Does each character receive appropriate punishment for his or her sins in The Scarlet Letter? In other words, was the amount of pain in proportion to the magnitude of the crime committed? Which characters, if any, were too severely punished and which did not receive enough punishment?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the main points of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" is the sanctimony of the Puritans and its resulting cruelty.  For, it is a well known fact that Hawthorne suffered from guilt over his uncle's having been involved in the Salem Witchcraft Trials.  This hypocrisy of the Puritans is a prevalent theme throughout "The Scarlet Letter."  So, the agony and persecution that Hester receives at the hands of the Governor, whose hypocritical extragance and love of material luxuries is obvious when Hester brings Pearl to his mansion, and the remarks of his sister who participates in the Black Mass is certainly undeserved. 

Likewise, the spiritual and mental torture undergone by the Reverend Dimmesdale is absolutely excessive.  Under the guise of being his physician, Roger Chillingworth invades his home and "violates the sanctity" of Dimmesdale's heart by insidiously learning his secret sin and deteriorating the health Dimmesdale with drugs and innuendos that psychologically destroy the poor minister.  Thus, Chillingworth sins against Nature, as he plays the role of the "arch-fiend" in controlling a human soul. He violates two Biblical injunctions:  "Judge not lest ye be judge," and "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."

Yet, the evil Chillingworth, who, by his own admission, has become "a fiend," goes unpunished, except by himself since Dimmesdale escapes the fiend through his redemptive confession in the final scaffold scene.  On the other hand, Hester and the Reverend Dimmesdale have committed no such violations.  They have sinned, but it is a sin of passion involving only themselves, not the life of another, and they seek to make reparations for their sins by Hester's raising Pearl and performing acts of kindness and Dimmesdale's confessions of sin to his congregation.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team