Guilt and Innocence in The Scarlet Letter

Topics: The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne Pages: 7 (2461 words) Published: May 16, 2012
Guilt & Innocence in _The Scarlet Letter_

Knowledge and sin connect in the Judeo-Christian tradition in the story of Adam and Eve. Sin becomes the outcome in the story of Adam and Eve when they get thrown out of the Garden of Eden. After their banishment from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve must work and bear children. Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale experience similar situations as Adam and Eve in the novel _The Scarlet Letter_ written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. For Hester, the scarlet letter becomes her ticket to go places no one else would dare go to. However, for Dimmesdale, the weight of his sin gives him close and personal sympathy with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so he feels a kinship with them. Hester and Dimmesdale reflect on their own sinfulness on a daily basis and strive to resolve it with their own knowledge. In the novel _The Scarlet Letter_, Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays the theme of guilt and innocence through Hester Prynne, Reverend Dimmesdale, and Pearl to show that sometimes guilt or innocence is a conscious decision.

Nathaniel Hawthorne establishes the theme of guilt and innocence throughout the novel by displaying how Reverend Dimmesdale's guilt affects him. In Chapter Ten, Roger Chillingworth and Reverend Dimmesdale talk about why black weeds would spring up in a buried heart of a dead man to represent an unspoken crime. Reverend Dimmesdale speaks that no power above the Divine mercy reveals the secrets that bury with a human heart. The minister replied, "The heart making itself guilty of such secrets, must perforce hold them, until the day when all hidden things shall be revealed" (Hawthorne 118). Reverend Dimmesdale says that the heart forces itself to feel guilty for keeping those secrets concealed in itself. The heart must inevitably hold those secrets in itself until judgment day when all hidden things reveal themselves. A person's own impression of sin can keep him/her away from making the right decision like Reverend Dimmesdale. True blockage from his own logic of crime prevents Reverend Dimmesdale from meeting Hester and Pearl on the scaffold, which points him towards adding to his sin (Bloom 16). Reverend Dimmesdale's sense of personal sin becomes too overwhelming for him from the pressures as a minister. He does not stand next to Hester and Pearl on the scaffold since his label as a minister keeps him form admitting to his sin. In Chapter 12, at nighttime, Reverend Dimmesdale goes out to get a reasonable perspective of what it would maybe feel like to stand on the scaffold. He believes that no one except him walks the streets at that late hour, but he finds Reverend Mr. Wilson walking past him to his home from Governor Winthrop's death-bed. The narrator describes, "And thus, while standing on the scaffold, in this vain show of expiation, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart" (Hawthorne 134). Reverend Dimmesdale feels as if something revealed his guilt and sin to the universe. He does not want others to know of his guilt, but rather of his pure heart and innocent mind.

Nathaniel Hawthorne establishes the theme of guilt and innocence throughout the novel by exhibiting how Reverend Dimmesdale allows his guilt to affect him and his actions. In Chapter 12, Reverend Dimmesdale stands on the scaffold that Hester Prynne stood on seven years earlier. Hester Prynne comes from Governor Winthrop's house to find Reverend Dimmesdale on her way home. "Come up hither, Hester, thou and little Pearl," said the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. "Ye have both been here before, but I was not with you. Come up hither once again, and we will stand all three together" (Hawthorne 138). Reverend Dimmesdale finally reveals the guilt that he kept to himself for seven years. He admits that he sinned and will stand by his guilty partner when he feels the need to. In Chapter Ten, Roger Chillingworth and...


Cited: Carton, Evan. "The Prison Door." _The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe and Hawthorne_ (1985). Rpt. in _Modern Critical Interpretations: The Scarlet Letter_. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 97-120. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. _The Scarlet Letter_. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.
Kaul, A. N. "Nathaniel Hawthorne: Heir and Critic of the Puritan Tradition." _The American Vision: Actual and Ideal Society in Nineteenth-Century Fiction_ (1963). Rpt. in _Modern Critical Interpretations: The Scarlet Letter_. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 9-20. Print.
Ragussis, Michael. "Family Discourse and Fiction in _The Scarlet Letter_." _ELH_ 49 (1982). Rpt. in _Modern Critical Interpretations: The Scarlet Letter_. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 59-80. Print.
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