“But a lie is never good, even though death threatens on the other side” (The Scarlet Letter). Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is a story that illustrates intricate pieces of the Puritan lifestyle. Lying of course was considered a tremendous sin in the eyes of the Puritans. Centered first on a sin committed by Hester Prynne and her secret lover before the story ever begins the novel details how sin affects the lives of the people involved. For Hester, the sin forces her into isolation from society and even from herself.
Of the three main characters affected, Hester has the easiest time because her sin is out in the open. Arthur Dimmesdale has the hardest time dealing with it because his sin is hidden to the outside world. Roger Chillingworth is the most affected by the sin, though he was not around when the sin took place. These characters, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth have all committed a sin, but the way it affects their lives is very different. Hester was left alone by her husband, Chillingworth, for more then two years.
She unwisely committed adultery with Dimmesdale and gave birth to a baby girl named Pearl. She confesses her sin in front of everyone and wears the scarlet letter as her punishment. Pearl and the scarlet letter are both daily reminders of her sin, and keep her from falling in to the devil’s hands again. She uses her sin to grow stronger and become a better person. She tells the magistrates, “This badge has taught me- it daily teaches me…”(Hawthorne 102). With her sin being out in the open, it changes her for the better because she acknowledges her mistake, she learns from it, and she can move on.
Many people from her town go to her for advice, and to talk of their problems with her. “Such helpfulness was found in her- so much power to do and power to sympathize- that many people refused to interpret the scarlet ‘A’ by it’s original signification. They said that it meant ‘Able’; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a women’s strength” (The Scarlet Letter). Dimmesdale has the hardest time with his sin because he does not admit it to everyone. It haunts him every day when he sees Pearl and Hester.
He lies about it in order to seem holy in the eyes of the congregation. He is very weak and unable to speak the truth, although he pleads for Hester to speak for him when he says, “…I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on they pedestal of shame, yet better it were so, than to hide a guilty heart through life” (63).
She could not speak, and neither could he. Through the seven years that he kept his sin a secret, he grew very ill and they knew it was more of an illness to the soul then to the body. He tortured himself by whipping his own back. Every day he went up the stairs to give a sermon, he would try to speak of his sin, but everyday he walked backed down those stairs without doing it. He cannot justify his sin, even on the grounds of his love for Hester. Finally he admits his guilt, right before he dies on the scaffold.
Chillingworth is the worst sinner of all because he violates the sanctity of the human heart. He pretends to be Dimmesdale’s friend while he is actually probing his heart. Although at the beginning he is a good, kind, intelligent man, his real personality is engulfed by the revenge he wants for Dimmesdale. He holds no grudge against Hester or Pearl, but he wants to ruin Dimmesdale’s life by torturing him with the sin he is hiding. Demented by his thoughts of revenge and hate, Chillingworth is shown to be a devil by not being truthful to himself and others.
Finally, for all the characters, Hawthorne’s novel illustrates how one sin can escalate to encompass one’s self so that the true humans behind the sin are lost. This is what makes Hawthorne’s novel not only a story of love vs. hate, sin vs. purity, good vs. evil, but all of these combined to make a strikingly historical tragedy as well. The Scarlet Letter is one of the few books that will be timeless because it deals with alienation, sin, punishment, and guilt; emotions that will continue to be felt by every generation to come.