Justice Explored in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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Justice Explored in The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne created themes in The Scarlet Letter just as significant as the obvious ideas pertaining to sin and Puritan society. Roger Chillingworth is a character through which one of these themes resonates, and a character that is often underplayed in analysis. His weakness and path of destruction of himself and others are summed up in one of Chillingworth's last sentences in the novel, to Arthur Dimmesdale: "Hadst thou sought the whole earth over... there were no place so secret, no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me, save on this very scaffold!" (171).

This powerful line from Chillingworth holds three meanings. First, Dimmesdale can save himself only through confession in public. Secondly, it shows the true sin and suffering in Chillingworth himself. In this regard, the line is just as important in reiterating the sickness in Chillingworth as it is in showing the torment in Dimmesdale. Finally, this statement creates a parallel between Chillingworth's idea of justice and the Puritans'.

The theme Hawthorne builds up in Chillingworth is not simply his pain and torment. It is a more important representation of the weakness in the values of the people in Puritan times, and how their perseverance for "justice" skewed their views on life and forgiveness. Because of his mindset, Chillingworth torments himself with his goal to destroy Dimmesdale just as much as Dimmesdale tortures himself for their seven years together. Chillingworth is ruining his own life and does not realize it, because he no longer sees the value in life as he tries to ruin one.

The first foreshadowing we see of Chillingworth's obsession begins...

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...h life because of that. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, faced Puritan torture under Chillingworth for the seven years without benefit of the release of guilt Hester had found by being in the public eye. Dimmesdale's only release from guilt was not the scaffold, but death itself.

Hawthorne's statement through Chillingworth offers insight into Dimmesdale and Chillingworth along with a representation of Hawthorne's disapproval of the Puritan values. This disapproval is the driving force of the novel, and it underlies the relationship between Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and the prevailing greater justice of God. The contrast of the Puritans' justice and God's makes the message of the story greater than a love story or a story of a sin. With this theme, The Scarlet Letter becomes a comparison of the flawed justice of humans and the divine justice of God.
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