True redemption of sin comes from suffering. When a person goes against what they judge as wrong, the only way to be freed of the guilt that their actions have caused is to feel the pain emotionally from the guilt of their sin. The guilt they feel on the inside and the shame they have to face others is their atonement. Feeling that guilt shows that the person has recognized their sin as wrong and the constant reminder from the pain of guilt and shame of the sin forces the person to change their ways.
Recognizing the sin and changing the ways that are inside the person that could possibly justify the sin, is the definition of true atonement and redemption. Others find that emotional suffering is insubstantial, and they need something more tangible to truly suffer from. Therefore, they turn their manifested emotional pain into physical pain by means of self injury, to have the physical pain serve as the atonement instead of the emotional suffering since the person cannot relate to their emotional pain and by not relating to the emotional pain they cannot use it as an atonement because they don’t experience it as the real pain that it is.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter shows how each type of suffering (emotional and physical) redeems the person and how the person is affected by his/her suffering. Set in a New England town in the 1640’s, two characters with the same sin of adultery atone and redeem themselves differently but both are redeemed in the end. Hester atones physically while Dimmesdale, her lover and reverend of the community, atones emotionally but both are only redeemed when they each atone in both ways of atonement, and only through suffering.
Hester must atone for her sin physically for everyone to see but also for herself because she can’t handle the manifestation of the guilt inside her. It overwhelms her to have an illegitimate child to raise on her own, to be the symbol of evil in the community and to know that she has sinned not only according to society’s laws but her own morals of right and wrong. She transforms her emotional, undealable burden into deliberate physical pain by wearing her scarlet A. Hester never cries throughout the story, she lets the A cry for her.
Crying would relieve her of some of her burden and she’s physically punishing herself by not letting herself have this relief. The A serves as a symbol of her path of atonement, by showing others that she has sinned and by reminding herself of her sin. She knows that the A will eventually give her the relief of her burden of guilt and regret inside of her so she lets the A cry. Hester’s emotional guilt is not just from committing adultery but it started building up inside her when she married Chillingworth.
She sought out this love that she was denied from Chillingworth and found it in Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale gave her the love that she was missing but in the seven years that she had no contact with Dimmesdale, after their affair, she constantly needed her A so she could concentrate on the physical anguish it gave her and not deal with the emotional longing she felt about not being with the man she loves. Hester’s A is constantly reminding her of her sin and causing her pain, but it also gives her relief, knowing that the A will lead to her redemption.
She gets addicted to the relief, and the A’s constant reminder of Dimmesdale’s love for her and it tells her that her act wasn’t a sin but an act of love and she relies on the A do this for her. It is clearly seen that Hester is addicted to the relief that the painful A gives her because when she has the oppurtunity to take it off she refuses. Hester removes the A in the forest when she is rejoined with Dimmesdale, her love, and she didn’t need it to cry for her anymore.
She only removes it for a short time because then her daughter Pearl, the result of her sin with Dimmesdale, doesn’t recognize her own mother without it. Hester suddenly feels a rush of dark emotions come over her and doesn’t know how to deal so she tells her daughter to get her the A that she threw on the ground so she can put I back on so it can deal with her problems for her. Hester contemplates suicide a few times in the story but that would be her easy way out of the pain because that would redeem her physically before she had the chance to atone to herself, and fully forgive herself.
Hester wears her A physically (externally) to redeem herself emotionally (internally) because it took her guilt and turned it into physical pain, which she could understand. Dimmesdale atones emotionally to himself for his sin because he has sinned to himself. The community doesn’t even know that he has committed a sin which deteriorates him inside, knowing that he would have to come out and confess this information in front of them all. He whips an A onto his chest so only he can see it and feel the pain of the scars and be reminded of his guilt and his need for true atonement.
All he needs to do to complete his atonement is to confess to the public, but he holds back because he knows that as the town’s spiritual leader is he transgresses a law and is able to forgive himself there must be holes in the system that they don’t see, and this would put doubts into their minds about their whole religion. After he has atoned to himself internally he must atone externally by confessing on the scaffold with Hester, then showing his A, so he can finally take on his share of the burden that Hester has had to carry alone, being the only symbol of evil in the town.
Dimmesdale needed the A on the inside first to redeem himself internally so he could face himself, but then he didn’t need the A to atone externally, all he had to do was confess unlike Hester who needed the A to atone internally and externally. Hester relies on it to keep her emotions in balance and needs it forever. The guilt that it has stitched into it has transformed all the emotional distress that she doesn’t want to deal with and get over into a tangible physical pain and shame.
Dimmesdale doesn’t need it forever but the scars of his A will be there forever on him. He only needed it to atone to himself. Dimmesdale and Hester both couldn’t have been redeemed without suffering. In Dimmesdale’s case he needed to suffer internally to atone to himself and then confessing was easy for him and even brought a smile to his face. In Hester’s case she needed to suffer physically to atone emotionally and by suffering on the outside she would relive her internal pain of regret.
Dimmesdale’s method of atonement is more logical because he understood that first people must admit they did wrong according to themselves and not just society’s view of what’s right and atone to yourself, then atoning externally to relieve his conscience about admitting to everyone who Pearl’s father was. He died after confessing because he had fully and purely forgiven himself, and had showed everyone that he was Pearl’s father. Hester’s method was not practical because she ignored the fact that she must first atone to herself.
She couldn’t handle emotional things and therefore she needed physical evidence of pain, so she could atone internally but she was only tricking herself for she’ll never fully atone internally for she never let herself. She let the A do the crying and the bleeding and so she may feel redeemed but she never really is because she never actually faces herself about her sin. She shuts everything out and puts on the A hoping that the letter will take the pain away.