Sympathy for the Sinful

After reading the Scarlet Letter, one of the most important questions that come to mind is the story’s tone towards Hester herself.  Was her sin unforgivable?  In essence, does Hawthorne support Hester or condemn her?  In truth, Hawthorne, despite his use of words such as “Sinful” “vile” and “despair” writes the story not as a condemnation of a woman in puritanic society, but rather a comment that we are all writhing with sin.

In his own reflection of whether or not to write Hester’s story he understands that “to confess the truth, it was his greatest [apprehension]”(The Custom-House).  Like Dimmesdale and Hester herself, Hawthorne is at odds between his desire to write a literary work and the expectations of puritanic society.  His role, as Surveyor of the Custom-House, leaves little room for creativity, and thus, he worries that upon his confession, he might “grow grey and decrepit in his Surveyorship”(Custom).   Hawthorne recognizes that sin can have moral ramifications for those guilty; however, he also does not want sin, and the imminent confession of it, to dictate his desire to orate a story of conflict between society and the ostracized.  Hawthorne, therefore, does not condemn Hester.  Rather, he writes the story to show the hypocrisy of Puritanic expectations through her journey.

Further, Hawthorne shows sin as something found within every individual.  Pearl, in the Forest with her mother, observes that “the sunshine does not love you…It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet”(A Forest Walk).  Pearl, as an observer of her mother’s condition in society, sees how they are isolated because of the emblem on her breast.  This quote parallels Hawthorne’s view of Hester’s crime.  The sun does run away from Hester, in that she feels the darkening guilt of her sin whenever she is avoided in public or shamed.  Similarly, Hawthorne sees the act as sin and reveals its effects on Hester.  However,  he also sees this sin as not excessively abnormal or worth condemnation.  When Pearl says “I wear nothing on my bosom yet”, it reflects the tone of the passage that sin will eventually fill the life of all citizens.  It is not exclusive to adultery, and therefore, he comments on the hypocrisy of Puritanic society and condones Hester’s sin.


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