One consequence of sin in The Scarlet Letter is that the sinner acquires the ability to sense or recognize the sins of others.Hester realizes that the scarlet letter she wears gives her “a...

One consequence of sin in The Scarlet Letter is that the sinner acquires the ability to sense or recognize the sins of others.

Hester realizes that the scarlet letter she wears gives her “a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sins in other hearts.” Show how the same kind of insight is possessed by Chillingworth, Dimmesdale, and Mistress Hibbins.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Chapter V of The Scarlet Letter, Hester notices that when some people look upon her scarlet letter, there is "a momentary relief." She senses "a mystic sisterhood" when she meets the eyes of other women.

This reaction that Hester has is an intuitive one. It is much like the old adage, "Birds of a feather flock together." For there is, indeed, a recognition in one sinner for another, in one good person for another, in one evil person for another's evil.

  • Chillingworth

While Roger Chillingworth feigns an altruistic desire to help the ailing minister, he scrutinizes the speech and behavior of the Reverend Dimmesdale, sensing that there is some secret sin hidden in his heart. With a sense that there is a facade to the Reverend Dimmesdale, the physician probes the minister on the question of his illness, asking if he has revealed everything:

"Would you, therefore, that your physician heal the bodily evil? How may this be unless you first lay open to him the wound or trouble in your soul?"

While Dimmesdale refuses to reveal this "trouble" in his soul, Chillingworth senses that the minister is tortured, so he watches closely the Reverend Dimmesdale, noticing his increasing physical weakness and his seemingly tortured mind. Then, when the minister's "passion takes hold" on him and his nerves become "disordered," Chillingworth watches closely. Realizing that, as in himself, there is a "strong sympathy betwixt soul and body," the physician discovers one evening as the minister sleeps that Dimmesdale has the manifestation of his secret sin upon his chest (Ch. X).

  • Dimmesdale

Because he himself is a sinner, and he suffers from his secret sin, the Reverend Dimmesdale has become more human and can relate to his congregation in an existential manner, rather than just as their minister. Therefore, when he addresses his congregation as he himself is aware of his own secret sin, the minister is capable of touching them deeply. 

"I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!"

Further, Dimmesdale tells them he is a "'wretched body shrivelled up before their eyes by the burning wrath of the Almighty," and, hearing this, the congregation reveres him all the more and are moved deeply. They remark, 

"The saint on earth! Alas, if he discern such sinfulness in his own white soul, what horrid spectacle would he behold in thine or mine!"

Having acknowledged the sin within him, the Reverend Dimmesdale has become more human and fallible. Because of this change, he is able to recognize and understand the human frailties in others. His congregation, in turn, then finds Dimmesdale more like them, but they interpret their minister's soul not as sinful, but saintly since they believe that he could not commit sins as grievous as theirs.

  • Mistress Hibbins

Mistress Hibbins appears at unexpected moments; each time that she does enter the scene, however, either Hester or Arthur Dimmesdale suffer from regret. Thus, it seems that the witch serves as a reminder to Hester and the minister of their sins and of the darkness hidden in Puritanism.

In Chapter VIII, as Hester leaves the governor's mansion and descends the steps, Mistress Hibbins throws open a chamber window and calls to her,

"Wilt thou go with us to-night? There will be merry company in the forest; and I...promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should make one." 

To this invitation, Hester replies that she would accompany Mistress Hibbins were it not for the fact that she has a child, thus admitting to her lack of faith, a lost faith that Mistress Hibbins apparently senses.

scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I don't think that Hawthorne intended for Hester's being able to "see" inside sinners' hearts to be a general "consequence" of sin, applicable to all characters in then novel. Hester is the only character who "sees" and is then sympathetic toward the sinner. In contrast, Chillingworth recognizes the sin in Dimmesdale's heart because he hounds him and notices how Pearl acts around the minister.  He has keen observation skills, but Hawthorne does not portray Chillingworth as being able to look inside all sinners' hearts. Similarly, if Dimmesdale--as a consequence of his sin--had insight into the hidden sins of others' hearts, he would not need Hester to warn him about Chillingworth's intentions toward him; he would have recognized that for himself. Finally, Mistress Hibbens possesses similar "powers" as Hester.  She points and yells at other "sinners" in the novel, but Hawthorne never makes it clear if she is truly a sinner like Hester or if her eccentricities coupled with her psychic-like abilities simply cause others to view her a witch and unrepentant sinner.

More than likely, Hawthorne bestows Hester's unusual skill upon her to demonstrate that a repentant heart has the ability to empathize with and perhaps even counselor others who have sinned.

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The Scarlet Letter

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