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Early in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, the Puritan magistrates indicate what they hope will be the desired effect of forcing Hester to wear the letter. They want her to confess publicly the name of her partner in adultery. As the Reverend Mr. Wilson puts it, “That, and thy repentance, may avail to take the scarlet letter off thy breast.” He then addresses
to the multitude a discourse on sin, in all its branches, but with continual reference to the ignominious letter.
The letter, in other words, is intended to persuade Hester not only to reveal her partner but to acknowledge any other sins she may have committed.
Hester, however, neither reveals her partner (at least not publicly, to the entire community), nor does she make any special public confession of her sins. Instead, near the very end of the novel it is Arthur Dimmesdale himself who reveals himself as Hester’s partner in sin. Interestingly enough, as he does so he refers repeatedly to the letter Hester has borne for seven years. Addressing the assembled townspeople, he declares,
"Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her walk hath been—wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have hoped to find repose—it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!"
He continues to refer to her letter in the next paragraph until he ultimately reveals a similar scarlet letter mysteriously imprinted on the flesh of his own chest.
One might argue, then, that the scarlet letter worn by Hester finally does achieve one effect that the Puritan magistrates hoped it would achieve, although in a way that none of them could have predicted. Finally, they and the townspeople do discover Hester’s partner in sin, and his confession of that partnership results, in part, from having watched Hester, for seven years, bear the constant punishment for their mutual transgression. It is not Hester’s sense of guilt that leads to the revelation; rather, it is Dimmesdale’s conscience -- provoked in part by witnessing the suffering she has endured thanks partly to the letter -- that leads to his confession.
Ironically, by the end of Hester’s life, and because of her long history of charitable and selfless behavior, the letter actually becomes symbolic in far different ways than the magistrates had originally intended:
the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.
The letter, originally intended as a symbol of Hester’s sin and guilt, finally becomes a symbol of “something to be sorrowed over” – a phrase that may suggest the sorrow people feel for the extremely uncharitable and unforgiving treatment that the charitable Hester had to endure. Or perhaps the phrase “something to be sorrowed over” suggests that although Hester did indeed sin, her sin was no greater or more heinous than those of humans in general.
Paradoxically, then, by the end of Hester’s life – and because of the admirable nature of that life – the letter becomes symbolic in ways the magistrates could never have foreseen or perhaps desired. If anything, the letter perhaps becomes a symbol of their own liability to sin and self-righteousness.
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