Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter Sin

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Sin

Chapter 3
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

"If thou feelest it to be for thy soul's peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer!" (3.26)

In today's legal system, there's a lot of talk about "victimless crimes," like certain drug offenses. By referring to Hester's "fellow-sinner," Dimmesdale seems to be suggesting that there's no such thing as a victimless sin: someone else is always dragged into it. Is that true? And is there really such a thing as a victimless crime?

Chapter 5

Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast,—at her, the child of honorable parents,—at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, —at her, who had once been innocent, —as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. (5.1)

"Sin" may be an abstract noun, but it's not abstract to the Puritan community. Now they've got Hester in their midst to make an example of. (Hey, every community needs a scapegoat.)

Chapter 14

The scarlet letter burned on Hester Prynne's bosom. Here was another ruin, the responsibility of which came partly home to her. (14.9)

It's not enough to be responsible for her own sin; Hester decides that she's also responsible for Dimmesdale's sin (hypocrisy) and Chillingworth's sin (pure evilness). Geez, Hester, maybe you should take it easy on yourself.

Roger Chillingworth

"What evil have I done the man?" asked Roger Chillingworth again. (14.16)

Uh, well, you've tortured him into a living death? Chillingworth raises an important question, though—not "what evil have I done the man?" but "Who gets to decide what counts as sin?" Chillingworth doesn't think he's done anything wrong, but Dimmesdale has a different opinion: he sees Chillingworth's sin as way worse than his or Hester's.

"With the superstition common to his brotherhood, he fancied himself given over to a fiend, to be tortured with frightful dreams, and desperate thoughts, the sting of remorse, and despair of pardon; as a foretaste of what awaits him beyond the grave. But it was the constant shadow of my presence!—the closest propinquity of the man whom he had most vilely wronged!--and who had grown to exist only by this perpetual poison of the direst revenge! Yea, indeed!—he did not err!—there was a fiend at his elbow! A mortal man, with once a human heart, has become a fiend for his especial torment!" (14.18)

Who needs the devil when you've got a friend like Chillingworth to take care of all your penance needs? This also raises a question: if you don't think that something is a sin, do you still need to be punished for it?

Chapter 15
Hester Prynne

"Be it sin or no," said Hester Prynne bitterly, as she still gazed after him, "I hate the man!"

[…]

"Yes, I hate him!" repeated Hester, more bitterly than before. "He betrayed me! He has done me worse wrong than I did him!" (15.2-4)

You go, girl! Here, Hester has finally realizes that she's not the community's wrongdoer. Chillingworth has a lot of sin to answer for, too—like, convincing this young, beautiful woman to marry his old, scholarly, crippled self. (And then sending her all alone to the New World; not nice.)

Chapter 17

Hester Prynne was now fully sensible of the deep injury for which she was responsible to this unhappy man, in permitting him to lie for so many years, or, indeed, for a single moment, at the mercy of one, whose purposes could not be other than malevolent. (17.23)

Oh, Hester. First, she has an extramarital affair with the town pastor, and then she makes it worse by letting her husband persecute him. Can the girl do anything right?

Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

"Had I one friend, —or were it my worst enemy! —to whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself, and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby. Even thus much of truth would save me! But now, it is all falsehood! —all emptiness! —all death!" (17.18)

Poor Dimmesdale. All he wants is for one person—anyone—to know just how bad he is. But instead, the entire town thinks he's basically an angel on earth. Must be hard.

"We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! 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!" (17.31)

Check out the way that Dimmesdale talks about Chillingworth "violating" the "sanctity of a human heart." To us, that sounds a lot like a type of rape: Chillingworth has psychologically raped Dimmesdale. Which, yeah, that sounds pretty sinful.

Chapter 23
Roger Chillingworth

"Thou hast escaped me!" [Chillingworth] repeated more than once. "Thou hast escaped me!"

"May God forgive thee!" said the minister. "Thou, too, hast deeply sinned!" (23.28-29)

After Dimmesdale dies, we don't see what happens to Chillingworth. But we do get the feeling that, eventually, he realizes that he's done some bad things. Giving his fortune to Pearl feels a lot like an apology and a confession. Maybe there's hope for him after all.

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