In The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne explores the great sins of three Puritans secretly tied together by their sins, living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hester Prynne begins by committing adultery with Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale shares this sin with her, but he continues to sin as the next seven years pass. Roger Chillingworth, Hester Prynne’s husband, turns himself into a living devil. While it is clear that Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale commit major sins, Roger Chillingworth’s iniquity tops anything either of them do.
Hester Prynne’s only sin during her time in the Massachusetts Bay Colony comes when she committed adultery with Dimmesdale. Hester ends up pregnant, exposing this affair to the entire Puritan town. Ordinarily she would be hanged for this sin, but the town decides against this because the father of the child has not yet been revealed. Since the Puritans decide against hanging her, they devise a punishment that consists of her standing for “three hours on the platform of the pillory, and then and thereafter, wear a mark of shame upon her bosom” (Hawthorne 59).
For the three hours on the scaffold she receives public ridiculing and shaming. This punishment turns into the first opportunity Hester has to atone for her sin. After the first leg of this punishment subsides, Hester decides to stay in the city of Boston. She comes to this decision by realizing that the “torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul” (74). Following this monumental decision she dedicates her life to helping people and purifying herself. Hester is always ready to “give of her little substance to every demand of poverty” (147). She is often seen cooking, feeding, sowing, and caring for the poor.
Even when Hester is attempting to be a worthy person she feels the scorn of the Puritans. When Hester sows for the Dames of elevated rank they are “accustomed to distil drops of bitterness into her heart,” but “Hester had schooled herself long and well, she never responded to these attacks” (78). Being the good Puritan she is, she takes the oral drubbing and never responds with a negative word towards them. As Hester shows her goodness and proves she has atoned, even the parochial Puritans of Boston forgive Hester for her sin. Hester’s extensive atonement has all but guaranteed her being redeemed by a God filled with mercy.
Dimmesdale’s evolution of sin begins the same as Hester’s, but as time moves forward he continues on a path of transgression. Dimmesdale’s first sin occurs when he commits adultery with Hester. Unlike Hester, Dimmesdale does not get caught and continues his role as a clergyman. While Hester is being scrutinized on the scaffold, Dimmesdale reluctantly starts questioning her; he beseeches her to have the father “step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee” (63). This question may sound like he wishes that she will name him, but his heart displays that he desperately wants her to not peg him as the father.
Dimmesdale’s desire to remain anonymous is the first step he takes to stay on the track of sin. As the years pass, Hester is forced to raise their daughter, Pearl, by herself. Pearl cannot grow and become the best person she can be without a father figure, but Dimmesdale never makes any attempt to be a father for his daughter. Throughout his seven years of abandonment towards Hester and Pearl, Dimmesdale makes feeble attempts to atone for his sin and tells his congregation that he is “utterly a pollution and is a lie” (132).
Dimmesdale knows he is a hypocrite because all of his flimsy attempts result in a unclear confession, that leads to his congregation believing he is in fact more holy every time he speaks of this affair. Dimmesdale goes to great lengths to privately atone for his dirty sins. At his home Dimmesdale keeps “a bloody scourge” and “plied it on his own shoulders” (133). Dimmesdale inflicts harm upon himself to strive towards full atonement of his sins. In his home Dimmesdale makes it “his custom … to fast … as an act of penance” (133). The rigorous fasting Dimmesdale executes results in his knees trembling beneath him.
Dimmesdale’s third act of private penance occurs as he keeps “vigils… night after night” (133). He goes nights without sleeping as an effort to atone. When he keeps his vigils he does them in “utter darkness; sometimes with a glittering lamp; and sometimes, viewing his own face in a looking-glass” (133). This shows that Dimmesdale is willing to try anything to atone for his sins. But finally, Dimmesdale makes his last attempt to make up for his sin. During his final few minutes living, Dimmesdale confesses his first sin “upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood” (231).
Dimmesdale reveals to Boston that he is the father of Pearl and he committed adultery with Hester. This heartfelt confession takes everything out of Dimmesdale, but it gives him the hope of being reunited in heaven with his family because “God knows; and he is merciful! ” and has proven his mercy “by giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast” (233). God’s mercy has been felt through the burning torture, the scarlet letter, on his chest offering some hope that Dimmesdale will make it heaven. Roger Chillingworth enters Boston as the innocent husband of a cheating wife, but leaves as the devil.
He enters sin when he believes he can dispassionately pursue and discover Hester’s secret lover. Chillingworth begins his search and quickly latches onto the naive minister. Chillingworth slowly tortures Dimmesdale. As he inflicts more pain, Chillingworth becomes emotionally involved. His continuous tormenting begins to control Dimmesdale. Chillingworth becomes a “chief actor, in the poor minister’s interior world” (129). Dimmesdale’s mind is broken beyond repair. Chillingworth is investing his life in wreaking havoc upon Dimmesdale’s intellect.
Chillingworth has a “heart full of torture” and is “deriving his enjoyment thence” (156). Not only is Chillingworth killing Dimmesdale, but he is gloating about the pain he has inflicted upon Dimmesdale. He tells Hester that no “mortal suffer what this man suffer” (157). Chillingworth is causing a man to suffer more than any other ever. It is his lone enjoyment in life. Chillingworth wants Dimmesdale to pay for his abominable sin for all of eternity. To do this, Chillingworth torments Dimmesdale to “disorganize and corrupt his spiritual being” (177).
This action will cause Dimmesdale to be unable to atone and rot in Hell for his afterlife. Chillingworth is now a living Devil, which is the climax of his escalation of sins. During this time, Chillingworth makes no efforts at all to atone for these horrific sins. He tells Hester that it is “not granted me to pardon” (159). Chillingworth does not have the power to forgive Dimmesdale at this point in their relationship. After Dimmesdale escapes Chillingworth and dies, Chillingworth begins to deteriorate.
Chillingworth’s hope of redemption crumbles when his “moral aspect is faithfully revealed to his mind’s eye” (158). Once he turns into the devil, and refuses atonement his chances of being redeemed are nonexistent. Nathaniel Hawthorne artistically develops a trio of characters tied together by their sins. These sins can be made up for, or can cement a future in Hell. Hester fully atones for her sins and will be in heaven. Dimmesdale’s collection of atonement gives him a good chance to make it to heaven. Chillingworth makes no effort to redeem himself, turns into a living devil, and will rot in Hell forever.