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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the theme of evil, surprisingly, is not expressed through the act of adultery committed by Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale. Ironically, these two characters are used to develop the theme of good.
While their act of adultery is certainly presented as sinful in the eyes of God and Puritan society, Hester and Dimmesdale themselves are unquestionably good, upstanding people who benefit others in their community. Although they suffer as a result of their sin (Hester publicly and Dimmesdale privately), they continue to use their positions in society in a positive way. Hester is helpful and caring to those in need, and Dimmesdale continues to function at a high level as a pastor, despite the debilitating guilt he feels. The theme of good, then, is expressed in how people behave towards others. You don’t have to have a perfect past to be good. In fact, like Dimmesdale, you don’t even have to feel good about yourself to be a good person.
Hawthorne examines evil through the use of several other characters. One is Mistress Hibbins, who the narrator presents as a bona-fide witch who is later tried and hanged (this does not happen in the book, it is mentioned that it will happen). She attempts to engage both Hester and Dimmesdale in conversation regarding the evil beings (her associates) who inhabit the forest, inviting them to join her there. However, they rebuff her advances. While Hibbins herself is definitely evil within the context of the story, she is not able to convert Hester or Dimmesdale to her side.
Roger Chillingworth, who devotes his life to torturing Dimmesdale as retribution for his transgression of adultery with his wife (Hester), is perhaps the most evil character in the story. He plies his evil manipulations upon Dimmesdale for seven years, aided by Hester’s vow of silence regarding the fact that he is her husband. It is here that good and evil clash most significantly. Hester, seeing the awful effect that Chillingworth has upon Dimmesdale, breaks her vow of secrecy and reveals Chillingworth’s true identity and intentions to Dimmesdale. This revelation allows Dimmesdale to fully realize what has been happening to him for the past seven years at the hands of Chillingworth. Although he is near death at this point, he is now finally able to reconcile himself to his sin and appreciate God’s role in keeping him humble and focused on his spiritual life. He dies shortly after uttering the following words to Hester on the scaffold, in full public view:
"God knows; and he is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to beat upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man [Chillingworth] to keep the torture always at red-heat!"
Dimmesdale is released from earthly life and suffering, while Chillingworth, now bereft of the object of his vengeful nature, hangs on miserably for a year ad then dies, his life having become a wasted attempt to ruin another human being. Hester becomes someone who is no longer vilified by society, but one who is valued for her compassion and the aid she renders to others.
Morality in the Scarlet Letter takes many interesting twists. In the traditional view of right and wrong, both Hester Prynne and the Rev. Dimmesdale have committed sin. The sin of adultery, by its very nature, involves two people. Both main characters are guilty of sinning. The difference between these two characters is that Hester’s sin is public; she must not only admit to it, she must bear the letter declaring it on her chest. She also carries evidence of it in the person of Pearl. Mr. Dimmesdale keeps his sin a secret and because he does, Hester must bear the consequence of her sin alone. Even though in private he tortures himself for his sin, he never takes responsibility for it so that Hester continues to be alone in dealing with her child as well as the stigma that her society fosters on her. Hester lives with and finds peace with what she has done, Mr. Dimmesdale continues on a downhill slide as the guilt from his lack of confession gnaws at his conscience, even while he keeps up the outward appearance of being a "proper" minister.
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