Hawthorne's Hierarchy of Sin in The Scarlet Letter
Throughout the novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne focuses on the struggle of Hester Prynne, a woman who is forced to deal with the strict Puritan punishment for the adulterous birth of her child, Pearl. Yet, the very Puritan values that bring Hester public ignominy help to lift her to a position of respect in the community. Although Hawthorne does not condone Hester's sin, he takes pains to show that her sin is minimal in comparison to those of her weak lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, and of her vengeful husband, Roger Chillingworth.
Hester finds solace in the moral teachings of her religion and in acts of repentance, which help her deal with the struggles resulting from her sin. Although she no longer practices her faith openly after her public disgrace, she still has deep ties to her God and religion. She often prays for Pearl in hopes that her child's wild character will be calmed with time. Hester accepts her punishment readily, elaborately embroidering the scarlet "A" she is forced to wear on her breast and dressing Pearl in scarlet. She continues to wear the symbol of her sin long after the community declares her repented due to her commendable record of community service, showing everyone that she has nothing to hide. Indeed, Hester's salvation lies in the truth: "In all things else, I have striven to be true! Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast, and did hold fast, through all extremity.
. . . A lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side!" (200). Hester finds comfort in prayer and repentance, which help to make her strong: "Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers- stern and wild ones- and they had made her strong" (206). Through her experience Hester comes to be respected by the Boston community and finds peace with herself and her God.
Hester's fault lies in the fact that her passion and love are stronger than her respect for the Puritan's moral code. She declares that "[w]hat we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other!" (201). As the novel progresses, Hawthorne increasingly portrays Hester as the victim of the faults of both Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. Chillingworth's selfishness allows him to marry the beautiful and passionate Hester even though he realizes it will be difficult for her to feel love for him, as he is "well stricken in years," with a "slight deformity," and is not suited to her tastes (59). Hester also falls victim to Chillingworth's foolishness when he sends his wife ahead of him to the New World. From here, Fate takes over and Hester is left without word of her husband's welfare, as he is captured by Indians and held hostage for over a year. Thus, the lonely and unhappy Hester is in a perfect position to accept the love of the minister, Dimmesdale. Dimmesdales's weakness allows him to continue his love...