Guilt and Innocence in ''The Scarlet Letter''

Categories: Romance

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.

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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).

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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 Reverend Dimmesdale argue about whether or not a man should reveal his secrets to rid themselves of the unutterable guilt. They cannot agree on why a man would not get rid of his guilt sooner.

The clergyman says, "Why should a wretched man, guilty, we will say, of murder, prefer to keep the dead corpse buried in his own heart, rather than fling it forth at once, and let the universe take care of it" (Hawthorne 119). A man guilty of murder may prefer to keep it buried in his own heart because he knows the results would label him as sinful and evil. Man does not want others to know him as a sinner, but as an innocent churchgoer. The importance of sin in the society where Dimmesdale lives seems to center around the townspeople's lives and beliefs. Hawthorne writes his story covering the fundamental statement that sin becomes extremely important as within the days and philosophies of the earliest Puritans (Bloom 10). Puritans believe that because public lives and private lives link together, sins of friends and associates could taint one's name, like guilt by association. The public holds Dimmesdale high in society and mark him with great importance.

Nathaniel Hawthorne establishes the theme of guilt and innocence throughout the novel by demonstrating how Hester Prynne deals with her guilt from the sin she commits. In Chapter Two, the narrator describes the scene of Hester Prynne walking out of the prison into the daylight. Hester's reaction as she walks out of the prison into the crowd of people on her way to the market-place illustrates her motherly instincts. The young mother stands before the crowd with an expression that looks as if she might grasp the infant close to her chest; not to protect the infant, but hide an item sewn onto her dress. She quickly realizes that she cannot hide the shame sewn onto her dress with the shame she holds in her arms, and she then gazes around at the townspeople. A fine red letter A surrounded by fancy sewing of gold thread appears on her chest (Hawthorne 47).

The young woman knows of the guilt and shame placed upon her, figuratively and literally. She knows it figuratively by the guilt and shame of having an affair. Literally by the scarlet red letter "A" sewn onto her gown with gold thread. She will not allow others to place fault on her for covering up or taking off the letter "A" from her clothing, giving her some sense innocence. In Chapter Three, Reverend Mr. Wilson tries to pressure and persuade Hester into giving up the name of the father of her baby. She refuses to speak of his name because she does not want him to bear the burden of the guilt. Reverend Mr. Wilson harshly cries out at Hester that she should not sin further than the limits of Heaven's forgiveness. The baby in her arms will reveal to the counsel the name of Hester's fellow sinner. He bargains with her that she can take the scarlet letter off her breast if she reveals his name. She refuses to speak the name or take the scarlet letter off her breast. Hester will bear the burden of his guilt and hers so that he can feel innocent and free (Hawthorne 61).

Reverend Mr. Wilson tries to find out what man committed the sin with Hester and now should label himself as a father of her child. She knows that unless she speaks his name he will not need to feel guilty. Hester Prynne stands up and fights for what she believes in, instead of allowing herself to become vulnerable. The issue of who controls the letter, and the vulnerability of Hester's identity, occurs at the end of the first scene, when the Reverend Mr. Wilson tries to persuade Hester into naming her lover by suggesting the information will allow her to take the scarlet letter off her clothing. Her response tells him that it will take more to intimidate her. Hester weakens their ruling by her extreme truthfulness toward the scarlet letter. She becomes the front line of communication and character (Bloom 101). Hester knows that she committed a sin and believes that she needs to pay the price by wearing the scarlet letter. She presents herself to others as guilty by wearing the scarlet letter.

Nathaniel Hawthorne establishes the theme of guilt and innocence throughout the novel by revealing how Hester Prynne overcomes her guilt through many years of grief. In Chapter Five, the narrator says that Hester will become the example for the preacher and moralist to use in their teachings. Hester must move on from that and live her life in the fullest. The days will continue onward, still with the load of burden for her to carry with her, but never to drop; for the many coming days and years would stack up their sadness upon the mound of shame. Throughout all of them, giving her individuality away, she would become the symbol for preachers and moralists to use, and in which they might bring life and embody their pictures of women's weakness and wicked passion. The young and pure would learn to look at her as the figure, the reality of sin (Hawthorne 71). Hester's guilt becomes the highlight of the preacher's and moralist's teachings. She no longer feels innocent from guilt or shame.

In Chapter 15, Hester takes Pearl into the forest for a walk, so she can talk to Reverend Dimmesdale about Roger Chillingworth's secret identity. Pearl asks many questions about different people and items like the scarlet letter and the minister putting his hand over his heart all the time. The narrator describes, "In all the seven bygone years, Hester Prynne had never before been false to the symbol on her bosom" (Hawthorne 164). Hester never denied her guilt before in the past seven years, until Pearl nags Hester to tell her the reason for wearing the scarlet letter. She does not know why she denied the guilt the scarlet letter reminds her of. Mothers teach their children everything they needed because the mothers know the children the best.

The consecrated union in which the mother teaches her offspring about the letters of communication that expresses her character and position within the town, becomes broken from the lie about the letter. Hester teaches Pearl the alphabet and Pearl acknowledges the letter _A_ from the hornbook Hester taught with. Pearl fails the test of knowing her true identity from Hester not telling her the real significance of the letter (Bloom 64). Hester chooses not to tell Pearl the true meaning of the letter A on her chest, so she makes herself feel guilt and shame for lying to Pearl.

Nathaniel Hawthorne establishes the theme of guilt and innocence throughout the novel by illustrating how Pearl becomes a symbol of Hester and Dimmesdale's sin. In Chapter Two, Hester realizes that no one but her stands on the scaffold, with an infant in her arm, and the letter "A" sewn onto her gown. She does not want to believe in the truth. The narrator describes, "Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes!-these were her realities,-all else had vanished" (Hawthorne 53). Hester realizes her guilt and shame for a moment while standing on the scaffold. In this case, she realizes that no innocence will come to her and free her from her guilt. In Chapter Six, Pearl does not see the entire reason as to why no one will become her friend. She also doesn't understand what she did to deserve loneliness.

The narrator says, "Nothing was more remarkable than the instinct, as it seemed, with which the child comprehended her loneliness; the destiny that had drawn an inviolable circle round about her; the whole peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other children" (Hawthorne 84). Pearl displays herself as innocent, but gets caught up in the guilt of her mother because she bears the same label as her mother, a sinner. Hester lives with the guilt of putting this burden on her daughter. Arthur Dimmesdale fears that Pearl will figure out that they possess similar facial appearances. The infant's uniqueness carries someone else's: that, like a letter, she possesses the evidence to the complete understanding of someone else's personality-_A_ condenses Adultery, or even Arthur. Pearl's father's initials include the first two letters of adultery.

Pearl reflects the form of her father, just like she notices in the reflecting creek, the face that outlines her father's appearance and could allow her to reveal Reverend Dimmesdale as Hester's fellow sinner. Pearl lives as a symbol or reduced form because her parent's linguistic misinformation and dishonesty define her. Denying that would deny the existence of Pearl all together (Bloom 65). Innocence radiates around Pearl, but others, such as Arthur and Hester, see her as a symbol of their guilt and shame. Pearl chooses to feel innocent, so that she might cheer up her mother.

It is evident that the conscious decision of guilt or innocence can create an easy or hard decision for a person as in _The Scarlet Letter_. Hester Prynne, Reverend Dimmesdale, and Pearl all faced the decision of whether they wanted to feel guilty or innocent. Unlike Pearl, Hester and Dimmesdale struggled with their conscious about whether they should feel guilty or innocent for their sin they committed. Hester and Dimmesdale present themselves as a different version of Adam and Eve in the novel _The Scarlet Letter_. The townspeople ostracized Hester and Dimmesdale for committing a sin against God. God forced Adam and Eve to work and start a family after God banished them from the Garden of Eden for committing a sin against Him. In the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, sin and knowledge relate to each other.

Works 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.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Guilt and Innocence in ''The Scarlet Letter''. (2016, Aug 06). Retrieved from

Guilt and Innocence in ''The Scarlet Letter'' essay
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