Haunted by ancestral guilt from the Salem Witchcraft Trials in which his uncle was a judge, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his psychological tale of the effects of secret sin upon the soul and psyche of an individual. Rejecting the Calvinistic/Puritan concept of the total depravity of man, Hawthorne demonstrates that atonement for sin can be made with the character of Hester Prynne, marked as an adultress. But, despite her ostracism from much of the Puritan society, Hester's good works restore enough of her spirit to sustain her. After a time, many in the Puritan community view her from a different perspective and Hester receives a modicum of acceptance. Nevertheless, she has been marked as a sinner for so long that her passionate nature has been debilitated. And, so, in the "Conclusion," Hester returns to the Massachusetts colony and replaces her identifying letter upon her bosom; after death she is reunited with Dimmesdale, but there is yet a separation between the two.
Those who have hidden their great sins, Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth, find that their hypocrisy has destroyed both body and soul. In an interview with Hester, Chillingworth admits that his desire for revenge has turned him into "a fiend" and his resemblance to the Black Man is, indeed, striking as he has violated the sanctity of the human heart. And, without the soul of Dimmesdale to torture, Chillingworth dies. Likewise, with his soul blackened with secret sin, the Reverend Dimmesdale is tortured psychologically so much that his health gives way and he finds that he must make a public confession on the scaffold where he should have stood years before.
At the end of his narrative, Hawthorne as narrator exhorts his readers to admit to the humanness of sin and not keep it secret. He tells his audience,
Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred.
To sin is human; to acknowledge sin is to become more human. When the minister kisses his daughter on the scaffold, publicly acknowleging his sin incarnate in the shape of little Pearl, she then becomes fully human and can love and live. For,
No man, for any considerable period can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.
Hawthorne's novel carries a dominant moral idea for which his entire narrative becomes an illustration. Hester and Arthur have committed a sin of passion in the passionless world of Puritanism. Their society is so restrictive that they have rebelled against it; however, the hiding of sin is destructive to the soul and must be confessed before redemption can occur. Little Pearl is the living conscience of Hester and Dimmesdale, and, as such, she must be acknowledged. So, it is only when they are "true," that Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale are redeemed.