Sin, Knowledge, and the Human Condition

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The Bible begins with the story of Adam and Eve, who are soon expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of knowledge. Accordingly, Adam and Eve are enlightened of their humanness. This new knowledge sets them apart from other creatures of the world. After their expulsion from the Garden, Adam and Eve are forced to toil and procreate-two “labors” that characterize the Human Condition. The tale of Hester and Dimmesdale recounts that of Adam and Eve because, in both stories, sin results in expulsion and suffering. Yet it also leads to knowledge, particularly the knowledge of what it is to be human. The Scarlet Letter emphasizes the association between sin, knowledge, and the Human Condition. Hester is ushered into a sort of exile while wearing the scarlet letter, her punishment for adultery. She no longer worries as much about appeasing the desires of society. This leads to her thinking more boldly about society and herself. “The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss” (Hawthorne 134). Hester’s punishment leads her into a “moral wilderness” lacking rules or guidance. This is ironic in that her punishment was intended to aid in her atonement, but instead leads her even farther astray. Hester’s mind is amidst a struggle with the aftermath of her sin. Her contemplation of her sinfulness leads to feelings of affinity and an understanding of others. She begins to do public service by bringing food to the poor, nursing the sick, and becomes a source of aid in times of trouble. These actions make it appear as though Hester may be accepted regardless of her sin. However, the Puritan superiors view all sin as a threat to the community that should be punished and suppressed. Throughout the story, Hester is portrayed as intelligent and capable, but not extraordinary. By doing these services...
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