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The scarlet letter "A" has a close interrelation to the novel's thematic structure which is centered on the three scaffold scenes in chapter 2, chapter 12, and chapter 23. At the first scaffold scene, the author introduces the theme of sin, judgement and the religion. Dimmesdale's moral conflict is shown on the second scaffold scene which symbolizes the center of conscience. At the last scaffold scene, Dimmesdale can escape from his guilt and reconciles with Hester. When when Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth doesn't need for his revenge. And Pearl can have a life that is filled with love and happiness. Thus, the scarlet letter "A" affects the lives of the main characters, and it makes them be related with the symbol "A": Hester Prynne's free will and adulterous relationship with Arthur Dimmesdale provoke the anger of Roger Chillingworth, Dimmesdale's passion leads him to his ruin, and Chillingworth's search for the seducer of his wife implies the evil of the nature of man.
Hypocritical effort to conceal their secret sins have Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Roger Chillingworth collapse. This kind of hypocrisy and the harsh and inhumane system make Hawthorn be disappointed with the Puritan society. Hawthorn criticizes this inhumane hypocrisy with the technique of tragic irony in the novel. For example, the irony of Dimmesdale's situation is that he becomes imperfect by trying be perfect. The more his followers regard him as a saint, the more he should dismiss himself as the vilest of all sinners. Thus, the story is full of tragic irony, and the author's purposes are well represented by it.
At the outset, Hester with black eyes and dark hair stands on the scaffold, holding her baby of three months old. With the scarlet letter "A" on her bosom, she stands for three hours on the scaffold. Though she is stigmatized by the scarlet letter on her breast, she has to withstand the public glances. Meanwhile, The Reverend Mr. Wilson delivers his speech about sin and emphasizes the symbolism of the letter "A". He persuades Hester to uncover the father of her child, but she does not speak at all. She suddenly sees s Chillingworth, her husband, standing in the crowd. He makes a gesture with his fingers in order not to disclose his identity.
Back in her prison, she is in a state of nervous frenzy. That evening, Chillingworth visits her in prison. She has an interview with him when he enters the dark prison as a physician who takes care of the distraught state of her after the public ordeal. She confesses to her husband that she does not feel any love for him. She admits that she has greatly wronged him with the letter of her shame, but she does not want to tell him who the child's father is. Asking her to promise never to reveal his true identity as her husband, Chillingworth decides to discover the father of Pearl.
Three years after her releases from imprisonment, Hester does not leave Boston instead of moving into a small seaside shanty on the outskirts of Boston. She makes her living by doing stitchwork for local dignitaries, and spends her time helping the poor and the sick. She slowly gains respect from the people of Boston. Her skill at needlework, her acts of kindness, and her self-reliance make her scarlet letter stand for something other than adultery. Meanwhile, the Puritan authorities force Hester to give up her child, because an immoral woman like her is unfit to bring up a child. The governor Bellingham persuades Hester to raise Pearl in a Christian way and tries to take her away from Hester, but she does not give her up.
As the years pass, Pearl grows up and becomes Hester's happiness and torture. Roger Chillingworth gets a good reputation as a physician, and becomes the medical adviser of Dimmesdale, giving him medical consultations. Because their intimate friendship develops, Dimmesdale even speaks of his personal matters to Chillingworth, and it makes them live in the same house together. Chillingworth finds that Dimmesdale is deeply concerned with Hester. Chillingworth eventually recognizes that Dimmesdale is the father of Pearl, and he decides to revenge. In order to get a confession from Dimmsdale, Chillingworth cautiously drives him to feel sinful.
Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold one night. While he is standing there, Hester and Pearl come. Dimmesdale calls them to the scaffold, and they mount. The three of them stand hand-in-hand there. At the same instant, Chillingworth is again present. He cruelly watches them standing on the scaffold. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale tells Hester that he is afraid of Chillingworth. Hester realizes that Dimmsdale is slowly being killed by Chillingworth, so she decides to help him.
Four years have gone by. Hester's position in the community has risen because of her charity. Her scarlet letter "A" now stands for "Able." Meanwhile, Dimmesdale's suffering makes his sermon become more humane. One day Hester sees Chillingworth picking herbs in the seashore, and she asks him to stop torturing Dimmesdale, and she tells him that she will disclose the fact that he is her husband to Dimmesdale. While Hester and Pearl are taking a walk in the forest, they meet Dimmesdale. He looks despaired as if he doesn't have any desire to live. He confesses his misery and unhappiness. Hester realizes that she still loves Dimmesdale, so she reveals the identity of Chillingworth as her husband. She asks him to forgive her deception. When Dimmesdale hears from Hester that Chillingworth is her husband, he is furious at first, but finally forgives her. They agree to leave this Puritan community and go to Europe together with Pearl. Dimmesdale believes that Europe offers more civilization and refinement, so going to Europe is the better choice.
Returning from the forest, Dimmesdale decides to expose himself for the peace of his own soul by confessing his sin in front of the whole congregation. He writes the Election Sermon with tremendous inspiration. The sermon is successful. Meanwhile, on the day when Hester finds a ship that will carry all three of them to Europe, Chillingworth asks the ship's captain to take him on board. After Dimmsdale finishes his sermon, he beckons to Hester and Pearl to come. They go to the scaffold and stand there together in his penitence. Chillingworth tries to stop them, Dimmesdale uncovers the secret of his sin to the crowd. After telling the people that he is a sinner like Hester. He dies on the scaffold. After Dimmesdale's death, Hester goes to Europe with her daughter. Pearl happily marries there, but Hester returns to Boston alone. She never removes her scarlet letter. When she dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale. Her tombstone shares a scarlet letter "A." with Dimmsdale's.
"....I happened to place it on my breast...It seemed to me then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of a burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor." (P 30)
- The letter "A" is compared to burning heat or red hot iron: It shows the connections between spiritual perception of sin and the physical manifestation.(Simile)
"It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows."(P 63)
- a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins: A witch is compared to old Mistress Hibbins.(Simile)
3. Onomatopoeia, Metaphor
"Ah, but," interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the hand, "let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart."(P 66)
- Pang in her heart is compared to sin as pain.(Metaphor)
4. Assonance, Alliteration
"On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold-thread, appeared the letter "A". It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony." (P 68)
- elaborate embroidery.(Assonance)
- fantastic flourishes.(Alliteration)
"Never!" Replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman Dimmesdale. "It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!" (P 91)
- deeply branded: Her sin is burned into her like branded cattle.(Imagery)
"Thy acts are like mercy," said Hester, bewildered and appalled. "But thy words interpret thee as a terror!" (P 101)
- Thy acts are like mercy: Chillingworth's act is compared to the mercy on Hester.(Simile)
- thy words interpret thee as a terror: Chillingworth's words are compared to a terror.(Simile)
7. Alliteration, Assonance, Imagery
"But there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghostlike, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime; and still the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it." (P 105)
- a fatality, a feeling.(Alliteration)
- irresistible and inevitable.(Assonance)
- Linger, haunt, ghostlike is image of Hester's mind.(Imagery)
8. Alliteration, Imagery
"But it is not recorded that, in a single instance, her skill was called in aid to embroider the white veil which was to cover the pure blushes of a bride." (P 110)
- blushes of a bride.(Alliteration)
- White veil is the images of purity and absence of sin.(Imagery)
9. Alliteration, Simile
"She stood apart from moral interests, yet close beside them, like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside and can no longer make itself seen or felt, no more smile with the household joy, nor mourn with the kindred sorrow; or, should it succeed in manifesting its forbidden sympathy, awakening only terror and horrible repugnance." (P 112)
- familiar fireside (Alliteration)
- like a ghost: Hester is compared to a ghost.(Simile)
10. Symbol, Imagery
"Throughout all, however, there was a trait of passion, a certain depth of hue....The child could not be made amenable to rules....The mother's impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally, they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery lustre, the black shadow, and the untempered light of the intervening substance. Above all, the warfare of Hester's spirit, at that epoch, was perpetuated in Pearl." (P 121)
- Pearl is a symbol of Hester's sin (symbol)
- White and clear, crimson and gold, the fiery lustre, and the black shadow are the dual image about morality.(Imagery)
11. Symbol, Imagery
"I am my mother's child," answered the scarlet vision, "and my name is Pearl!" (P 154)
- Pearl is a symbol of her mother sin. In a way, Hester traded in everything she had; her marriage, her standing in a community.(Symbol)
- Christian image, Pearl of great price from Matthew 13:45-46.(Imagery)
"After putting her finger in her mouth, with many ungracious refusals to answer good Mr. Wilson's questions, the child finally announced that she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison-door."(p 157)
- Pearl is being a wild roses.(Metaphor)
13. Simile, Imagery
"Roger Chillingworth - the man of skill, the kind and friendly physician- strove to go deep into his patient's bosom, delving among his principles, prying into his recollections, and probing everything with a cautious touch, like a treasure-seeker in a dark cavern. Few secrets can escape an investigator, who has opportunity and license to undertake such a quest, and skill to follow it up. A man burdened with a secret should especially avoid the intimacy of his physician." (P 177)
- Treasure is compared to the seeker in a dark cavern (Simile)
- Being able to go through someone's brain and see their thoughts (Imagery)
"When, an uninstructed multitude attempts to see with its eyes, it is exceedingly apt to be deceived. When, however, it forms its judgment, as it usually does, on the intuitions of its great and warm heart, the conclusions thus attained are often so profound and so unerring, as to possess the character of truths supernaturally revealed." (P 182)
- Image of group or crowd, as if these people were a single person.(Imagery)
"Come away, mother! Come away, or yonder old Black Man will catch you! He hath got hold of the minister already. Come away, mother, or he will catch you! But he cannot catch little Pearl!" (P 193)
- Black man is an allusion to Satan, and occasionally a reference to Chillingworth.(Allusion)
"Then I need ask no further," said the clergyman, somewhat hastily rising from his chair. "You deal not, I take it, in medicine for the soul!" (P 196)
- Medicine for the soul is implication of spiritual healing. It is the one thing Dimmesdale needs. It is as if he recognize on some level that Chillingworth cannot help him.(Implication)
17. Metaphor, Implication
"But, if it be the soul's disease, then do I commit myself to the one Physician of the soul!...But who are thou, that meddlest in this matter? that dares thrust himself between the sufferer and his God?" (P 197)
- Physician of soul is compared to God (Metaphor)
- Soul's disease implies that the soul can be sick in much the same way the body can be sick.(Implication)
18. Metaphor, Allusion
"But with what a wild look of wonder, job, and horror! With what a ghastly rapture....making itself even riotously manifest by the extravagant gesture with which he threw up his arms towards the ceiling, and stamped his foot upon the floor! Had a man seen old Roger Chillingworth, at that moment of his ecstasy, he would have had no need to ask how Satan comports himself when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won into his kingdom." (P 199)
- Chiilingworth's ecstasy is compared to Satan's ecstasy.(Metaphor)
- His kingdom is Hell: Chillingworth's joy over the suffering of another person is compared to Satan's happiness when a sinner sins and gets another step closer to hell.(Allusion)
19. Metaphor, Oxymoron
"a quiet depth of malice, hitherto latent, but active now...which led him to imagine a more intimate revenge than any mortal had ever wreaked upon an enemy." (P 201)
- Malice is metaphor for evil growing like a disease (Metaphor)
- Intimate revenge (Oxymoron)
"To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,- it is impalpable,- it shrinks to nothing within his grasp....The only truth that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth was the anguish in his inmost soul" (P 212)
- Existence or non-existence, true or false: Truth is equated to existence, and falseness is equated to non-existence. (Duality)
"Satan dropped it there, I take it, intending a scurrilous jest against your reverence. But, indeed, he was blind and foolish, as he ever and always is. A pure hand needs no glove to cover it!" (P 232)
- Dimmesdale's hand is not pure. He does need a glove to cover it in accordance with the Sexton's comment. (Irony)
"The scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril." (P 241)
- The scarlet letter is a protective talisman much like an nun's cross. (Metaphor)
"It is remarkable that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society." (P 245)
- Those who behave the best secretly imagine what the sin will be like. (Paradox)
"It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take off this badge....Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that should speak a different purport." (P 253)
- Fall away of its own nature is subtle image of nature.(Imagery)
"What choice had you?" asked Roger Chillingworth. "My finger, pointed ... at this man, would have hurled him from his pulpit into a dungeon, - thence, peradventure, to the gallows!"(P 256)
- My finger is compared to Chillingworth's accusation.(Metaphor)
26. Imagery, Oxymoron, Alliteration, Metaphor
"Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along with it the utmost passion of her heart! Else it may be their miserable fortune, as it was Roger Chillingworth's, when some mightier touch than their own may have awakened all her sensibilities, to be reproached even for the calm content, the marble image of happiness, which they will have imposed upon her as the warm reality." (P 265)
- Tremble is image of fear.(Imagery)
- Miserable fortune.(Oxymoron)
- Calm content (Alliteration)
- Marble image of happiness is metaphor for marriage without passion. (Metaphor)
27. Symbol, Alliteration
"Truly do I!" Answered Pearl, looking brightly into her mother's face. "It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart!" (P 269)
- Dimmesdale's hand over his heart is symbol of his sin.(Symbol)
- Hand over his heart.(Alliteration)
"But mother, tell me now! Is there such a Black Man? And didst thou ever meet him? And is this his mark?'....'Once in my life I met the Black Man!" said her mother. "This scarlet letter is his mark!" (P 279)
- Scarlet letter is metaphor for sin and the mark of Satan.(Metaphor)
"Thou shalt forgive me!" cried Hester, flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him. "Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!"(P 294)
- Contrasting who doing action: human forgives, God punishes.(Contraction)
"â€¦â€¦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!"(P 294)
- Blacker: Degree of black is connected to the gravity of sin. Blacker means worse. Colour as degree of sin.(Metaphor)
31. Metaphor, Imagery, Onomatopoeia
"There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale." (P 307)
- Beam, radiant, and glowing is image of light.(Imagery)
- Smile is compared to blood.(Metaphor)
32. Implication, Dual meanings
"At least, they shall say of me," thought this exemplary man, "that I leave no public duty unperformed, nor ill performed!" (PP 325-326)
- Private duties are left unperformed.(Implication)
- Dimmesdale is a good man, and Dimmesdale as a bad man.(Dual meanings)
33. Alliteration, Imagery
"Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late!" answered the minister, encountering his eye, fearfully, but firmly. "Thy power is not what it was! With God's help, I shall escape thee now!" (P 384)
- fearfully, but firmly.(Alliteration)
- Tempter is a image of Satan.(Imagery)
"Thou hast escaped me!" he repeated more than once.... "May God forgive thee!" said the minister. "Thou, too, hast deeply sinned!" (P 389)
- Chillingworth is compared to Satan.(Metaphor)
35. Alliteration, Onomatopoeia
"Hush, Hester, hush!...The law was broke! - the sin here so awfully revealed! - let these alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be that, when we forgot our God, - when we violated our reverence each for the other's soul, - it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion." (P 390)
- Hush, Hester, hush.(Alliteration)
"that the awful symbol was the effect of the ever-active tooth of remorse, gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly, and at last manifesting Heaven's dreadful judgment by the visible presence of the letter." (P 393)
- Tooth of remorse is painful Image. Remorse as an emotion that eats away at a person.(Imagery)
"Without disputing a truth so momentous, we must be allowed to consider this version of Mr. Dimmesdale's story as only an instance of that stubborn fidelity with which a man's friends-and especially a clergyman's-will sometimes uphold his character, when proofs, clear as the midday sunshine on the scarlet letter, establish him a false and sin-stained creature of the dust." (P 394)
- stubborn fidelity: Fidelity means truth and faithfulness, but the stubborn means not changing one's judgment in light of evidence.(Oxymoron)
38. Imagery, Alliteration
"Hester comforted and counseled them as best she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness."(P 400)
- comforted and counsel.(Alliteration)
- Passage of time is the image of Heaven's own time, brighter period, grown ripe.(Imagery)
39. Insinuation, Assonance, Alliteration, Imagery
"The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!" (PP 400-401)
- angel and apostle (assonance)
- truest test (alliteration)
- Insinuating that women are usually pure by nature: The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure
- Dusky grief is the image of sinner
"a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial-ground beside which King's Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tombstone served for both."(P 401)
- Dust is compared to the ashes of two dead people; Dimmesdale and Hester.(Metaphor)
- Sleepers is compared to dead people.(Metaphor)
Nathaniel Hawthorne is a remarkable ironist who makes good use of the dramatic irony. He regards human beings as originally imperfect creatures. The dehumanization in a Puritan society in The Scarlet Letter is criticized with the method of tragic irony which is closely related to a dualistic view of life. Most of the characters are Puritans. They are innocent and try to build an ideal society in their own way. Such a perfect Puritan community hold its own secrets and sin within each member. This creates irony or hypocrisy and has each person feel guilty. In the novel, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chilligworth are isolated from a normal society and they suffer from the various aspects of sin. Hypocritical action to conceal their secret sins make them collapse. Although Hester feels humility and embarrassment because of her sin, she is the only one who is spiritually free. When Dimmesdale finally uncovers his sin to the people around the scaffold, they refuse to believe that he is sinner like Hester. The fact that is the vulnerable minister and a secret sinner results in an endless maze of irony. Dimmesdale's dual identity is shown in Hester with the shameful scarlet letter on her breast and in Chillingworth with his secret revenge for Dimmsdale.
The irony of Dimmesdale's situation is that he becomes imperfect by pretending to be perfect. Dimmesdale tries to appear to be a perfect man, for he thinks there is absolute good and evil in the world.
By using tragic irony, Hawthorne builds up the plot which gives us constant interest in his novel. Thus, The Scarlet Letter is chiefly composed of tragic irony, and the author's purposes are well represented by it.
In chapter 16, Dimmesdale appears to be in despair, as if he has no purpose or desire to live whereas in chapter 18, he takes courage and decides to leave the Puritan society with Hester and his daughter, Pearl. He is reborn with great energy, He thinks everything positively. But in chapter 23, he suddenly gives up everything. He cannot act against his conscience. In this chapter, Chillingworth loses his purpose of revenge completely when Dimmesdale dies. He no longer has Dimmesdale to confess his sin. Hester also lose her love. She doesn't need feel the loneliness she has already has when Dimmesdale dies. Pearl can have a life which is full of love and happiness.
In chapter 13, Hester's position in the community gradually changes because of her charity and kindness. She helps the poor and the sick. She slowly gains good reputation from the people of Boston. Her skill at needlework and the charity for the needy make her scarlet letter symbolize something other than shameful adultery. Hester's scarlet "A" now stands not for "shame" but for "Able." It is no longer a token of her shameful adultery.
The readers can see the shift of Dimmesdale's conscience by comparing the three scaffold scenes in chapter 2, chapter 12, and chapter 23. In the first scene, he does not want to reveal his secret sin In the second scaffold scene, he confesses his sin in private at night, so it does not seem to be a public confession. In the final scaffold scene, he confesses his sin in public. At this time, his conscience finally clears.
This section will discuss the following four themes: sin, conscience, Puritanism, and forgiveness.
By choosing a Puritan society and adultery as the setting for this novel, Hawthorne is free to explore the psychological impact of sin on everyone involved.
In Puritan society adultery is both a crime and a sin. As a woman whose husband is absent, Hester's pregnancy is evidence of her immoral relationship with a man, not her husband. Puritans usually impose the death penalty on adulterers, however, since Hester's husband might be dead they refrain from administering it in this case. They cannot let her sin go unpunished, so they sentence her to three years in prison, and she must wear the "A" on her chest for adulteress for the rest of her life. In addition, she is cast out of the community. To the Puritans, sin is like infectious disease. Hester is "quarantined" in the hope that her sin will not pollute the community. Puritanism is a strict version of Christianity. In other sects after Christians confess their sins and perform penance, their sins are forgiven and they receive reconciliation with God and their community. Hester for her part acknowledges her wrongdoing and endures her punishment with grace. Upon her release from prison, she makes a living for herself and her daughter by sewing and embroidery. Her industriousness and thrift allow her to carry out many works of charity for the poor. Although her life is not a very happy one, her sin and subsequent penance create an opportunity for her spiritual development and personal growth.
Dimmesdale carries the weight of sin in private. He does not make spiritual progress instead he becomes a hypocrite. Puritans expect their ministers to have high moral standards. He feels guilty that he is not living up to them. He tries to perform penance in private, but his efforts do not offer him any spiritual relief. His spiritual agony starts to affect his physical health negatively, to the point where his congregation begins to worry about him.
Chillingworth has a reader's sympathy in the beginning because he is a man who has been wronged by his wife. Marrying a much younger woman does not qualify as a sin. But as time passes he gives himself over to sin by seeking revenge on the man who slept with his wife. The sin of revenge physically transforms him in the following ways: accelerated aging, deformation of facial features, and the stoop in his back. He can be said to personify the phrase "ugly as sin."
For Hawthorne, individual conscience plays a valuable role. When a person relies on his intuition and sympathy for others, he/she is able to make good moral decisions. The Puritans, in contrast, have little use for individual conscience. In order to do what is right, a Puritan only has to follow the religious rules of community. As such individual conscience is subordinate to the religious commandments of the Bible, Hester uses her own intuition to make moral decisions, a characteristic which sets her apart from her fellow Puritans. Dimmesdale's conscience torments him. The readers can see the developments of his conscience by comparing the three scaffold scenes in chapter 2, chapter 12, and chapter 23. In the first scene, he exhorts Hester to name the father, but it is clear from his double speak that he does not want his sin to be revealed. In the second scaffold scene, he is moved to confess his sin out loud, but he is alone at night, so it does not count as a public confession. In the final scaffold scene, after his election day sermon, he confesses he is Hester's partner in sin in front of the whole congregation. His conscience finally clears, but he has lived with the guilt for so long that he has no strength to live after his confession. Chillingworth starts out with a conscience as evidenced by his conversation with Hester in which he admits marrying her against her wishes is a mistake that leaves her vulnerable sin of adultery. When he suspects that the other party to adultery is still in town, he loses his conscience in direct proportion to his effort to exact revenge on Dimmesdale. With revenge as his whole motive for living, he cannot survive after Dimmesdale's confession, which renders revenge useless.
Puritanism has an strong effect on The Scarlet Letter. In the novel, Hawthorne wants to describe how Puritanism in the 17th century apparently ignores the sanity of human minds in every aspect of punishment and salvation. He gives us the essence of the Puritan thoughts of Boston, including the Puritan's view on man's sinful situation, and the intolerant Puritan attitude towards sinner. The Puritan leaders at that time condemn every person who fails morally and force them to face a public penitence. The Puritan laws is far from God's divine love which embraces all sinners having imperfect nature and human weakness.
Hawthorne is disappointed with the intolerable system of Puritan society and its strict and inhumane moral code which denies man's imperfection. In the novel, the Puritans impose too heavy a penalty on Hester, although she is a sinner. Hester realizes that she can not escape from severe punishment by strict Puritan laws, and also realizes God's love for the poor and the needy. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale is described as a typical scapegoat who can not escape from the influence of inhumane and merciless Puritan dogmas.
Certainly the greatness of The Scarlet Letter lies in the character of Hester Prynne, for she dares to achieve her spiritual greatness despite of her own humane weakness and the prejudice of her Puritan society.
The reader picks up early clues about Hawthorne's attitude toward forgiveness in the custom house because he explicitly mentions offering forgiveness to his enemies. Hester is able to forgive her enemies for the most part. Hester, as a part of moral development, learns how to forgive and she is also able to exhort others to forgive. For example in chapter 14, she asks Chillingworth to forgive Dimmesdale and give up his revenge. A truly moral being is able to forgive and ask for forgiveness. One of the indicators that Chillingworth has turned to Satan is that he is incapable of forgiving. In chapter 11, he is given the label "the Unforgiving." Even some other of the Puritans are capable of forgiving Hester's frailty, and symbolically bringing her back into the community by referring to her as "our Hester." In chapter 17, when Hester reveals Chillingworth's identity to Dimmesdale, at first he is unwilling to forgive her, but finally he does so of his own free will. He makes a point of asking God for forgiveness for both of them. For Dimmesdale, forgiveness by God is more important than human forgiveness. This is not surprising because to a minister forgiveness of sins by God is necessary for admission to Heaven. As Dimmesdale is dying on the scaffold, he does not forgive Chillingworth instead he calls on God to forgive his tormentor.