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.
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“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 to her society, Hester has found a way to assuage her need for redemption. Reverend Dimmesdale was the counterpart in Hester’s adultery, but his sin remained hidden until his death. The knowledge of his sin is unknown to all but himself and Hester. To Dimmesdale his sin is an affliction to which he can find no rest.
He attempts to find treatment in his burden by holding late-night vigils, fasting, and even scourging himself with a whip. His struggles allow him to empathize with human weakness. The hindrance of his sin gives him “sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his heart vibrated in unison with theirs” (95). Dimmesdale reaches a new understanding of how sin can affect others. This new empathy draws out Dimmesdale’s most powerful and impassioned sermons. Roger Chillingworth is another character agitated by sin. When Chillingworth first arrives in the colony he deceives the townspeople and tells them he is a physician.
His primary sin is that of vengeance. He vows he will find the man that Hester committed adultery with, and that he will have revenge. Completely opposite of Hester, Chillingworth’s mind is at peace with his sin. His body, however, becomes more and more deformed as time goes on, portraying that his need for vengeance is causing an outward effect. It soon become evident that his desire for revenge is boundless, I will hunt this man as I have hunted truth in books; as I have searched for gold in alchemy. There is a sympathy that will make me conscious of him. I shall see him tremble.
I shall feel myself shudder, suddenly and unexpectedly. Sooner or later he will be mine (50). While sin leads to important self-discoveries for Hester and Dimmesdale, it is not as great for Chillingworth. Revenge becomes his only aspiration and he dies within a year of Dimmesdale’s death, his purpose for living gone. Chillingworth brings no good out of his sin. He simply continues his torment of Dimmesdale until the end of his life. Hester and Dimmesdale ponder their own sinfulness, attempt to learn from their sins, and try to reconcile with their lived experiences.