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The Scarlett Letter: Hester's Humility

The “Scarlet Letter” is a tale of the results of our dealings with our sins. The story is about a triangle of lovers. Hester, Chillingsworth’s wife, thinking her husband dead, had an affair with Dimmesdale and had his child, Pearl. She is discovered by the pregnancy and is brought forward onto the scaffold to stand before the public with an ornately stitched A attached to her bosom, representing her sin of adultery. She is commanded to always wear the letter (Hawthorne, 2334). She refuses to reveal her partner in sin and when her husband, Mr. Chillingsworth, confronts her in the prison in the midst of her despair, she agrees not to expose him as her husband to the community either (Hawthorne, 2347).

The narrator follows Hester, the main character of the story, over seven years, as she raises her daughter Pearl and struggles to live among a people who judge her daily (Hawthorne, 2351). Her home is symbolically located outside of the town, alone, as she is, and separated from society as if she is cast off. She feels the burning shame of the scarlet letter on her breast in all her interactions with the townsfolk.

While Hester bears the effects of the sin in the full light of day, the minister, Mr. Dimmesdale, suffers the most in his secrecy. The hypocrisy of his high station, co-existing with the guilt in his heart, ruins his health and he becomes a patient of the ever watchful physician Mr. Chillingsworth (Hawthorne, 2372). He develops a habit of grasping his heart, as if feeling the same burning shame that Hester feels when the gaze of others rests on her scarlet letter.  The guilty minister has become pale, his nerves are frail, and he appears emaciated. His flock fears that he will soon die and views him as a saint, too righteous for this world (Hawthorne, 2371).

The physician, Mr. Chillingsworth, who is working to revenge the wrong done to him, is hiding his dark intent and secretly looking for the anonymous culprit. He settles on the preacher with whom he is in frequent contact as his physician. The two are persuaded to occupy the same boarding house, in order for the physician to be ever watchful over the beloved minister (Hawthorne, 2371). In his quest for the guilty party he becomes certain of the minister’s part in the affair and engages in effectively inflaming the suffering at every opportunity. This happens so subtly that his patient does not recognize his the role of tormentor. In so doing he become a devil or a fiend himself (Hawthorne, 2397).

All along the way we see Pearl at Hester’s side, dancing or skipping and making insightful remarks. At one crucial point she asks the minister if he will hold her hand with her mother at noon the next day on the same scaffold that Hester and the infant Pearl had stood seven years before (Hawthorne, 2387).  Later, Pearl asks her mother what the scarlet letter means and why the minister keeps his hand over his heart (Hawthorne, 2401). The child makes the connection for the reader and like a messenger from God subtly encourages the minister to confess himself.

The pride of the community in its own righteousness leads it to harshly judge Hester as if she were worthy of death while exalting the two characters who were sinners in secret. This story reveals the pain caused by our judgments of others when we falsely assume our own superiority. Hester was never allowed to forget her sin and as a result her humility became the vehicle for compassionate service to others. In the end, she gained the respect of her community. All knew her sin and somehow it made her more approachable to others who suffered. She became a friend and counselor, offering comfort and advice to her fellow citizens who had so cruelly cast her out and judged her.

Meanwhile, the secrecy of the others had a twisted and debilitating effect on their well being. Yet, when Hester told Dimmesdale the true identity of Chillingsworth and they schemed to flee the place (Hawthorne, 2413), he realizes that he needs to be known not as a saint he has come to be regarded as, but as the sinner he really is. The happiness that their escape plan offered him is the catalyst for his confession. Immediately after he preaches the election sermon, Dimmesdale recognizes his need for confession. He draws Hester and Pearl up on the scaffold with him to confess before the crowd that he is the guilty party. He dies there in Hester’s arms (Hawthorne, 2440).

Chillingsworth, who does not seem to feel any guilt for the offense he is committing against the minister, becomes twisted and devilish. Yet many in the community revered him for his learning and skill to heal physical ailments, a rarity in New England (Hawthorne, 2369). But to Hester, Chillingsworth has become a different person. She sees Chillingsworth for the devil he has become. Chillingsworth even admits this to her and rejoices in his fiendish aims. Symbolically, he offers forgiveness to Hester, claiming that the scarlet letter atones for her sin against him, yet he feels the preacher owes him all the more because of his hypocrisy (Hawthorne, 2397).   

The introduction to the Scarlet letter, “the Custom House” is a separate narration by the author, presented in first person, of his discovery of the scarlet letter and its story in an office under a pile of rubble (Hawthorne, 2323). The actual story is in third person with some degree of reliability since the author asserts his own finding of the narrative, and research into the circumstances. It is a long and rambling piece that wanders off into strange places and most of the time does not relate well to the story. .He sets forth the story as a nonfiction tale taking place in Boston, a Puritan settlement of New England. The story is told in easy to understand sentence structures, even if the language is sometimes a little foreign to modern ears.

This novel, if presented without the laborious introduction, teaches a powerful message about the danger of hypocrisy. Pride and its sister hypocrisy are dangerous poisons to both body and soul. As Dale Ryman puts it Hester, “made the best of a bad situation, showed extreme strength while enduring unbelievable pain, and even improved her public image over time, but it was just her way of turning lemons into lemonade”.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  “The Scarlet Letter.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature Volume B: Early Nineteenth Century 1800-1865. Ed. Paul Lauter. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 2307-2444.

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