The seventeenth century novel, the Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne begins with Hester Prynne, a woman living in colonial Boston. She is charged with adultery and her punishment is to permanently wear a visible token of her sin. The symbol, a scarlet letter “A”, leads to public humiliation everywhere she travels. Throughout the novel, the narrator introduces Dimmesdale, the holy man who she has an affair with, and Chillingworth, her husband who is in search of revenge. The Scarlet Letter mainly focuses on the interactions of these characters and how they react to Hester’s sin. Hester’s apparent sin is committing adultery; however the major underlying sin that the author explains is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess. The three characters, Hester, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale all commit the sin of hypocrisy and are punished for it.
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Hester Prynne is a powerful and independent woman who has to deal with her sin of adultery exceptionally well. She has openly confronted the consequences and accepts her punishment. However, Hester does not believe she committed adultery because she wasn’t “actually” married to Chillingworth. Her definition of marriage requires that there be love between the husband and wife, but she does not feel any love between herself and Chillingworth. While in prison, she attempts to defend her actions against Chillingworth, “Thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any” (51). Later, while conversing with Dimmesdale, she further explains her belief that she had not committed a sin by saying, “What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou forgotten it?” (134). Hester believes that she has not committed a sin and the fact that she still wears the scarlet letter without much resistance demonstrates the first reason why she can be deemed a hypocrite. She allows herself to be portrayed as a sinner by having to wear the scarlet letter, but her true shame is brought by her sin of hypocrisy. If Hester had simply told how she truly felt to the townspeople, then perhaps she may have earned back their respect and not had to undergo the constant humiliation of the scarlet letter. However, her acceptance of a non-existent sin is not the only hypocritical thing she does; she also agreed to keep Chillingworth’s name a secret. She is responsible for the suffering Chillingworth had caused to Dimmesdale, because she had allowed him to enter Dimmesdale’s home without warning.
Dimmesdale, a minister who is supposed to act as a role model for the townspeople, is also consequently punished for his hypocrisy. He is considered to be the most sinless person who they good look up to for any type of guidance, they believed him to be “a true priest, a true religionist, with the reverential sentiment largely developed, and an order of mind that impelled itself powerfully along the track of a creed” (84). The only reasonable remedy was to either step down from his ministerial position or confess his sin to the public. Instead, he attempts to cover up his sin and use Hester’s sin instead in his sermons. A faithful minister would not attempt to hide his sins from his congregation; and only to make matters worse; he is a hypocrite by preaching about how terrible Hester’s sin was, even though he committed it as well. Internally Dimmesdale loves Hester, but he will not acknowledge it as he does not want to be associated with Hester or be rightfully charged with the crime. Hester explain that to Pearl by saying, “But [Dimmesdale] will not greet thee to-day; nor must thou greet him” (157). His refusal to be in any way associated with Hester was extremely cowardly and was not faithful. He is being hypocritical because he exclaimed that he dearly loves her, however he wants to keep his love a secret.
The last character, Roger Chillingworth, also commits the unfortunate sin of hypocrisy. He believes that all doctors must care for their patients, but he himself consciously breaks his own belief and hurts Dimmesdale, who is one of his patients. Chillingworth had done so for revenge; however that does not justify his actions. Later on, Chillingworth enjoyed retelling the torture scene to Hester. Hester proceeds to ask if he tortured Dimmesdale, Chillingworth replies: “No!-no!-He has but increased the debt!” (118). The notion that Chillingworth takes comfort from his patient’s pain and at the same time claiming himself to be the best physician, makes him an outright hypocrite. The author punishes Chillingworth for his hypocrisy by deforming him mentally and physically. He becomes an old man who seeks for more revenge and had no other purpose to live. Chillingworth deeming himself a fiend blamed it upon Dimmesdale. He was hypocritical in the medicine field, but he was also hypocritical towards Hester. He reveals to Hester that he was to be actually blamed for their terrible marriage; he states:
It was my folly! I have said it. But, up to that epoch of my life, I had to live in vain. The world had been so cheerless! My heart was a habitation large enough for may guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one! It seemed not so wild a dream, — old as I was, and somber as I was, and misshapen as I was, –that the simple bliss, which is scattered far and wide, for all mankind to gather up, might yet be mine. And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made there! (51).
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Chillingworth continues to reveal that he has no intent to vengeance against her, “I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between thee and me, the scale hangs fairly balanced” (52). Later, it is evident that Chillingworth is lying when he says, ‘”I have left thee to the scarlet letter,” replied Roger Chillingworth. “If that have not avenged me, I can do no more!” (119). Although Chillingworth said that he was not avenging himself on Dimmesdale or Hester, he in reality was, which showed his true deceptive and hypocritical intentions.
All three of the main characters, Dimmesdale, Hester, and Chillingworth clearly demonstrate hypocrisy and receive their own punishments. Adultery was not the real sin in the Scarlet Letter, but rather it was just one of the overlying factors that lead the characters to be wrapped in a complicated situation involving hypocrisy, which was the real sin in the novel.
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