Sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'

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28th Sep 2017 English Literature Reference this

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Introduction

Born on 4th July, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, Nathaniel Hawthorne established himself as one of the greatest American writer. He is best known for his short stories, most of which were written between 1825- 1850, and two of his famous novels which brought to him international fame- The Scarlet Letter (mid-march 1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851). He seems to be surrounded by history, all his life. His ancestors were the notorious Puritans. He was a part of the circle that included scholars and philosophers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future President Franklin Pierce. His books’ rave reviews were written by Edgar Allen Poe. He was a shy, rarely socializing with people except with his wife Sophia. He thought of himself as too much of a realist.

Hawthorne’s work was often set in or around the Puritan New England towns of Salem and Concord highlighting the hypocrisy, sin and corruption. He came from a distinguished Puritan family which had played an active role in the history of Massachusetts. His works threw light on the darker side of human nature, which he preferred to address as ‘romance’ as it showed the ‘depths of human nature’. To him, romance meant confronting the reality and not evading it. He dealt with the idea that human nature is fundamentally flawed. It was Hawthorne’s appreciable talent that he conveyed his pessimistic view on life through a story that attracted readers with its power and truth.

Hawthorne worked as the surveyor of customs in the port of Salem from 1846-49. In 1853, President Pierce appointed Hawthorne to a four-year term as US consulate in Liverpool, England. 1857 onwards, Hawthorne resided in Italy and again in England before returning to Concord in 1860.

Hawthorne’s last years were unrelieved from gloom and despondency financially, and after four years following his return to America, he died while on an expedition with his friend and mentor, Franklin Pierce, on 19 May, 1864, at Plymouth, New Hampshire.

The Scarlet Letter was Hawthorne’s first full-length story if we ignore the earlier failure- Fanshawe (1828). It was his first full-length story, and yet, superior to any full-length story that he later wrote. The Scarlet Letter was a Declaration of American Literary Independence.

The Scarlet Letter opens up with a long introduction named “Custom House”. In this, Hawthorne has written a partial autobiographical sketch covering three years of his life as surveyor in the Salem custom-house (1846-49).

Hawthorne begins the custom-house introduction by requesting the reader to bear with his writing skills. He tells us about himself & his post because he feels the need to explain how the following pages of the Scarlet Letter came to be written. He only considers himself an editor & claims that he has only given the story a few extra touches to give as real a picture of the 17th century Puritan New England society as was possible for him.

Salem is Hawthorne’s native town which he confesses that he loves only when he goes away from it. This is the place where his original ancestor William Hawthorne came nearly two & a quarter centuries ago. In Salem, William’s descendants have been born & have died. Salem has been the focal center of the Hawthorne’s. He then mentions the sea going tradition for over a hundred years in his family. Later, Hawthorne talks about his return to Salem where he was given the job in custom-house. He then gives us a pen sketch of the venerable old officials of the custom-house.

Climax of the custom-house introduction talks about its second story which was a large room in which the brick work & the beams have never been covered with plasters which was left as it was when the port was shifted from Salem to Boston. In this room, in the midst of other rubbish, Hawthorne found a bundle with a rag of cloth on which the letter A was embroided. With this cloth was a document written by surveyor Pue, his predecessor, which told the history of the scarlet letter and its bearer Hester. When Hawthorne lost his customs post, he determined to write a fictional account of the events recorded in the manuscript. The Scarlet Letter is the outcome.

The story begins in seventeenth-century Boston, then a Puritan settlement. A great scholar of advanced age named Roger sends his young wife Hester Prynne to a small village in Boston for buying a house & intended to follow her. But he was detained by Red Indians for two years. After the completion of two years of imprisonment when he comes to Boston, he finds that the crowd of Boston was waiting before the gate of the local prison. Soon the gate opened & his wife Hester comes out with a child of 3 months in her arms. She was charged with the sin of adultery. The magistrates ordered her to stand at a raised platform in the market place & wear the stigma (mark of disgrace) of the scarlet letter ‘A’ (adulterous).

The Puritan Boston followed morality strictly & for them violation of morality was as good as violation of law. Adultery was punishable with death. The magistrates had taken pity on the young woman & allowed her to live but she was to wear the ‘A’ as a mark of social disgrace. She was asked to give the name of sinner but she refused & was ready to face the agony all alone. She was sent back to the prison. While standing on the platform in the market place, Hester recognised her husband in the crowd. Her husband visited her in the prison as a physician to cure her & her child from pain & restlessness. Hester was shocked & thought that to seek revenge he will kill the child as well as her. But he told her that he had no such intention. It was his mistake to marry a young & beautiful girl in advanced age & for that he would forgive her. But he could not forgive the sinner who had wronged both of them. So he wanted her to give him his identity & disclose the name of the sinner. But she told that she could not oblige him. He told Hester that in that case he would find him on his own as he searched truth in books. He told her that he wanted to keep his identity disclosed. Hester swore & he assumed a new name Roger Chillingworth.

Roger was a great scholar of physics and during his captivity with Red Indians, he studied several herbs which could cure human ailments. Boston needed such a physician and he establishes himself in the town and big or small took him as a boon to the Puritan community of the town. Father Arthur Dimmesdale was a young and popular priest of the town. He was a religious man and considered by the people as a true soul. His sermons were popular and praised by people of the entire area. He always kept his heart protected by a piece of cloth & his right hand. In course of time he began to feel the pain & his health deteriorated.

Chillingworth befriended him & started giving him medical treatment. As his condition worsened it was considered proper that the physician & Dimmesdale should live together so that Dr. Roger could properly diagnose. In course of observation Roger comes to the conclusion that the ailment was concerned with the spirit of the clergyman & so he requested him to allow him to examine his spirit & soul. The priest objected & told him that human soul was God’s concern; hence he won’t allow a man to stand between his soul & God.

Dr. Roger gets suspicious & one day he enters his room when he was asleep & examines his heart. It gave him devilish pleasure for he had seen the secret scarlet letter ‘A’ on his chest & found the sinner. He subjects him to mental torture & the priest was virtually driven to madness. Hester cannot tolerate the agony of Dimmesdale & informs him that his friend was his enemy. She reveals that Roger was her husband. He was only planning Dimmesdale’s ruin for revenge. She asks the priest to escape from that place.

By this time, Hester & Arthur’s daughter Pearl has grown up as a seven years old child. For the sake of the daughter, Dimmesdale first refused to escape but then agreed to her plan. Roger comes to know about their plan. The health of the priest was causing anxiety to him day-by-day.

On the Election Day the town crowd was to be seen in the streets & a procession was arranged. Arthur was called upon to give his last sermon to the people. While going to the market place he stops near the same raised platform where seven year ago Hester was humiliated publically. He asked Hester & Pearl to help him reach the platform. He impulsively climbs up the scaffold with his lover and his daughter, and confesses publicly, exposing the ‘A’ seared into the flesh of his chest. He falls dead, as Pearl kisses him.

Chillingworth dies a year later. Hester and Pearl leave Boston, and no one knows about them. Many years later, Hester returns alone, still wearing the scarlet letter, to live in her old cottage and resume her charitable work. She sometime receives letters from Pearl, who has settled with a European aristocrat. When Hester dies, she is buried next to Arthur. The two share a single tombstone, which bears a scarlet ‘A’.

Chapter- II The Psychology of Sin

The story of The Scarlet Letter is a display of how the American Puritan society was then. According to that Puritan society Hester has sinned unredeemable sin and thus she was punished and had to wear her badge of shame which will remind her of her guilt. Also the presence of her daughter, the result of this sin will make her realize of her guilt. The puritan society asserts its authority over the individual conscience by forcing Hester to accept her punishment. But who gave this right to the society to judge whether Hester was a sinner or not? Hester herself had developed a sympathetic intuition about sinners in Boston and that she could understand sinfulness in people in whom it was to be the least expected. At the beginning of the story, it is the most frustrated people who are the most outspoken critics of Hester. It shows that a Boston Puritan Society that is not capable of judging Hester because all its members are sinful in one way or the other.

Hester was in a position in which she may have offended a social or moral code but so have the others, like Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, Bellingham and other unnamed people. Therefore, if a whole society is corrupt or sinful, the individual whose conscience makes him do his penance is sensitive to morality and he has his own personal morality as against the morality of a whole society. In chapter XIV, when Chillingworth tells Hester that the Puritans are planning to ask her not to wear the scarlet letter any longer, she says that it is not for the community to decide when to abate her punishment which is as mental and psychological as it is social. She may still wear the letter “A”, but the meaning of the word has now changed from “Adulteress” to “Able” or “Angel”. With her patience, courage, and humility, allied to good deeds, Hester proves that she is as good as anybody else. She has been true to her own self-ordained punishment. She is the one who feels her sin both through the scarlet letter and the child Pearl, but she never tortures herself as Dimmesdale does. Hester may be was afraid of the criticism received from her husband as well as from the society and this implies that somewhere or the other she was accepting herself as a sinner in her mind. But then she has a private morality which is not inferior to the social morality of the Puritans.

Puritan society of Boston was a theocracy; it was a religious as well as a political organization. Those individuals who defied or contradict the norms of the society were seen as a threat as they might cause anarchy in the society which itself was trying to adjust itself in a new country in which there was danger from the Red Indians, the Spaniards and from the Nature. The crime that Hester has committed is over before the story in The Scarlet Letter begins. In this sense, The Scarlet Letter thus, deals not with the crime and punishment of the sin but with the effect of a particular sin on a group of people, be it a psychological, social or political effect. Externally the punishment of Hester and Dimmesdale is symbolized by the instrument of society- the prison-house, the pillory, the scaffold, the pulpit, the scarlet letter- but internally, that is, psychologically the punishment is a matter of the individual conscience. Hester suffers internally and in order to accept her punishment internally and spiritually she refuses to give up on both Pearl and the scarlet letter. This shows her willingness to correct herself by accepting the trivial punishment given by the society. Dimmesdale also suffers with terrible agony in secrecy. His tormented conscience forces him to devise ways and means to play out his punishment in private. He keeps vigil, fasts and whips himself. His habit of covering his heart with his hand signifies his silent confession of him being a sinner.

The question of sin and redemption is not a social but a religious question. The tragedy happened with both the characters is not only a legal punishment sanctioned by their Puritan society, but also a punishment much worse than that as their consciences prick them always. They may be the criminals by the standards of the Boston Puritans, but they basically think of themselves as “sinners”, that is, alienated from “God” or “conscience”. Crime and punishment are, therefore only an external cause and effect; while sin and regeneration are internal convictions, a psychological state. The scarlet letter as well as the Pearl, both are the symbols of her sin and these two helped her rather assisted her in achieving redemption, if not in the eyes of the society then at least in the eyes of God. Hester triumphs over her fate with her goodness and resolve. In this sense, she achieves a spiritual victory over her society. Dimmesdale also passes through a similar crisis. He does not suffer publicly as a criminal, but his raw conscience chafes him into constant self-torment through self-laceration and mortification.

Conclusion

From numerous points of view Dimmesdale endures the most in all angles. His brain is always considering his transgression and its outcomes and it appears that he is never free from the mental impacts of his wrongdoing. He contemplates it relentlessly and even joins his sentiments into his sermons so others can impart (yet unwittingly) in his transgression and inward torment. Like Hester, he is continually battling with his considerations. While it is clear that he is experiencing the impacts of his concealed sin in his psyche, his body additionally starts to hold up under the load also. Aside from the way that he excessively bears a letter of his own toward the end, physically, his body starts to demonstrate the impacts of sin as he develops weaker. His structure developed more anorexic; his voice, however still rich and sweet, had a certain despairing prediction of rot in it; he was frequently seen, on any sight alert or sudden mischance, to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and afterward a whiteness, characteristic of ache. While this is a physical appearance of his blame and inward turmoil, the way that he develops ever more slender is huge in light of the fact that it is typical of his spirit being tormented also. His spirit is constantly emptied and he thinks of it as degenerate in light of his transgression. Thus he is similar to an empty man; both inside and as far as how he looks. Dissimilar to Hester and Chillingworth, he feels that the greatest issue identified with his wrong doing is the impact on his interminable soul. The way that Dimmesdale passes on toward the end of the story makes it clear that he was enduring significantly more than either Hester or Roger Chillingworth. While Roger bites the dust as well, it is more in light of annihilation instead of the sharp internal torment the clergyman feels. He was being expended, as a main priority, body, and soul by the impacts of sin since he was not able to be similar to Hester and Roger and acknowledge his wrongdoing for what it was, in spite of the torment it may in some cases cause.

Hester and Dimmesdale are disconnected as a result of the first sin, Chillingworth by the yearning for retribution in his heart, and Pearl in light of the fact that her elfin-like nature and her steady antagonism at the town kids who fake at and deride her mother. Every one of them is a social outsider, living in an universe of his or her with the barest correspondence with the outside world. However this detachment is not without its specialist preferences For Hester’s situation, her Isolation is her “emblem of disgrace”. The Scarlet letter removes her from others. In any case it helps her ethical and mental development. She “transcends her division from society by great deeds and the camaraderie of hopeless individuals”. For Dimmesdale’s situation, his affectability to his transgression makes him aware of his unworthiness to lead his clock. It prompts private enduring and torment. He feels suffocated in this nature’s domain, yet is so frail it is not possible attempt to receive in return. Passing is his just deliverance. Chillingworth’s separation is basically the seclusion of an individual who has been wronged by his wife and his quest for retribution. He has damaged the holiness of the human heart – both on account of Hester and Dimmesdale. This prompts his profound seclusion and passing. Individuals see the Devil incarnate in the hunchbacked doctor. Pearl is a free soul, excessively whimsical to be secured to anything. This is her separation. She is a friendless youngster who plays with soulless items or with creatures, streams and blooms a casualty of the transgression of her guardians and, the severity of the Puritan culture. Inevitably she symbolizes just beam of trust and leaves the settlement for greener pastures where she settles down.

None of the fundamental characters in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne have the capacity be totally free from the impacts of sin. While they each one arrangement with the outcomes of sin in diverse courses, none of them ever still appear ready to completely accommodate themselves with their transgression. Hester does in the end proceed onward and Pearl turns into a win yet there is still a shadow over her. Her life would have been totally diverse in the event if she had not decided to stay in a town that had denounced her generally as Chillingworth and Roger may not have passed on if they could have made peace with their transgression and existed in an unexpected way. The issue of sin is at the heart of this novel and through these three principle characters it is conceivable to see what the impacts of sin can be and what the result of living with it may be.

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