Free Essay - Evil in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

Free Essay - Evil in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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Evil in the Scarlet Letter

 

One belief that people live by is that evil is the nature of mankind, yet there are others that feel man has good intentions but those intentions can be overrun by the devil. Nathaniel Hawthorne points out that the former is true of all people in the novel The Scarlet Letter.

 

In this novel, there are three main characters who commit evil and sinful acts, but each act is at a different degree of sinfulness (i.e. the sins get worse as the story goes a-long). These three sinners, in the eyes of the Puritan community, are the beautiful Hester Prynne, the esteemed Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and the cold-hearted doctor, Roger Chillingworth. Like Hawthorne, I believe that evil is the nature of man but that there are different magnitudes of evil; some choose to fight it, like Hester, and some choose to give in, like Chillingworth. Hester Prynne, a strong willed and brave woman, in respect to the two additional people, has committed the least amount of sin in the novel. In the eyes of the Puritan community, though, she has committed one of the worst possible sins that can be imagined: adultery. They feel she is horrendously corrupt, yet it is not truly her fault.

 

Hester is the victim of her husband, Roger Chillingworth's (formerly Roger Prynne) stupidity by sending her to New England by herself, while he remained in Europe. Chillingworth even admitted that it was his fault when he voiced, "It was my folly! I have said it. But, up to that epoch of my life, I have lived in vain."(Ch.4, p. 68) Hester is also a victim of fate. She has no way of knowing if Chillingworth is dead or alive when the Indians capture him after he arrived in North America. She still goes against the strict Puritan rules, and breaks Commandment 7, which was often punished by death. Arthur Dimmesdale is a strong pillar of the community and a very devoted Puritan.

 

 What could he do that is worse than young Hester Prynne's appalling act of adultery? Well he goes a little further into the same sin. First of all, he commits adultery with the abandoned Hester. Then instead of admitting his sin to the public, he keeps his dark secret in his heart, knowing it will eat at him for the rest of his life until he reveals it.

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The only thing worse in the Puritans' eyes than committing a terrible sin is failing to admit to it. They believed it darkened the soul, and it did; it almost turned Dimmesdale into an evil shell of a man. The Puritans also wanted the sinning people of the congregation to admit their sin, so that they could punish that person, almost as if they were playing God. Dimmesdale did get punished, but it was in private. He first punishes himself by whipping himself. In addition he allows Chillingworth to torment him with comments that make him feel guilty until the point of going crazy. Dimmesdale is also an evil man because he is a man of God, but he cannot find the strength to admit openly that he has had an affair with Hester. His weakness is the reason he is more evil than Hester. Dimmesdale doesn't want to admit that he sinned against God because he is a great servant of him in being a minister. Dimmesdale strives to be perfect, but because of the sinful act of passion that he has committed, his "record for God" has been tarnished forever. After seven long years of struggle, Dimmesdale does triumph over his weakness at the day he predicted, judgment day, the day he would die. Finally, we get to the deformed scholar, whose intellect gives him the title of the most evil and sinful person in the book, Roger Chillingworth.

 

At first Chillingworth seems to be more of a recipient of the actions of sinners than an actual sinner himself. After all, he was held captive by the Indians for a year, and then returns to civilization to see that his wife is standing on the town scaffold telling him to pretend he doesn't know her. Midway through the novel the audience's view of the character changes dramatically. The major turning point is when we find out to what extent Chillingworth will go through to find personal information about his patient, Dimmesdale. Hawthorne describes it as "The physician advanced directly in front of his patient, laid his hand upon his bosom, and thrust aside the vestment, that, hitherto, had always covered it even from the professional eye."(Ch.10 p.121) Chillingworth really commits two major sins. His first sin is against Hester. He committed it when he married her and took away her youth; he admits: "Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay."(Ch.4 p.68-69)

 

Chillingworth's second, and far more evil sin, is tricking the heart of a fellow man and sacrificing a friendship to gratify his own selfishness. What Chillingworth does is befriend the good Reverend and become his doctor. Chillingworth notices that something more than physical is wrong with him. He starts to dig deeper and deeper until he finds what he is looking for, but not without destroying Dimmesdale's life even more. As Chillingworth probes farther into Dimmesdale's life, he resembles the devil more and more. Hawthorne illustrates this event when he remarks, "Now, there was something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed, and which grew still the more obvious to sight, the oftener they looked upon him."(Ch.9 p.112)

 

 By Chapter 14, Chillingworth's transformation seems to be complete, and Chillingworth becomes aware of what has happened. It is too late to change who he is and who he has become. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the worst sinner and the most evil is old Roger Chillingworth. He is flat out pure evil. Everyone is evil, but there are different levels of sin and evil. The quote that brings the whole book together is one where Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale are in the woods and they are discussing the magnitude of their sin. Dimmesdale comments to Hester, "We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man's revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so."(Ch.17 p.170)

 
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