What points does Hawthorne make with the comparison of Hester's and Dimmesdale's reactions to their sins?Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

InThe Scarlet Letter, as well as in a number of his works, Nathaniel Hawthorne concerns his narratives with the devasting effects of a religion that refused to allow its followers to be forgiven for sin. While Hester is scorned, publicly humilitated, and ostracized after her conviction for adultery, her good works do, nevertheless, earn her some forgiveness by the community as the scarlet A later comes to mean "Angel" and "Able"; eventually, the townspeople consult Hester for advice and comfort. Thus, she is freed of the burden of her sin as she can live an authentic existence, not one in which she must hide her conscience from others.

It is the characters who conceal their "secret sin" that are tortured by this sin with little hope of redemption.  In his desire for revenge, Chillingworth deteriorates physically, but he accepts his evil nature.  In an interview with Hester, he admits to her in Chapter XVII that he has become a devil, but he tells her he is committed to his path and it is Dimmesdale who has transformed him into this fiend.

Likewise, Dimmesdale becomes distorted in his inability to admit his "secret sin."  The concealed sin "rankles" in his heart and torments his mind and spirit.  His hypocrisy as a minister adds to this torment of his conscience as he fervently urges his congregation to openly repent.  This admonition serves as a mouthpiece for Hawthorne's theme:

Among many morals which press upon us from the poor minister's miserable experience, we put only this into a sentence:  "Be true!  Be True! Be true!  Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst can be inferred.!"

Unwillingly, Hester,who must show freely her sin to the world, attains as a consequence, an authentic existence free of hypocrisy.  But, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, who hide their "secret sins," are destroyed by their hypocrisy--Chillingworth by the evil he embraces and Dimmesdale by the guilt he harbors in his soul.


lynnebh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hester's sin was right out there, in the open, for all to see. She was not hiding it. She was punished for her sin in more ways than one -- not only be being in prison for awhile, but also being imprisoned by the hypocrisy of the town in which she lives for her entire life. She bore it bravely and showed repentence, and because of this, her character is redeemed at the end of the novel.

Dimmesdale, however, did not acknowledge his sin. He kept it hidden and it destroyed him, both mentally, physically and most important, spiritually.

In contrasting the way both of these characters reacted to their sin, Hawthorne points out a Biblical truth - "that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" - but also that without redemption, there is no forgiveness of sin. Dimmesdale does not repent, and his guilt destroys him. He should know better, also -- he is a minister -- but that is also the point. The hypocrisy of the Puritans who preached holiness one day but then danced with the devils at night in the woods, as depicted in many of Hawthorne's and others' short stories (Young Goodman Brown, The Minister's Black Veil, etc.)

clairewait eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with the above answer.  I think even if you leave out the element of hypocrisy (which is huge but without it allows us to look just at the two characters and their sin independently of everything else) what you are left with is a lesson in truth.

Hawthorne wants to show that secrecy is deadly and the truth will set you free.  Hester suffered because she sinned, but because the truth was told - she was able to ultimately experience freedom.  Because Dimmesdale hid his sin, he suffered longer and to a greater degree, and ended up dying from it.

I think also it is important to note that both experienced a spiritual journey as a result of their sin.  In this, Hawthorne shows that repentance doesn't necessarily equal immediate redemption/freedom - Hester still suffered for most of her life and Dimmesdale died just after his confession - but it results in redemption ultimately.  In this way, Hawthorne was not idealistic.  This book is a transitional story from romanticism to realism - and incorporates elements of both.


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The Scarlet Letter

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