Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and How It Portrays Human Sin and Hypocrisy

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The Scarlet Letter Essay

“What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him – yea, compel him, as it were – to add hypocrisy to sin?” (Hawthorne 47).

This excerpt from The Scarlet Letter is a query that unearths an insight to the nature of mankind- his inherent sinfulness and hypocrisy. With an ancestry of strict Puritanism, author Nathaniel Hawthorne spent his life writing in the realm of such topics. He was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts and raised by his widowed mother. As soon as he finished schooling, it became his intention to write professionally without higher education, but, with familial pressures to pursue something greater, he attended Bowdoin College. During his stay there, he spent much of his time reading and writing. His story of The Scarlet Letter was largely an outcome of an interest in his own historical background. The story is meant to induce much grief in the reader because that is how Hawthorne viewed Puritanism, as a religion of guilt, not of grace. He even changed his name from Hathorne to Hawthorne to conceal his relation to John Hathorne, his Puritan ancestor who took part in the notorious witch trials.

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Hawthorne began writing The Scarlet Letter during his time of occupation at the Custom House after having discovered a peculiar embroidered letter A amongst the documents of a woman named Hester Prynne. His imagining of her story includes relatable topics of sin and guilt. It depicts sin as filth that breeds only guilt and hypocrisy. The character Hester Prynne, a married woman, commits adultery with a pastor and keeps his identity a secret. She is then forced to wear an embroidered letter A on her breast as a reminder to all of the shame of what she did.

In desperate attempt to expose his own sin without the courage to do so himself, the character Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale attempts to persuade the adulteress Hester Prynne to reveal the identity of her secret lover. He asks this question of full knowledge of the answer, yet pushes the weight of confession upon her in his cowardliness to do so himself. As a result of this, he spends a greater part of the book torturing himself with his incessant hypocrisy and guilt. His sermons receive much praise as he becomes a truly empathetic pastor, but they also further his guilt. Immediately before his death, he confesses to everyone his unforgivable act by revealing a scar on his chest in the shape of an A. His single act of adultery caused him a lifetime of internal suffering.

It is a fact made certain under the authority of Scripture that all men struggle with sin (Romans 3:23). Public confessions, however, very seldom occur lest the speaker suffer grave embarrassment. Thus is the case of Hester Prynne. As a result of this public embarrassment, however, she learned to embrace her sin as part of herself and lived her life as a testament of inner transformation. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, withheld confession and suffered as a consequence. His repentance was delayed at much expense. He became a hypocrite as the beginning quotation hints at. One who has endured through the pain of guilt only regrets past sins of secrecy. Private sin may necessitate public shame as a stronger means for repentance. Ultimately, repentance must be a form of realization, one that may not derive from a repressed conscience. As a result, good works become an outflow of inner repentance, not a means for outer recognition.

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