The Scarlet Letter is a novel that deals with the never-ending theme of sin. Throughout history, people have committed all types of sins, and whether they are major or minor, people have been punished. However, the severity of a punishment is very difficult to agree on.
Some people feel that sinners should be deeply punished no matter how little the wrongdoing was. Others feel that a person’s punishment should be based upon the severity of their crime. However, what many people overlook is the fact that in time, we all have committed sins.
In The Scarlet Letter, the idea of sin and punishment is the main theme of the novel and how Hester Prynne, the main character, has been punished for her sin of adultery. As Nathaniel Hawthorne states in this novel, “In the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike.” This statement puts a big question mark on the true lives of the Puritans.
If we all have once committed a moral wrongdoing, why is this young woman so harshly punished for her sin? Hester Prynne was a young woman living in a Puritan community in the “New World.” Her husband, Roger Chillingworth was said to be lost at sea, and Hester assumed his death.
Upon this basis, young Hester committed a crime of adultery with her fellow Minister Arthur Dimmesdale. The result of this extramarital affair was the birth of young Pearl, an “elf-like” child. When the townspeople become aware of what Hester has done, they forced her to wear an ultimate sign of punishment, the scarlet letter.
This letter “A” for adultery had to be worn on Hester’s bosom at all times. However, Roger Chillingworth returns from the sea and now seeks revenge on Hester’s lover. When one analyzes the punishment inflicted upon her, it may seem harsh and cruel, especially for a Puritan society. It seems that Hawthorne agrees with this as well.
Throughout the novel, it seems apparent that Hawthorne feels that the punishment Hester received was harsh and self-degrading. When one commits a sin, they should understand their mistake, receive their blame, and receive a “slap on the wrist.” However, the punishment Hester received was far worse emotionally.
Wearing the letter made Hester the talk-about of the town. When she walked through the marketplace, she received scornful looks, as if society was rejecting her for her wrongdoing. Hester was now living on the outskirts of town, isolated from neighbors and trying to communicate with her daughter Pearl. After many years of being swept out of society, Hester realized that her punishment was far worse than she deserved.
Many times throughout the novel, Hawthorne sympathizes with Hester because of the emotional problems she encounters. Hawthorne sees her as the victim quite often and blames it on her youth. She was forced to marry Roger Chillingworth at a young age, although she clearly had no feelings for him.
Secondly, Hester’s crime was one out of passion, not malice. It is clear throughout the novel that she has strong feelings for Dimmesdale and they outweigh her respect for the Puritan’s code of law. Although Hawthorne does not condone adultery, he often feels that Hester’s sin is somewhat out of necessity.
She has nobody in her life. Her husband is lost at sea and she lives with nobody. Dimmesdale was the first man Hester really loved, and he feels that because of these circumstances, her punishment far outweighed her crime. Throughout the novel, it is very clear that Hester does not abide by most Puritan traditions and she clearly is not very orthodox.
However, at times in the novel, it seems that she has overcome her guilt and her love for Pearl is unmatched, yet the scarlet letter always reminds her of her adulterous sin. A human is very fragile and many things can hurt or upset them. As Hawthorne expresses, it is clear to Puritans that they have little or no sympathy for unruly persons.
Hawthorne feels that once she has overcome her guilt and has accepted her punishment, then Hester should be able to start over from scratch and unload this heavy burden from her back. However, that doesn’t happen. This sin remains with Hester for seven years until her death, and the Puritan community never seems to forgive her for her sins.
It is very clear that in this novel, Hawthorne is attempting to express his feelings on Puritan life and their rigid beliefs towards transgressors. However, people should be able to leave the past behind them and start over, yet that never seems to happen, and Hester is forced to drag this guilt around with her, until her last breath of air.
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