The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Modern society would call a lifetime of humiliation a cruel and unusual punishment. In the time of the Puritans, however, that punishment was seen as excessively merciful for Hester Prynne, a woman guilty of adultery. Forced to wear a visible label of her crime for the rest of her life, Hester was unable to hide from the sin that she committed. Her counterpart Dimmesdale, on the other hand, was seen by the public as godly, and he hid his responsibility for years. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrates the effects of the conscience, showing the differences of one whose guilt is secret and one whose is exposed.

Hester Prynne could never have hidden her crime, since the resulting child was a constant reminder of it. She spent time in jail for what she had done, and was stood on a platform in front of the whole town to shame her and to show the public what the penalty was for such an act. According to the novel, the appropriate punishment in that period was public execution; instead, Hester was forced to wear the scarlet letter on her chest forever more. Through it all, she refused to give up the name of the man equally responsible for the crime. Hester was initially rejected by the people of Boston. The townspeople were embarrassed to have her among them, and to have had such a scandal occur in their church. Children, not fully understanding her crime, observed her fearfully and only from a distance. Hawthorne states that “The poor…, whom [Hester] sought out to be the objects of her bounty, often reviled the hand that was stretched forth to succor them.” Still, Hester found her niche in making clothing. She was able to do as she hoped, which was “…not to acquire anything beyond a subsistence, of the plainest and m...

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Hawthorne makes a powerful statement in his novel, encouraging readers that any punishment is surely not as terrible as that which we put upon ourselves by hosting an unclear conscience. Hester Prynne is transformed before the reader’s eyes, from a sinful character unworthy of humanity’s mercy to a respectable and admirable woman who has turned her life around. Dimmesdale is transformed as well, from a respected man who made a mistake to a terrifying character who could not own up to his wrongdoings. Hester made the positive transformation thanks in part to the scarlet letter, and her change helped her to raise her child and live a respectable life. Many people, regardless of the time they lived, would have run away from the situation that Hester found herself in; however, the recognition and confession of her failure was what led Hester Prynne to success.
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