Sin And Grace In The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne at its core, is a story of two supernatural forces battling each other to gain control. Every culture has a name for these forces: Ying and Yang, Good and Evil, but in the novel, they are known as sin and grace. The two forces are at work throughout the plot of the story, though it may go unnoticed. How each of the main characters: Hester, Pearl, Dimsdale, and Chillingsworth, let these forces influence their choices determines the events within the story, but also their individual outcomes.
For the Protagonist, Hester Prynne, the effects of sin can very easily be seen. Because of a sin she has committed, she is forced to wear a scarlet letter A on her chest to remind herself and others of her sin. In an article written for OAH Magazine of History, Kevin Sweeny writes that the Puritans “came committed to both practicing what they saw as purified Christianity and preventing religious practices that deviated from their vision”. When Hester commits her sin of adultery, she deviates from their vison and is seen as an outcast in that society for most of the story. The effects of grace on Hester in the story are harder to see as many of the events surrounding her are tragic, however we can see the effects of when Hester decides to show grace. In chapter 13 of the book, Hester begins to help those in need in her community despite the actions they have taken against her. Hawthorne writes that “she made no claim upon it, in requital for what she suffered.” Because of this, the townspeople began to develop a kind of respect for Hester. Because of the influence of both sin and grace during the plot of the story, her outcome is also influenced by both forces. Because of their shared sin, she loses the man she loves and who she was going to run off with to start a new life. But because of the grace she shows the towns people, she can live contently in the town until she dies and is buried next to Dimsdale.
Hester’s Daughter Pearl, although she is rather young for most of the story, is not exempt from the influences of sin and grace. The difference between Pearl and other characters like Hester are that some of the effects of sin in her life are from sins that she did not commit. Like her mother, she is seen as an outcast in the community because of her mother’s sin. Pearl could also be seen as a symbol of grace to Hester. In a review of biblical literature, Jason Hood writes “God has always used broken, messed-up families — almost in spite of themselves’. While Hester committed an act against God, he showed grace to her and gave her Pearl which gave her life new purpose. So Pearl herself is an effect of grace. Another way grace effects Pearl is through the way she sees the world. Because she grew up outside of the Puritan society, she is able to view people much differently than many people did at that time. She is one of the few people who can see the connection between Hester and Dimsdale and she can see who through Chillingsworth’s act even though many of the townspeople did not pick up either of them. While Pearl seems to have the best outcome of the main characters, she does lose her father before she gets to know him as a result of his sin. While Hawthorne never says for certain what turned out of Pearl’s life, most likely from Hester sewing the baby clothes she was happily married somewhere. This pleasant outcome is possibly due to grace as she had to deal with many consequences of sin throughout her life that she did not commit.
Dimsdale’s role in the story as to sin and grace is different form that of the other characters. He shows the reader the effects of letting someone take the punishment of your sin for you. Dimsdale spends much of the story very ill. It is alluded to in the book that this illness is due to his sin of adultery and keeping it hidden from everyone. As a result of his illness he is put under the care of Rodger Chillingsworth, who knows his secret and seeks revenge and tortures him. While dimsdale’s life in the story is characterized by sin, by grace God is still able to use him as a minister. In an article titled A Weighty Soul, Craig Barnes writes, “But the congregation’s deep desire is for someone to make holy sense of their lives”. Dimsdale is able to do this because of his personal encounter with the consequences of sin. He seems to be able to give his best sermons while the consequences of sin are hitting him the hardest, like the morning after he is on the scaffolds with Hester and Pearl and his speech he gives before he confesses his sin and his death. It is easy to see the effect of sin in Dimsdale’s outcome as his death, but it could also be an outcome of grace as he no longer has to live with constant guilt and being tortured by Chillingsworth.
Rodger Chillingsworth, much like Pearl, is used as a symbol. Instead of Grace, he is used as a symbol of sin. He is the physical embodiment of sin and revenge in the story. In chapter fourteen Chillingsworth even refers to himself as a demon, saying “there was a fiend at his elbow! A mortal man, with once a human heart, has become a fiend for his especial torment!” Again much like Pearl, Chillingsworth’s life was heavily affected by the consequences of a sin he did not commit. Because of that sin, he is overwhelmed with revenge and hatred for Dimsdale. He is also one of the few people who sees the connection between Hester and Dimsdale. Chillingsworth is also seen as the devil by Pearl and is hated by Hester for what he does to Dimsdale. Because of his close relationship with sin, Chillingsworth’s outcome is not a desirable one. He is hated by his wife Hester and loses all ties with her and he loses his motivation of revenge in torturing Dimsdale. Shortly after Dimsdale dies, he also dies as if to show that revenge was his only motivation for living. Because his life was characterized by sin, when that sin was gone, his life could no longer continue.
Sin and grace in the Scarlet letter continually battle each other through the characters of the story. Some characters seem to have a balance on their influences while others are completely overcome by one. Not only can we see their effects in the events and the actions of the characters, but we also can see them in their final outcomes. While the Scarlet letter is a fictional story, the influences of sin and grace are very real and can be seen in life.
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