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According to The Scarlet Letter, does the "wall" of the human soul once "ruined" stay...

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brandih | eNotes Employee

Posted August 26, 2013 at 5:01 PM via web

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According to The Scarlet Letter, does the "wall" of the human soul once "ruined" stay ruined?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 2) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 26, 2013 at 7:45 PM (Answer #1)

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A creative depiction of the effects of sin upon the personality, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter demonstrates in allegorical fashion the psychological damage of secret sin and the effects of public punishment. Certainly, then, there is irreparable damage that is done to the sinner within the Puritan community because of the Calvinistic abhorrence of sin and the strict treatment of it.

So, while each of the three main characters of Hawthorne's narrative suffer from their sins, there is, perhaps ironically, redemption for the one sinner who has been publicly exposed, Hester Prynne. For, by humbling herself before the villagers, hiding her beauty, and imploring the governor to allow her to keep Pearl because the child is the incarnation of her sin--

"Pearl punishes me, too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, on ly capable of being loved, and so endowed with a millionfold the power of retribution for my sin?"

Hester is afforded the opportunity of doing penance. She also performs good works, tending the sick and dying; as a result, the community begins to perceive her differently, re-interpreting the symbol on her breast as signifying "Angel" and "Able." This redemption for Hester, therefore, underscores Hawthorne's theme of "Be true!" as he states in one of his final chapters since confession and repentance bring salvation to the sinner. Nevertheless, Hester is left with some psychological damage as illustrated by her return to the village where she retrieves the abandoned scarlet letter and replaces it upon her dress.

On the other hand, the other two main characters, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth suffer tremendous damage to their persons, both psychologically and physically because of their secret sins. Indeed, their concealed sins effect their ruin and deaths. Chillingworth's body becomes contorted and, when Hester accuses him of harming Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, who gathers herbs, admits,

"...there was a fiend at his elbow! A mortal man, with once a human heart, has become a fiend for his especial torment."

And, while Chillingworth's soul has embraced evil, Dimmesdale's has been so tortured by his secret sin that he has resorted to self-flagellation in an effort to feel physical pain in order to perform penance for his sin and to distract himself from his mental angst. Thus, the "walls" of their souls remain ruined because of their refusal to admit sin and thereby release their guilt.

The prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather wrote that the devil's goal was to "seduce the souls, torment the bodies." It is, therefore, in keeping with Puritan theology that Hawthorne demonstrates in his novel that as a consequence of original and subsequent sin, the body suffers ill health as its punishment. But, contrary to Calvinistic/Puritanism, Hawthorne offers redemption as a remedy for the confession of sin, allowing the sinner to free himself from this bodily punishment. 

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