The act of committing a sin and the guilt that follows affect all types of people, to a certain degree. But although sin and guilt affect everyone, some people are influenced more by their past crimes. Some individuals may shatter under the extreme guilt they feel, while others would not even remember they committed the exact same offense. The definition of sin is a delicate topic to many and changes drastically from one person to the next.
Another subject that is just as versatile as sin is forgiveness. Believing or disbelieving in forgiveness profoundly affects how an individual handles the guilt of a crime. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, sin, guilt, and forgiveness strip the characters of their external facade and, by the end of the novel, display to the whole town their true nature. Sin, guilt, and forgiveness radically affect Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth and reveal their true character to all by their reactions. Hester Prynne is affected astronomically by sin, guilt, and forgiveness in the novel; in fact, they dictate her whole life following her sin.
Her shame, which resulted from her punishment for committing her sin, is so great that on the scaffold she touches the scarlet letter to assure herself that it is real. After her time on the scaffold “these were her realities – all else had vanished!”(57). Her sin results in her living alone in a cottage on the edge of town with no company but little Pearl for seven long years. Her sin not only affects herself, but Pearl also; she is considered “spawn of the Devil” for the first seven years of her life. Although surely Hester feels guilt from her sin, she is not tormented by it because she has already confessed publicly in her ignominious scaffold appearance. After awhile, the townspeople forgive Hester and begin to say the letter stands for “able” because of all the service Hester does for various people.
Though the town forgives her, Hester is never able to forgive herself until she is completely done with her punishment and refuses to let herself off easily, even though the town is ready to let her sin go. Even years later, after Pearl is married, a women returns to the town and is identifiable because “[she hesitated] long enough to display a scarlet letter on her breast”(256). Her determination to endure her punishment the right way truly reveals her strong character and her fighting spirit. From the beginning to the end of the novel, Hester is a typical favorite character because she is strong in difficult situations and does not yield to the intense forces that oppress her. Reverend Dimmesdale is also intensely affected by sin, guilt, and forgiveness; like Hester, his life is ruled by these principles but his is a more private battle. Guilt is the main force that torments Dimmesdale throughout the novel; Chillingworth’s torture only exacerbates his feelings of guiltiness.
Many times he tries to relieve his guiltiness in hinting to the town that, if he died, “it would be because of his own unworthiness”(116), but the people refuse to believe him; even Chillingworth claims that “good men ever interpret themselves too meanly”(119). Dimmesdale’s guilt drives him to do things that hurt his health even further: fasting, performing vigils, and scourging himself. Dimmesdale even goes as far as to inscribe his own letter “A” upon his chest. His guilt causes him to self-inflict pain, revealing that he is a perfectionist and is much too hard on himself. Because of his position in the church, he does not want to reveal himself as the father of Pearl. Not only does his position restrain him from confessing, but also his lack of strength.
To Dimmesdale, who likely has done nothing else seriously wrong in his life, committing such a sin is too much for him to bear. Dimmesdale knows that “[he] is a dying man”(249) and is haunted by the fact that he could die before he confesses of his sin; he desperately needs to be forgiven and “take his shame upon [him]!”(249). His personal desire to be forgiven takes over the powerful carnal instinct of man to survive – he sacrifices his one chance at happiness with his family to take the weight of the sin off of his shoulders. Dimmesdale is extremely affected by guilt and his drive to attain forgiveness; as he strives to reach this level of perfection, the readers see his true character spelled out in scarlet letters. Roger Chillingworth is enormously affected by sin, guilt, and forgiveness; sin certainly shows Chillingworth’s true character. Hester and Dimmesdale’s sin governs Chillingworth’s whole life once he is aware of its existence.
Chillingworth sounds almost insane as he reveals to Hester his plan for her lover, exclaiming, “His [Dimmesdale’s] fame, his position, his life, will be in my hands”(74). His obsession with finding and torturing the father of Pearl relates to the readers some of the true characteristics of Chillingworth: cruel, angry, unforgiving, obsessive, and sometimes simply evil. Chillingworth is so fanatical about fulfilling his goal of finding and torturing the father that when his goal can no longer be carried out, he dies because he has nothing left to live for; perhaps he feels very guilty even though he did not actually kill Dimmesdale. Chillingworth has not forgiven Dimmesdale for what he has done, but at least Dimmesdale tried to still be a good person. Chillingworth, on the other hand, does terrible things to Dimmesdale, but at the end “bequeath[s] a very considerable amount of property, both here [America] and in England to little Pearl”(255).
This spectacularly changes Pearl’s life and gives her status she needs for a prosperous life. To give Pearl the land – Specifically Pearl, not Hester! – is a strange but admirable gesture of Chillingworth. It shows that he feels compassion for Pearl, even if he does not feel any towards her parents. This is also his way of saying “I am sorry” for what she has experienced, which was in part Chillingworth’s fault. Without the effects of sin, guilt, and forgiveness on Roger Chillingworth, the novel would lose a very dynamic part of the story that causes readers to analyze what true restitution is. The true characteristics of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth are brought to the forefront of the story through sin, guilt, and forgiveness; these forces push human emotions and actions to the limit and play a crucial part in the novel.
When people are pushed to their limits – whether it is physically, mentally, or emotionally – their genuine qualities are brought to light and they are robbed of any place to hide pretentious characteristics. By the end of the novel everything is out in the open for the whole world to see. Hester does not try to hide and so shows her true nature the whole time, while Dimmesdale and Chillingworth desperately attempt to conceal who they truly are. Readers see how well deceit worked out for the two: Who of the three ended up alive in the end? As readers strive to understand the depth of questions Hawthorne poses throughout the novel, they begin to see how deeply ingrained the ideas of sin, guilt, and forgiveness are in the book and better understand the importance of living a genuine life.