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Nathaniel Hawthorne's examination of the psychological effects of sin and indictment of Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter provides much insight into the human soul. This seminal work of Hawthorne's depicts both the inner turmoils as well as the external conflicts involved in a Puritan community where sin has no forgiveness. Yet, the main characters do find redemption for their iniquities.
Set as an example to others of the penalties for sin against Puritan law, Hester Prynne is publicly shamed and made to wear a scarlet symbol of her adultery. Ironically, however, it is the Catholic/Anglican theology, from which the Puritans revolted, with its precept of redeeming grace from good works as atonement for sin which effects Hester's salvation. For, despite her being marked as a sinner and ostracized from the community, Hester's acts of Christian charity in tending the ill and dying are what earn her grace and the acceptance of many in the Puritan community as, with the unsubstantive nature of symbols, they come to perceive the symbolic A as representative of positive connotations of "Angel" or "Able."
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale
Forced by his unforgiving Puritanism to hide his secret sin of adultery in his heart, the Reverend Dimmesdale's grievous guilt tortures his soul to the extent that his sin at last reveals itself physically in illness and the stigmata of the symbol of adultery upon his own chest (ironically, stigmata is another documented manifestation of Catholicism ). And, it is only from confession--another facet of the "Papists"--that the minister's soul is redeemed.
As the incarnation of Hester's sin (and, though unbeknownst to the community, Dimmesdale's), little Pearl is described as an "imp," "a laughing image of a fiend," and "an airy sprite." Indeed, Pearl is not fully human until her father acknowledges her and she, then, is "made flesh," so to speak. In Chapter XXIII, Hawthorne writes,
Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken.....and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Pearl's errand as a messenger of anguish was fulfilled.
His soul rotted by the worm of revenge, Roger Chillingworth who vows "He will be mine" in his search for the partner in sin of Hester who has brought him ignominy, Chillingworth commits the terrible sin of violating the secrets of the human heart. In fact, in a conversation with Hester, he himself admits that he has become a "fiend." And, when Dimmesdale publicly confesses, Chillingworth knows that his hopes of revenge are lost: "Thou hast...escaped me." Then, he kneels beside the minister and looks as though his life "seemed to have departed."
Chillingworth's sins are more egregious than those of any other character; he has sinned against Nature when he married Hester, young and passionate as she was when he was neither. Then he sins as he subordinates his heart to his intellect as he sacrifices Dimmesdale for his own selfish desire for revenge. In the end, Chillingworth withers and blackens in death. His only chance at redemption comes after he dies when he leaves to Pearl his property as atonement for the ills he has caused.
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