Posted in

Sin, Guilt, Confession, and Redemption: Rereading Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter

I messed up.  A few years back, I read all the novels and short stories in the Modern Library edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings, except the Scarlet Letter. I had read it as a young boy—too early, I will admit, since I had to ask my mother what the letter A was all about.  Still, I reasoned that I knew the plot; so, why read the book again?  Dumb, even dumber.  There is more to a great novel than just knowing the events of the plot.  On my second reading, I was profoundly moved.  The Scarlet Letter is a great novel about human sin, the guilt that it causes, and the costly redemption for the sinner and those affected by the sin that comes from confession.

I will retell the narrative; so, this is a spoiler alert, although, I do not think knowing the plot in advance spoils the story. Hester Prynne, who has had a child out of wedlock, is forced to face public humiliation on a scaffold in the town, and she wears a scarlet letter A for adultery.  She refuses to name the father.  On the same day, her husband, presumed dead, appears.  In conversation, her husband, going by the name of Roger Chillingworth, has Hester promise not to tell anyone who he is.  Although he accepts some responsibility for marrying a beautiful and passionate woman much younger than himself, he is determined to take revenge on the unknown adulterer.  Chillingworth, who is skilled in medicine with a gift of insight into the human heart, quickly and correctly suspects that the culprit is Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester’s young pastor.

The Reverend Dimmesdale is a brilliant scholar and a sincere and sensitive Christian.  However, he is a coward.  He cannot bring himself to confess his sin publicly, but it is literally killing him.  Chillingworth falsely befriends him and becomes Dimmesdale’s physician, secretly plotting his ruin.  As Dimmesdale’s health deteriorates, Hester surreptitiously manages to meet him in the woods.  There she tells him the truth about Chillingworth being her husband and of his wicked designs on Dimmesdale.  Already having rejected Puritan culture, Hester proposes that Dimmesdale and she leave New England with their daughter and live free from the condemnation of the Puritans.

At first, Dimmesdale appears to agree.  He politely refuses further assistance from Chillingworth, who perceives that the minister no longer trusts him.  Dimmesdale is to give the prestigious Election Day sermon and in the heat of passion tosses his original draft into the fire and writes throughout the night a new one.  To the surprise of the people, their beloved pastor seems to be full of vigor as he marches in the parade and delivers an inspiring message of hope for the glorious future of New England.  However, the weight of what he is about to do bears heavily on Dimmesdale.  As he arrives at the scaffold of Hester’s punishment, he calls her and their child Pearl to accompany his ascent onto the scaffold.  Realizing what Dimmesdale is about to do, Chillingworth understands that he is losing control of his victim, tempts the minister by reminding him that his confession will ruin his career.  Dimmesdale ignores him, confesses his guilt, and reveals to the crowd a scarlet letter A on his chest, then dies.

In such a marvelously profound and complex novel, I must leave out much that is worthy of discussion—the fascinating elf-like child Pearl, the mysterious, ominous and seemingly diabolical threat of the primeval forest to Puritan culture, Hawthorne’s portrayal of the sinister Chillingworth, in conformity to the Puritan perspective, as an agent of Satan, and, above all the character of Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne’s book whom he clearly admires, even though he does not always agree with her.  I want to focus on Dimmesdale’s guilt, his confession, and the consequences of that confession.  I unabashedly choose to look on it from a committed Christian perspective and as one who was personally touched by the story.

The Reverend Dimmesdale was objectively guilty of sin by having sexual relations outside of marriage.  Worse, as a minister of the gospel, he committed the sin with one of his parishioners whom his calling was to guide and protect in the Christian faith and walk.  He despicably allows the courageous woman who refuses to reveal his name as her partner in sin to bear alone the community’s reproach because of his cowardly weakness and then for seven years permits himself to be admired by the community as a model of sanctity.

Yet, Dimmesdale in his confession of guilt acknowledges God’s mercy.   This strikingly moving confession of God’s severe mercy is worth quoting in full.

    He hath proved this mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this

burning torture to bear upon my breast!  By sending yonder dark and

terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat!  By bringing me

hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had

either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever! Praise be his

name!  His will be done![1]

Dimmesdale contrition for his sin calls to mind the affirmation of Hebrews 12:6, “For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives.”[2] The fallen pastor recognizes God’s grace in his sufferings, which led him to confess his sin publicly and save his soul.

A transgression of God’s law results in objective guilt before God.  By the grace of God, believers experience true subjective guilt leading to repentance, and our afflictions can also be a sign for us of our need for confession and repentance.  The truth of the forgiveness of our sins is promised in 1 John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  The believing perspective on our afflictions is clearly expressed in Psalm 119:67, 71, 75. “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. … It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. … I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.”

Dimmesdale’s confession of his sin recognizes these biblical truths, but Hawthorne’s moving conclusion in chapter 24 demonstrates the effect of confession of one’s sins on others.  At the freeing of Dimmesdale from his diabolical grip, Chillingworth’s “vital and intellectual force—seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, … like an uprooted weed.”  However, Hawthorne, recognizes the curious effect of hatred and love rendering “one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another” with the result that the hatred and antipathy of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth are “transmuted into golden love.”[3]  At his death less than a year later, it is revealed that in his will Chillingworth had bequeathed all his considerable fortune to Pearl, the daughter of Hester and his former adversary, Arthur Dimmesdale.

The preternaturally intuitive Pearl recognizes the change in Dimmesdale and willingly takes his hand and then kisses the dying man on the scaffold.  Hawthorne tells us, “a spell was broken” and her tears “were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.”  Furthermore, regarding her mother, “Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.”[4] Later, Hawthorne strongly implies that the now wealthy Pearl has married into non-English nobility and borne a child.  We know this because he tells us that the older but wiser Hester, having returned to her isolated cottage, is seen embroidering a baby-garment.

But what of Hester Prynne, that most enigmatic fictional heroine? It would appear that her lover’s confession has changed her.  Hawthorne describes her taking up her former abode and still wearing the scarlet letter as her penitence.  Perhaps she truly came to feel the wrongness of her deed.  Whether this is a true interpretation of Hester’s spiritual state is debatable. Nevertheless, the letter is no longer a “stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.”[5]  Hester became one to whom the suffering, especially women, went to for counsel and comfort.

In a touchingly hopeful end, she is buried by Dimmesdale grave with a space between them because they were not married.  However, they had one tombstone with the “semblance of an engraved escutcheon” with “a herald’s wording” and, in Hawthorne’s ironic manner, serving as a motto for the somber legend. “relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow: –“On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.”[6]

Far better scholars than I are welcome to correct my amateur interpretation of Hawthorne.  Nevertheless, the ending called to my mind John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

[1] Scarlet Letter, p. 236 in my edition.  Almost at the end of chapter 23.

[2]I have followed the New American Standard translation because the Greek word refers literally to a scourging by a whip, which seems to fit better Dimmesdale’s theology than the legitimate, but milder, translation “chastises,” used in the English Standard Version.

[3] Ibid., p. 238.

[4] Ibid., p. 236.

[5] Ibid., p. 240.

[6] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Sin, Guilt, Confession, and Redemption: Rereading Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter

  1. Thanks Bill,
    I too had read it a long time ago-and forgotten much of it. You retell it very well. I wonder how well Hawthorne agreed with Dimmesdale’s understanding of sin and forgiveness. How great is Hawthorne’s writer’s gift, to make us enter into all the grief and suffering sin produces , but help us see a little of the glory of forgiveness.
    Do students read it today? If so, what would they make of the sin/forgiveness/goodness axis of the book?

    1. Thanks, Dr. Morrison. Our students at Cair Paravel read it in their junior year. We have coordinated our history and literature classes, although sometimes they read a relevant piece for a different time period. In this case Hawthorne from 1850 is writing about 17th century Puritans and so they read it at approximately the same time they are studying Colonial America. I think that they would get the themes you mentioned. I’ll talk to the teacher. My understanding is that Hawthorne rejected the theology but still kept a good deal of the Puritan awareness of sin and guilt and the emphasis on conscience. I certainly was touched by my reading of it recently, although I would tell most that they could skip the rather long and mostly irrelevant “Custom House” introduction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *