In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne utilizes Puritan ideology to convey a philosophical reflection on sin and redemption. Adulteress Hester Prynne must wear a scarlet A to mark her shame, and while her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, remains unidentified and is wracked with guilt, her husband, Roger Chillingworth, seeks revenge. Although all three characters contemplate redemption, it is only Hester that chooses to confront her sin; Dimmesdale and Chillingworth refuse. This decision is heavily influenced by their respective morals.
Hester’s morals of truth, forgiveness, and honesty allow her to be almost fully redeemed in the eyes of the public, whereas Dimmesdale’s perverse loyalty to the morally corrupt society that hinders his love for Hester prevents him from embracing his sin, slowly killing him, and Chillingworth’s devotion to exact revenge warp both his physical image and mental conscience. Thus, Hawthorne vests right action and right thought in Hester, as her reaction to her sin and her subsequent strive for redemption illustrate the virtuous morals that allow her to attain redemption for her sin.
Dimmesdale’s refusal to admit sin in order to preserve the faith and sense of responsibility the public invested in him both physically and psychologically destroyed him. Physically, his sin caused him to look like “an emaciated figure, his thin cheek, his white, heavy, pain-wrinkled brow” (149); he had become so physically pathetic from the guilt which tore at him internally. Dimmesdale’s method of repentance was much worse than Hester’s, both emotionally and physically.
Emotionally, Dimmesdale was deeply torn over his moral responsibilities to himself and his responsibility to the community, ultimately refusing to confront his sin and redeem himself. Instead, he attempts to justify and convince himself that he is refusing to “display [himself] black and filthy in the view of men… because, thenceforward… no evil of the past be redeemed by better service” (91). Dimmesdale refuses to expose his secret in fear of losing the his role and respect in the Puritan community. He laments the relief that he has seen in “sinful brethren… ho at last draw free air, after long stifling with his own polluted breath” (90), as he is both physically and emotionally pained by the stifling of his guilt.
However, contradicting his own morals–based in the Puritan religion–and those that vest right action and right thought in Hester, Dimmesdale continues to suppress his guilt in an attempt to maintain his prestigious standing within the community. In fact, Dimmesdale’s guilt is not merely over the sin of adultery committed by him and Hester, the majority of his guilt comes from his deception of the townspeople.
His standing of respect within the community causes him to not be able to endure the shame. Instead, Dimmesdale feels a great measure of guilt about lying: “he longed to speak out from his own pulpit, at the full height of his voice, and tell his people who he was” (98). However, his vague sermons give no cause to believe he is a great sinner, as “he had spoken the very truth, and transformed it into the veriest falsehood… therefore, above all things else, he loathed his miserable self” (99).
By once again choosing guilt over shame, Dimmesdale is merely increasing the depth of his guilt and the extent of his pain. Similarly, despite the drastic effect his negative actions have taken on his body, Chillingsworth refuses to accept redemption. Although he was the one cheated on, Chillingsworth decision and subsequent dedication to torturing and punishing the man responsible took an immense toll on his body. The once “intellectual and studious man… had altogether vanished, and been succeeded by a… visage… that the spectator could see his blackness” (116).
Despite this, Chillingworth has multiple opportunities to gain redemption for the sins of torture. In fact, Hester openly takes responsibility for creating a fiend that replaced the man she once married. Chillingsworth expresses regret over the “peaceful and innocent” (118) life he lost when he became consumed by “a heart full of torture” (116). Ignoring Hester’s plea to purge out the evil and reject his sin, therefore embracing his redemption, Chillingsworth refuses; his morals had been too corrupted by his dedication to causing Dimmesdale pain.
As such, Hawthorne vests right action and thought in Hester, as evidenced by the ensuing results of her acceptance of her sin. After years of hard work, Hester sheds the sinful notation of the scarlet A, instead: The letter was the symbol of her calling. 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 its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength (111).
Despite Hester’s sin, she had become known for ability to help others and her strength; the A now represents Able, not Adulteress. This illustrates the fact that Hawthorne believes that truth and embracing sin leads to freedom and forgiveness. Hester has an overall impact in her community despite of the symbol of shame that the letter is meant to represent, by regaining her communities admiration through her ability to be a productive member of the community and sympathize with others. Hester utilizes her “shame” to derive strength, pushing the notion of righteousness through the embracement of sin.
Hester continues to participate in society, creating items such as gloves for religious activities, and through this, Hester regains the trust of the people. Hester’s morals of truth, honesty, and hard work are further justified as the righteous morals when it becomes apparent to the community that “none so ready as she to give her little substance to every demand of poverty” (110). This implies that Hester had regained the respect of many in her town, and she did this through conducting her life through the spheres of hard work and honesty, emphasizing Hawthorne’s view on proper morals.