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

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Payal Khullar | College Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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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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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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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Chantelm | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) Salutatorian

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Hester Prynne is condemned for committing adultery. During the times where the Puritans lived in New England now known as Boston. She was forced to live a separate life outcasted by society  

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aeherb3 | (Level 1) eNoter

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Good Question! In The Scarlet Letter, by Nathanial Hawthorne, Hester Prynne comes over to the colonies ahead of her husband, with the purpose of securing a home and setting up the house.  She picks a house that is farther away from town, and she is frowned upon for living alone, without her husband. She is encouraged by several people to live with them until her husband arrives.  In this time period, the puritans had very strict views on behavior of women and her choice to live alone, definitely stretched those rigid boundaries.  She also dressed more flamboyantly with lace on her garments and pretty bonnets, which also went against their puritan values.

She falls in love with a preacher, and he also falls in love with her.  She believes her husband to be dead (attacked by a tribe of indians) and she sleeps with him, which results in a pregnancy.  She is then shunned and forced to wear the Scarlet Letter 'A' (representing adultery). She is even imprisoned for a short time. 

Hope this helps!

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laurto | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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Hester's sin, according the Puritan principles, was committing adultery. Our society does not see this as sin because we do not have the same ideology as the Puritans. To them, it was the devil's work! They even said Pearl was born from sin.

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girlygrrlash | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Honors

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In my knowledge and research, your response is absolutely correct! Because the novel is set in Puritan times then the sin is the act of committing adultery because the truth is her husband was not dead. As you said though, adultery is not a sin in the Western cultures today. It may be taboo in some parts of the world but its not rally considered a sin as it would have been in the Puritan times. 

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girlygrrlash | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Honors

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Other Works Cited that I used:

Cengage, Gale. Themes Novels for Students. Vol. 1. eNotes.com. N.d. Web. 9 November 2013. <http://www.enotes.com/topics/scarlet-letter/themes#themes-themes>.

eNotes. "Christian Themes" Masterplots II: Christian Literature." 2007. eNotes.com. Ed. John K. Roth. Salem Press, Inc. Web. 9 November 2013. <http://www.enotes.com/topics/scarlet-letter/themes>.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Dartmouth College, 1850. Electronic Book. 9 November 2013.

PBS.org. "The American Novel." March 2007. Educational Broadcasting Corporation. Web. 9 November 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americannovel/timeline/thescarletletter.html>.

Reid, Margaret. American Literature: Prose. Jiangnan University, 2000-2008. 9 November 2013. <http://engnet.jiangnan.edu.cn/culture/literature/introduction/prose.asp>.

Rozakis, Laurie. Instant American Literature. New York: Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc., 1995. Book. 9 November 2013.

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girlygrrlash | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Honors

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In The Scarlet Letter in the society's eyes, Hester's sin was committing adultery. “Hawthorne uses 17th century Puritanism as a point of departure for reflecting on what a Christian community should strive for in the nineteenth century” (eNotes).

It is a novel that [basically] describes the psychological anguish of 2 principle characters, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale” (Cengage). Both Hester and Dimmesdale suffer, “while attempting to come to terms with, their mutual sin of adultery in a strict Puritan society” (Cengage). The novel revolves around a lot of Christian themes, and various “complex and often uncomfortable questions about the relationship between sin and sympathy” has been raised (eNotes). The Scarlet Letter seems “to invite the reader to sympathize with the sinner as she struggles, often rebelliously, to work out her relationship to her sin and the punishment for that sin” (eNotes).

In addition, “[Hawthorne skilfully interweaves the classic] of the Garden of Eden with his probing of the true meaning of identity, morality, evil, sin, and guilt” (PBS.org). Corresponding to  the Garden of Eden, “much like Adam and Eve, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne are symbolically cast out of Paradise for their sin, forced to suffer, toil, and confront their guilt at their [misbehaviour] of society’s norms – as well as their own” (PBS.org). “Hester’s scarlet [letter] A [that she was forced to wear], initially a despised symbol of shame for her sin, becomes [transformed] by the end of the novel” (PBS.org). In addition, “whatever identity [Hester] had before the story is meaningless because she wears the scarlet letter” (Cengage). Furthermore, “society places her, identifying her as an adulteress and nothing more” (Cengage). Hester “has no function in society except as an example for others’ behaviour, regardless of her skills and caring nature” (Cengage). “[The letter] also symbolizes her hard-won identity as a valued member of society” (PBS.org), where ultimately the letter becomes “a badge of honour” [to her] (Cengage), not only a symbol but also representing her identity, as previously stated. The letter ultimately “becomes a cherished sign of Hester’s ability to feel compassion and work for the greater good of the community” (PBS.org). In addition, “Hester’s identity [eventually] grows independently of the scarlet letter, and it becomes an extension of her rather than the other way around” (Cengage).

Furthermore, Hawthorne also introduces the reader to the differentiation among different types of sin, for instance “sins of passion and [sins] of principle” (Rozakis 68), which the reader sees when Dimmesdale says to Hester (Rozakis 68): “We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart” (Hawthorne 239). As a result of differentiating between sins too, “Hawthorne [somewhat] suggests that sin, is also the condition for the possibility of sympathy” (eNotes) as the reader feels to some extent compelled to sympathise with Hester and Dimmesdale.

Rozakis, Laurie. Instant American Literature. New York: Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc., 1995. Book. 9 November 2013.

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