Hester is considered a scapegoat in The Scarlet Letter, but why?

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Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hester is surely not the only sinner in the community or the congregation, but to observe her--singled out, shunned, and stigmatized by wearing the scarlet letter--one might think so. Hester is a scapegoat in this sense; the people focus on her sin with the result that no attention is paid to their own:

Throughout [all her days], giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful passion.

After wearing her scarlet letter and suffering its continuous humiliation, Hester becomes acutely aware of the unacknowledged sins of those around her. However, being the singular focus of punishment for so long, even she finds it difficult to believe that she is not the only sinner among all:

Walking to and fro, with those lonely footsteps, in the little world with which she was outwardly connected . . . . she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense . . . that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts . . . . Hester Prynne yet struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal was guilty like herself.

The Puritans obviously had succeeded very well in making Hester their scapegoat.

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The Scarlet Letter

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