawthorne writes "Dimmesdale was forever on the rack [instrument of torture]" (133; ch.11). The author's use of the rack is a fiery metaphor utilized to emphasize the emotional and mental torture Dimmesdale was undergoing. Thankfully the priest undergoes the next step in the process, which is the necessary involvement in society as a catalyst for harmony and happiness. The priest brings about this change on the scaffold in his tragic and dramatic separation from sin and the tortures of his life. In contrast, Pearl's mode for involvement in society evolves her into a Puritan therapist, who can easily interpret the problems of others. Pearl does not undergoes this process for she is not one of the main sinners in the novel; yet, she too metamorphosis into a productive woman, despite the effects of her parent's sin. Overall, there are extremely keen examples of the effect of sin throughout The Scarlet Letter.



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