Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is a story full of themes of guilt, pride, hypocrisy, retribution, and isolation. Taking place during the seventeenth century, the story of Hester Prynne and her famed scarlet letter depicts a story of unconceivable proportions. Guilt, Sin and Judgment
Perhaps the foremost purpose of The Scarlet Letter is to illustrate the difference between shaming someone in public and allowing him or her to suffer the consequences of an unjust act privately. According to the legal statutes at the time and the prevailing sentiment of keeping in accordance with a strict interpretation of the Bible, adultery was a capital sin that required the execution of both adulterer and adulteress—or at the very least, severe public corporal punishment. Indeed, even if the husband wanted to keep his wife alive after she committed adultery, the law insisted that she would have to die for it. The baby Pearl is a constant reminder of her mother Hester’s sin. It is in this environment that Hester commits adultery with Dimmesdale, but we come to see that the public shaming cannot begin to account for all complexities of the illicit relationship—or the context of it. What Hawthorne sets out to portray, then, is how the private thoughts, the private torture and guilt and emotional destruction of the people involved in the affair, are more than enough punishment for the crime. According to Sparknotes (2003), sin and knowledge are linked in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The experience of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin results in expulsion and suffering. But it also results in knowledge-specifically, in knowledge of what it means to be human. For each kind of sin, we wonder if the punishment fits the crime and what must be done, if anything, to redeem the sinner in the eyes of society as well as in the eyes of the...