The Sin of Hypocrisy in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

The Sin of Hypocrisy in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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The Sin of Hypocrisy in The Scarlet Letter


The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is about the trials and
tribulations of Hester Prynne, a woman living in colonial Boston.  Found
guilty of adultery,  Hester's punishment is to wear a visible symbol of her
sin: the scarlet letter "A."  Through the book, the reader comes to know
Hester, the adulteress; Dimmesdale, the holy man Hester had the affair
with; and Chillingworth, the estranged husband of Hester who is out for
revenge.  The Scarlet Letter examines the interaction of these characters
and the reaction of these characters to Hester's sin.  However, the
greater sin that Hawthorne deals with in The Scarlet Letter is
hypocrisy.  Hypocrisy is the practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or
virtues that one does not hold or possess.  All three main characters,
Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, commit the sin of hypocrisy.
Hawthorne shows that hypocrisy is indeed a sin by punishing the offenders.

Hester Prynne is a strong, independent woman who deals with her sin of
adultery very well.  Instead of running away from it, she lives with it and
accepts her punishment.  However, while succumbing to the will of the court,
she does not for an instant truly believe that she sinned.  Hester thinks
that she has not committed adultery because in her mind she wasn't really
married to Chillingworth.  Hester believes that marriage is only valid when
there is love, and there is no love between Hester and Chillingworth.  In
the prison, defending her actions against him, she declares, "Thou knowest,
thou knowest that I was frank with thee.  I felt no love, nor feigned any"
(74). Then, later, speaking to Dimmesdale, Hester further imparts her
belief that she has not sinned, saying, "What we did had a consecration of
its own.  We felt it so" (192).  Therefore, Hester, in her mind, has not
committed a sin. The fact that she accepts the courts decision so meekly
and wears the scarlet letter denoting her as an adulteress is the first
way in which she is hypocritical.  Hester, although she does not believe
she has sinned, portrays herself as a sinner by wearing the scarlet letter
without complaint.  Over the ensuing years, Hester endures the shame and
ridicule brought about by the scarlet letter.  However, the true source of

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the shame and ridicule is not adultery, but her own sin of hypocrisy.  If
Hester had not been hypocritical, if she had instead told the townspeople
how she truly felt, then perhaps she would have earned their respect and
not have forced to undergo the humiliation and punishment of the scarlet
letter.  Hester's acceptance of a false sin is not the only hypocritical
act she carries out.  Another way in which Hester is hypocritical is her
agreement with Chillingworth to keep his name a secret.  Hester, even
though she claims to love Dimmesdale, agrees with Chillingworth to keep
Chillingworth's name and mission secret (76). Hester is responsible for
the pain that Chillingworth causes Dimmesdale, because she allows him to
enter Dimmesdale's house without warning Dimmesdale.

Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester's partner in adultery, is another character who
is punished for his hypocrisy.  Dimmesdale is a minister, one whom the
people look up to for guidance and direction.  The people consider him
almost sinless, the perfect model which to follow.  The townspeople
thought of him as "a true priest, a true religionist, with the reverential
sentiment largely developed, and an order of mind that impelled itself
powerfully along the track of creed" (120).  Believing himself to have
committed the grave sin of adultery, Dimmesdale's responsibility is to
step down from his clerical position or at least admit his sin to the
public.  Instead, Dimmesdale hides his sin and actually uses Hester's sin
in his sermons.  A "true priest" would not hide his sin from his
congregation, as Dimmesdale does.  The fact that Dimmesdale hides his own
sin while expounding on Hester's sin, which is actually the same, makes
Dimmesdale a hypocrite.  Dimmesdale is not only hypocritical to his
congregation, but to Hester as well.  Dimmesdale commits an act of
adultery with Hester.  He does so secure in the knowledge that he loved
her, and she loved him.  However, when it comes time to pay for their
actions, Dimmesdale declines.  Dimmesdale refuses to climb the scaffold
with Hester to acknowledge the sin.  Dimmesdale, although professing his
love for her, refuses to be associated with her.  Hester explains this to
Pearl, saying "[Dimmesdale] will be there, child.  But he will not greet
thee to-day" (224). Dimmesdale's refusal to be associated with Hester is
cowardly, as is his refusal to climb the scaffold.  It is hypocritical
because he claims to love her, but he wants to keep that love secret.

Roger Chillingworth, the husband of Hester Prynne, is the third character
who commits the sin of hypocrisy.  Chillingworth's hypocrisy is directed
towards the practice of medicine.  All doctors are supposed to care for
their patients, according to the Hippocratic Oath.  Chillingworth, a doctor,
should adhere to this oath, but instead he breaks his vows and consciously
uses his skill to hurt his patient, Dimmesdale.  For Chillingworth, it is a
matter of revenge, but that does not justify his betrayal of the vows which
he took.  Boasting to Hester, Chillingworth relates how he enjoyed
torturing his patient (168).  When Hester asks him if he hasn't tortured
poor Dimmesdale enough, Chillingworth responds, "No! -- no! -- He has but
increased the debt!" (169).  The fact that Chillingworth takes pleasure in
his patient's discomfort while at the same time claiming to be a physician
of the highest caliber makes Chillingworth a hypocrite.  He is punished by
Hawthorne for his hypocrisy.  Hawthorne makes Chillingworth deformed, both
physically and mentally.  Chillingworth has been gnarled with age, but his
mental condition is worse.  He has turned into a man bent on revenge, with
no regard for anything except sating his thirst for revenge.

Chillingworth proceeds to lay blame of his own present deformities on
Dimmesdale.  According to Chillingworth, it is Dimmesdale's fault that he,
Chillingworth, is a "fiend." Aside from being hypocritical towards his
medicine, Chillingworth is hypocritical regarding Hester as well.
Chillingworth admits to Hester that he is to blame for their poor marriage.

 He says,
        It was my folly!. The world had been so cheerless!  My heart
        was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and
        chill, and without a household fire.  I longed to kindle one!.
        And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost
        chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy
        presence made there! (74).

Chillingworth goes on to admit that he has no desire for vengeance against
Hester: "I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee.  Between thee and
me, the scale hangs fairly balanced" (74).  Later on, Chillingworth shows
that he was lying when he says "I have left thee to the scarlet letter.
If that have not avenged me, I can do no more!" (169).  Chillingworth,
despite what he said earlier, had been avenging himself not only on
Dimmesdale, but on Hester as well, demonstrating again the lying,
hypocritical ways he practices.

Through the punishment of the three main characters, Hester, Dimmesdale,
and Chillingworth, Hawthorne clearly shows that hypocrisy is a sin
meriting terrible punishment.  The sin of adultery, for which Hester is
branded, is not the true sin in The Scarlet Letter.  Rather, it is just one
possible sin that can lead the sinner and those involved into the
treacherous depths of hypocrisy, the true sin of The Scarlet Letter.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Brodhead, Richard H., "New and Old Tales: The Scarlet Letter," Modern Critical Views Nathaniel Hawthorne, New York, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

Dibble, Terry J., Cliff Notes on The Scarlet Letter, Lincoln, Cliff Notes, Inc., 1988.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: St. Martins, 1991.
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