The Scarlet Letter is a novel about love and jealousy, sin and shame, passion and compassion. It is a tale of a woman named Hester Prynne, who engaged in adultery with the town minister, and as a result, bore permanent consequences from this sin throughout the remainder of their lives. While Minister Dimmesdale denied this sin and expressed his regret through shows of self-abuse and crippling guilt, Hester embraced her sins as past experience and learned from them in order to find her own identity.
While the entire novel is rich with allegory and imagery, the conclusion to be drawn is this: Free will is God’s indispensable gift to humanity, and we must allow ourselves to be open to salvation in light of the choices we make. This theme is expressed through the necessity of sin to find knowledge, Hester’s embracing of the scarlet letter, the difference in the quality of life between Hester and Dimmesdale based on their coping mechanisms, and the very being of Hester and Dimmesdale’s daughter, Pearl. As stated, a major theme in the novel is that of free will and necessary acceptance of the consequences of one’s decision.
Hester and Dimmesdale’s situation is comparable to that of Adam and Eve. Like Adam and Eve, the characters in the novel are made aware of their humanness through sin, that is, the realization that free will separates them from other creatures. Once expelled from society, or in Adam and Eve’s case, the Garden of Eden, they are forced to toil and procreate, the tasks that seem to define the human condition. The story of Hester and Dimmesdale recalls the story of Adam and Eve because, in both cases, sin results in expulsion and suffering. However, most significantly, it also results in knowledge.
The knowledge of what it means to be human. The scarlet letter was intended by the Puritan elders to be a mark of sinfulness, and therefore, shame. However, for Hester, the scarlet letter is “her passport into regions where other women dared not tread”, leading her to “speculate” about what she had always known and explore her inner self more “boldly” than anyone else in New England. As for Dimmesdale, the “burden” of his sin gives him “sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind, so that his heart vibrates in unison with theirs. ” His most articulate, powerful sermons were derived from the sense of empathy ained from experience. Hester and Dimmesdale contemplate their own sinfulness constantly, and try to repent it with the way they live their lives afterward. The Puritan elders, on the other hand, insist on seeing sinful experiences as a mere obstacle on the path to heaven. Hence, they view life on earth as insignificant, and sin as a threat to the community that should be severely punished and suppressed. While they punish Hester and Dimmesdale, their Puritan society is stagnant, while Hester and Dimmesdale’s experience shows that imperfection and life experience are not evil.
They are necessary to personal growth and true, deep understanding of others. Hester realizes and expresses that sin is forgivable, and at times necessary, to achieve a true personal identity in earthly life. After Hester is publicly shamed and forced by her society to wear the scarlet letter as a badge of humiliation, she is unwilling to pick up and leave the town. Although she is free to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and doing so would allow her to remove the scarlet letter and live a life of quiet obscurity, she is unwilling to flee her “burden”.
Hester even reacts with disappointment when Chillingworth tells her that the town fathers are considering allowing her to remove the letter. Hester’s behavior is a result of her desire to find her own identity rather than to allow others to determine it for her. To her, running away or removing the letter would be an acknowledgment of society’s power over her. She does not believe that the letter is a mark of shame and it is not something from which she desires to escape. She does not regret her action simply because she is told she should.
Hester stays, refiguring the scarlet letter as a symbol of her own experiences and character. Her past sin is a part of who she is, and in her view, to pretend that it never happened would mean denying a part of her. Thus, Hester openly integrates her past sin into her life. Much unlike Hester, Dimmesdale is scared and ashamed of his past. His attempts to hide what he has done result in his life being a great deal unhappier than that of Hester, who is very candid about her past sins. This is a result of Dimmesdale’s struggles against a socially determined identity.
Being that he is the minister of the community, he is often seen as more of a symbol than human being. With the exception of Chillingworth, those around the minister ignore his obvious anguish, instead interpreting it as a sign of holiness. Unfortunately, Dimmesdale never fully recognizes the truth of what Hester has known all along. Individuality and strength are gained by quiet self-assertion and not a rejection of one’s construed identity. Pearl is the lovechild of Hester and Dimmesdale, the mark of their sin. In the novel, Pearl is predominantly a symbol.
This symbolic role can be seen in her name. A pearl is the most perfect, innocent jewel. It is polished and defined in its shell by the roughness of the sand around her, and eventually will be released from the shell to become a beautiful, unique piece of jewellery. Throughout most of the novel she is quite young, and speaks relatively little. Her most significant contribution to the plot is the reaction she provokes in the other characters in the novel. She asks them blunt, direct questions and shows how ridiculous the denial, prejudice, and misdirection of the adult world really are.
In the novel, Pearl is portrayed to be much more perceptive and honest than adults in the novel, despite (or due to) her youthful tactlessness. Pearl makes the readers and characters constantly aware of her mother’s scarlet letter, and therefore, of the society that produced it. To Pearl, the scarlet letter is such a part of Hester that she does not recognize her without it. Pearl’s innocent comments about the letter are surprisingly insightful, and raise significant questions about its meaning.
Similarly, she inquires about the relationships between those around her [most importantly, the relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale] and offers her perceptive opinions of them. Pearl seems to be the only character to openly criticize Dimmesdale’s refusal to simply admit to his adultery and move on. Once her father’s identity is revealed, Pearl is no longer needed in this symbolic role. When Dimmesdale dies, she becomes a full human being, leaving behind her childhood naivety. Throughout the novel, the characters’ levels of contentedness are almost always inversely proportionate to their denial of their sins and themselves.
God does not expect humans to be perfect. He is willing to forgive so long as we are ready to be forgiven. Hester and Pearl realize and acknowledge their imperfections, and revel in the knowledge that “perfection” leads to inertness, much like that of their Puritan society. Consequently, they live much better lives than that of Dimmesdale, who steadfastly denies his imperfections and spends incredible amounts of time punishing himself instead of getting on with his life. In light of the choices we make, we are always open to salvation. The only thing that can stop us is ourselves.