Critical Essay: “The Scarlet Sin: Analyzing Secrets in “The Scarlet Letter””

The Scarlet Sin: Analyzing Secrets in The Scarlet Letter

            Whether intentional or not, keeping secrets is part of human nature. Be it a small and embarrassing habit, or even a brief moment of breaking the law, some things find it best to leave personal acts that they deem deviant out of day to day conversation. For some, keeping these secrets may be no problem, but for others it can be agonizing. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, multiple perspectives show the differing ways in which people deal with their “secret sins.” The calm, accepting manner of Hester Prynne juxtaposed with the debilitated Arthur Dimmesdale work to demonstrate the effects of secrets on the psyche; the longer one tries to conceal a dastardly secret, the faster it will diminish them from the inside.

           The time period in which this story is set holds a great deal of importance. While adultery is a devious act no matter how you look at it, it was especially devilish in this time period of Colonia America. In a 1996 talk given by Sacvan Bercovitch in Salem, Massachusetts titled “The Scarlet Letter: A Twice-Told Tale,” he explains that part of the reason this sin is so taxing on the both of them is because of the weight that their society places on it. Because of societal rules, Hester is ridiculed for her act of love after having felt imprisoned in a loveless marriage. Likewise, Dimmesdale is unable to profess his love due to the restrictions placed upon him; if he were to confess what he did, he would surely be punished, possibly with death (Bercovitch 12). Hester and Dimmesdale acted impulsively and, as Bercovitch claims, naturally, even though letting emotion takeover is rarely the best way to handle a situation. Hester and Dimmesdale’s woe is a direct result of the harsh implications that societal rules place on adultery. One might wonder if this story would have the same effect had it been placed in today’s day and age.

            Though initially filled with grief and woe over her act of adultery, Hester’s choice to embrace her action allows her to flourish, presenting the dreaded Scarlet Letter with a new meaning. Unlike Dimmesdale, Hester has no choice but to embrace their adultery, as everyone finds out due to her child. While this may seem like a horrendous punishment at first, it actually ends up working out very well for Hester. Initially, the villagers are cold to Hester, who feels guilt and shame from their cold gazes and commentary. One villager eventually tries to put an end to them, exclaiming “‘[n]ot a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she has felt it in her heart’” (Hawthorne 52). Additionally, Hester’s appearance begins to reflect her feelings; she wears more concealing clothing and sheathes her hair. Hester tries to go on with her life as normal, setting up residence on the outskirts of town and taking on sewing jobs as well as raising Pearl by herself. Hester is initially filled with dread, knowing full well that “she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, […] the figure, the body, the reality of sin” (75). But as she begins to distract herself with her work and realize the blessing of her child Pearl, the fiery “A” emblazoned on her chest begins to take new meaning. Once standing for “adulterer,” many begin to see it as representing “able” (152). The townspeople begin to appreciate the hard work that Hester will do for these people, and forget about her past. She even reinvents the letter on her chest, embroidering it with gold to call more attention to it. Hester’s choice to accept the sin that she committed and make the most of it allowed her to not only move on from the past, but indisputably flourish from it. Hester’s secret sin was revealed to everyone in town, which kept it from being able to eat her up inside. Rather than avoid the past, she instead attempts to complete tasks in an effort to seek forgiveness. Hester’s behavior is not unlike Mr. Hooper’s from another Nathaniel Hawthorne story, “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Both characters don symbols to represent their secret sins. Towards the end of Hooper’s life, he exclaims that he looks around at those surrounding him, “and lo, on every visage a Black Veil!” (Hawthorne 59). From this quote one must wonder if the hate projected upon Hester by the townspeople is more than just disgust, perhaps in an attempt to distract their neighbors from their own secret sins.

            In contrast to Hester, Arthur Dimmesdale refuses to reveal the act of adultery, instead allowing it to diminish him throughout the novel. The status of Dimmesdale is very different compared to Hester; a highly regarded reverend, Dimmesdale is determined to keep the sin a secret from the beginning. The deed already seems to be troubling him from the beginning, as he is described as having “an air about [him]—an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look—as of a being who found himself […] at a loss in the pathway of human existence” (Hawthorne 63).  Despite this, Dimmesdale attempts to keep his composure to the best of his ability, although it becomes very obvious that something is wrong with him. As time passes, Dimmesdale’s health begins to plummet; he is described as “emaciated: his voice […] had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay in it; he was often observed […] to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of pain” (113). Of course, most villagers attribute this to his unrelenting and exhausting devotion to his religious studies, unaware of the true evil that is troubling him. Dimmesdale’s condition becomes no better, especially under the intrusive care of Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, who of course has ulterior motives for agreeing to be his caretaker. Towards the end of the novel, Dimmesdale’s conditions spike, but this time in a positive way; this of course occurring after he accepts his sin and makes plans to flee the town with Hester and Pearl. Racing through the town, Dimmesdale feels energetic and impulsive, wanting to say to everyone that he passes “‘I am not the man for who you take me! I left him yonder in the forest. […] Go, seek your minister, and see if his emaciated figure […] be not flung down there, like a cast-off garment!” (207). Ridding himself of the horrible weight that Dimmesdale carried upon himself for seven years is liberating. Of course, the weight of seven years is not so easily purged; Dimmesdale reveals to all of the townsfolk his sin and casts aside his garments to reveal his very own stigma. Dimmesdale suddenly becomes very weak, and dies. In his final moments, readers are left with the comforting truth that Dimmesdale rids himself of the weight that he carried for so long. However, this cautionary tale proves that spending our lives trying to store away our dark secrets is not advised, seeing as how this action resulted in Dimmesdale paying the ultimate price.

            While the aforementioned characters deal with their secret sin in very different ways, the connections between them are also very noteworthy. For starters, the secret is mutual; their act of adultery effectively bonds them together for the rest of their lives, whether they want to accept it or not. However, both characters are forced to deal with it in separate ways. Bearing a child without a father, Hester is cast aside by the community, and is forced to face the ridicule. Dimmesdale, while facing similar feelings, has the blessing as well as the curse of keeping his involvement a secret. Dimmesdale avoids public ridicule and maintains his position as reverend, yet must deal with the traumatizing secret internally. By the end of the novel, neither Hester nor Dimmesdale seem to regret the choices they made, for the miracle of Pearl was enough to justify their actions. As Pearl finally kisses Dimmesdale “ [a] spell [is] broken […] as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it” (Hawthorne 243).” While they are unaware of what awaits them in afterlife, knowing their ultimate fate is up to God, there is a mutual sense of peace between them knowing that Pearl will grow up to be okay. While the love story of Dimmesdale and Hester may be tragic, their assurance that Pearl will live a happy life helps them to rest easily.

           Keeping a secret is a daunting task, and may affect an individual in ways they do not realize. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester and Dimmesdale are placed in a tough position where they have committed a devious sin. Watching their lives unfold, readers are given insight into how secret sin affects a person. Hawthorne seems to be urging his audience to avoid being put in such situations; for the end result can be deadly.


Works Cited

Bercovitch, Sacvan. “The Scarlet Letter: A Twice-Told Tale.” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review. p. 1-20. Hawthorne Hotel, Salem. 29 June 1996. Speech.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Minister’s Black VeilFiction: A Pocket Anthology. Ed. R. S. Gwynn. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson Education, 2014. 47-59. Print.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Signet Classics, 2009. Print.