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The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Sin Theme

Face it: we've all made mistakes. (Even Shmoop.) But there's a difference between "Oops!... I Did It Again" and "He's a killer just for fun." Or is there? Not according to the townspeople and magistrates of The Scarlet Letter. To them, sin is sin: it has to be punished publicly and harshly. But Dimmesdale offers us a hierarchy of sin—a crime of passion, like the one he and Hester committed, isn't nearly as bad as betraying the human heart by mercilessly plotting to destroy a man. That earns you a mark from the Black Man himself—without all the pretty embroidery.

Questions About Sin

  1. Why do Hester and Dimmesdale think that Chillingworth's sin is worse than theirs? Do you think the community would agree?
  2. How and why is sin a communal, collective problem in The Scarlet Letter? Are there communities today that still treat sin as a collective problem, or do we mostly see "sin" as a private, individual matter?
  3. Does wearing the scarlet letter allow Hester to make up for her sin, or is it the act of living charitably that serves as penitence? Does Dimmesdale's confession cleanse his soul?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Whether a sin is committed secretly or not, it ends up affecting everyone.

Hester and Dimmesdale may not be angels, but Chillingworth is actually transformed into a living devil by his sin.

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