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“Religion today is too often merely the worship of guilt, an obsession with sin and an exercise in the rubrics of repentance” (Evely) 1. Such is the case of all sin, including the adultery of Hester Prynne, the main character in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The novel takes place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1642-1649 during an era of strict religion under Puritan watch. Hester Prynne, one of such people living in the colony, is punished greatly for her sin, although she is not punished in death. Long ago stated, “All the sins of the body fly away if one chants the name of God” exemplifies the true status of Hester Prynne (Ramakrishna) 2. Although she has sinned, her motives and truly honorable lifestyle will establish her sense of goodness more then her sin will ever condemn her. Hester’s goodness is best established in her attitude toward her punishment, her atonement, and her growth through spiritual enlightenment.
Punishment among the Puritan religion for adultery is commonly execution. In Hester’s case, her punishment is rather different due to many circumstances, one being, her husband may have died at sea. As her punishment for the adultery committed with Dimmesdale, a God-fearing and reputable Puritan, Hester must not only wear a scarlet “A” for the remainder of her residence in Boston, but also stand on a public scaffold in the center of the marketplace. The ignominious letter of punishment, she wears with great pride and it is “so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom” that she is professing her acceptance of all the consequence of her actions (Hawthorne 51). The manner in which Hester conducts herself concerning her punishment establishes her goodness greatly, for even in castigation, she finds morality. Hester Prynne “[makes] a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant as punishment” in her beautiful illustration of her sin upon her chest (Hawthorne 51). She wishes to express her sin overtly, for she accepts it although does not agree with Puritan institution. Again, the fact that Hester dwells in Boston when nothing holds her there is solid proof of her acceptance of her sin. When Hester could “simply hide her character and identity under a new exterior” she gains great respect from many townsfolk for staying despite her abjectness. (Hawthorne 73). Despite popular seemliness, Hester’s roots of sin are the true reason she is bound to the land where she committed her adultery and “a feeling so irritable and inevitable that she has the force of doom” is proof of Hester’s struggle with her sinfulness.
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Equally important to Hester’s attitude toward her punishment is her atonement of her sin. In dealing with her sin, Hester’s overall appearance says a great deal. Known disreputably by many of the jealous women, the “figure of perfect elegance,” Hester, covered her beautiful hair and wore the “A” with great dignity (Hawthorne 50). Although she is far more beautiful than the other women, Hester dulls her look and strays from the public eye in acceptance of her sin. Again, in trying to make the community in which she has sinned a better place Hester knits clothing of various types for both the rich and the poor. With her letter, a “specimen of her delicate and imaginative skill,” Hester uses her talent to earn money and to provide for the lower classes (Hawthorne 75). This act of generosity to the very people who have forsaken her is truly an act of munificence that many a common person would never commit. Also, in her role as a parent, Hester’s constant concern for Pearl, her daughter, say much about her sinful past. Concerned with Pearl, she goes to see Governor Bellingham, and when questioned, Pearl announces “[I have] been plucked by [my] mother off the bush of wild roses that [grows] by the prison-door.” Fretful that her actions and sin of the past may rub-off on Pearl, Hester seeks outside help, and because of her sin, she must deal with the parenting and education of Pearl rather oddly. Life in itself truly exemplifies Hester’s ongoing punishment, and although her lifestyle has changed greatly, she continues to show her power by growing in each sense.
Comparable to Hester’s other traits are her growth through spiritual enlightenment. Her life in Boston bearing the scarlet “A” and her hardships during the seven year period allow Hester to see the Puritan society for the hypocritical basis in which it really stands. Originally wishing to stay where her sin was committed, she now says “there is a broad pathway to the sea,” for she wishes to lead a happy life with Dimmesdale and Pearl far from the torments of Chillingworth (Hawthorne 178). Through the privation of the society she has learned one great thing—she wishes to not be part of the Puritan people any longer.
Religion is based too greatly around sin, especially in the aspects of Puritan beliefs. Whereas the Puritans handle a sinner such as Hester very austerely, her act is strictly that of passion. Hawthorne shows that sinners are not necessarily evil people, only people who have made mistakes, and these mistakes are pardonable. Regardless of whether the means of forgiveness do their duty or not, to dwell in sin is a sin in itself.