What is Hester's sin in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne?

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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the protagonistHester Prynne is condemned for committing adultery. The novel is set in 17th century, orthodox Puritan Society in Boston America. Adultery was one of the very serious sins in the Puritan society. Roger Chillingworth , Hester's husband, had left her...

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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the protagonist Hester Prynne is condemned for committing adultery. The novel is set in 17th century, orthodox Puritan Society in Boston America. Adultery was one of the very serious sins in the Puritan society. Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband, had left her almost two years ago. Hester gave birth to a daughter named Pearl in the absence of her husband. This made everyone in the town suspect that she is guilty of adultery. Because of this, Hester is made to stand on a scaffold where she bears immense public humiliation. As a punishment of her sin, she has to wear the badge of shame, i.e. the scarlet letter “A” embroidered on the bosom of her dress for the rest of her life. This red colour badge will make everyone know that she is an adulteress.

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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is set in the Puritan world of Boston, Massachusetts, in 1642. Here a sin is a crime and a crime is a sin. The people are quite religious and use the Word of God (the Bible) as their standard for behavior and punishment. It was an excessively rigid and rather skewed view of biblical punishment, which of course is one of the reasons Puritanism did not survive very long in America.

The first time we meet Hester Prynne she is walking out of the prison door. She has a baby in her arms and a scarlet letter "fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom." The townspeople have gathered to see the spectacle, and the women in particular are quite unhappy that Hester did not got the punishment they think she deserved--at the very least, a branding of the letter "A" on her forehead, and hanging at the worst. They believe the town's council has been too lenient with the sinner named Hester Prynne.

Back to Hester, who walks out of the prison and into this hostile crowd.

When the young woman--the mother of this child--stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. 

Now we have enough clues to determine her sin. She is being punished for a sin that begins with the letter "A" (thus the letter on her breast), and the baby she carries is just as much a token of her shame as that letter. We can assume her sin is adultery, and we discover that is correct in chapter three when Hester is forced to endure the pressures of the preachers who want her to reveal the name of her child's father--something she vows she will never do. 

Clearly we have a woman who has gotten caught as an adulteress because she became pregnant without a husband in the picture. It is also clear that she did not get caught in the act, so to speak, or they would have caught the man, as well. It was simply her pregnancy which revealed her sin to this harshly critical and judgmental community. 

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