The Scarlet Letter raised complex and often uncomfortable questions about the relationship between sin and sympathy for Hawthorne’s nineteenth century audience. At the time of its publication in 1850, several Christian editorial writers, in fact, criticized Hawthorne’s novel for not adequately emphasizing Hester’s renunciation of her sin and the process of her atonement. Some argued that because Hawthorne’s story was not clearly enough an example designed for moral instruction, it should not be told at all. Earlier American seduction novels such as Charlotte Temple (1791) and The Coquette: Or, The History of Eliza Wharton; A Novel Founded on Fact (1797) invited the reader not only to witness the female protagonist’s moral struggle and downfall, but also to forgive her transgressions as they were repented, typically in death. The Scarlet Letter, in contrast, invites 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.
The point of Hawthorne’s text, like several of his earlier short stories, is to question if not outright criticize the severity of the Puritan law and the self-righteous intolerance of the Puritan community. Like other authors of his day, Hawthorne uses seventeenth century Puritanism as a point of departure for reflecting on what a Christian community should strive for in the nineteenth century. By emphasizing the figure of Hester Prynne as a sister of mercy throughout the novel, Hawthorne suggests that the ideal Christian community should be one based on charity, compassion, and mercy rather than rigid dogmatism and harsh judgment. Within the framework of Puritanism, however, Hester’s good works are not and should not be viewed as a means for her redemption or salvation, since under Puritan doctrine this would amount to a form of religious heresy (Puritans rejected the belief, known as Arminianism, that an individual can achieve his or her own salvation through righteous action). Under the Five Points of Calvinism, election (that is, salvation) is considered “unconditional,” and grace is likewise “irresistible.” According to Calvinistic belief, with the gift of God’s son Jesus Christ, humans entered into a new covenant based on grace, not works. Through the representation of Hester’s isolation, rebellion, and final reemergence as a fixture of understanding and sympathy in her community, Hawthorne seems to argue that the Puritan law divides individuals from one another, making them vulnerable to self-righteousness rather than cultivating a sense of caring and forgiveness.
Hawthorne suggests that sin, the sine qua non of humanity, is also the condition for the possibility of sympathy. It is through the fall into sin and consequently the experience of suffering (through guilt, self-reflection, and redemption) that individuals learn to truly identify with and love their neighbor.