Adultery, Betrayal, And Deception In The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Adultery, betrayal, and deception is all of which would make an amazing Hollywood scene and probably a pretty good book. To make it even better, add Puritan ideals and writing styles. All this resulted in the production of a book called The Scarlet letter. The Scarlet Letter is considered a one of a kind classic and a statement of the era. The Scarlet Letter is a not so traditional example of the good versus evil theme. What makes this a unique instance of good versus evil is that either side could be considered either one, it all depends on which point of view you look at it from.

Hester could very easily have been deduced as the ‘bad guy,’ as she was by the townspeople. That is due to the fact being that she was convicted of adultery, a horrible sin of the time. Puritans were known for their strict standards of ethics regarding all affairs of life, but especially in the realm of sexuality.

Any woman who cheated on her husband would be punished by the community; the punishment would be swift, harsh and sometimes deadly. In the novel The Scarlet Letter, the main character, Hester Prynne, is a married woman whose husband had been missing for some time when, to the shock of the community, she became pregnant. Prynne is imprisoned and gives birth to her child in jail. After she is released, Prynne is publicly shamed and forced to wear a red letter ‘A’ for ‘adulteress’ on her clothing from that point on.

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She was treated as an outcast for the rest of her life. While men were also punished for this crime, adultery was considered a more serious offense for women, who were often viewed as temptresses. In the 1639 case of a woman named Mary Mendame, her lover was ‘only’ whipped at the post, a lesser punishment than the whipping she received at the cart’s tail. Married men who had sex with a single woman were charged with fornication, while married women who had sex with a single man were charged with the more serious crime of adultery. When it came to matrimonial disloyalty and the Puritan woman, the Puritan’s strict standard of life and beliefs played a part in deciding what should happen to Hester Prynne

Many real-life Puritan women who were convicted of adultery suffered far worse fates than Hester Prynne. The most commonly prosecuted crimes in New England during the Puritan area were sex crimes, according to Gettysburg College. Any sexual activity besides that of a husband and wife was considered criminal behavior, and for adultery, the punishment was usually a whipping and a fine. That was the case for Anne Linceford, who in 1641 confessed to committing adultery and was punished by ‘an immediate severe whipping at the public post in Plymouth [and] a second whipping at the public post in Yarmouth [where the act was committed],'(Barlowe 213) according to ‘Sexual Misconduct in Plymouth Colony.’ She also had to wear the letters ‘AD’ on her clothing from that point on

Many people believe that evil is the nature of mankind, yet there are others that consider the possibility that man has good intentions but those intentions can be overrun by the devil. Throughput the book, The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne points out the three main characters who commit evil and sinful acts, but each at different degrees (in other words, the sins get worse as the story goes a-long). The three sinners in the eyes of the Puritan community would be the beautiful Hester Prynne, the respected priest Arthur Dimmesdale, and the callous doctor Roger Chillingworth. Just like Hawthorne has represented throughout the book, I too believe that evil is the nature of man; however there are different magnitudes of evil. There are people out there who choose to fight it (like Hester) and some out there who would rather just give in (like Chillingworth).

After reading the whole book, Hester Prynne can be strong-minded brave woman who alongside two additional people has committed a sin but compared to the other two, the least amount of sin in the novel. Through the eyes of the Puritan community, however, she has committed one of the worst possible sins that can be imagined in a Puritan society, adultery. They believe that Hester she atrociously fraudulent, yet if looked at thoroughly, one can realize that it is not truly her fault. Hester is the victim of her husband, Roger Chillingworth’s foolishness. Chillingworth had sent Hester to New England by herself, while he remained in Europe. Chillingworth even acknowledged the fact that it was indeed his fault when he had stated, ‘It was my folly! I have said it. But, up to that epoch of my life, I have lived in vain.'(Ch.4, p. 68) Hester also became a victim of fate. As she is sent off to England by herself, she has no contact with Chillingworth.

She has no way of knowing if Chillingworth is dead or alive when the Indians capture him after his arrival in North America. She still goes against the strict Puritan rules, and breaks Commandment 7, which was often punished by death. According to Commandment 7, “’Thou shalt not commit adultery.’” (Watson 7). Through the context of the book, ,one can realize that Arthur Dimmesdale is considered a strong pillar of the community due to his devotion towards the Puritan culture. Even a devoted Puritan like him has committed as sin just as bad as Hester’s. Well he goes a little further into the same sin. First and foremost, he commits adultery with the abandoned Hester. Afterwards rather than admitting his sin to the public, he keeps his dark secret bottled up inside of him, knowing it will eat at him for the rest of his life until he exposes it. The only thing worse in the Puritans’ eyes than committing a terrible sin is failing to admit to it.

Many Puritans believed it darkened the soul which in this case it did; it almost turned Dimmesdale into an evil soul. The Puritans also wanted the sinning people of the worshippers to admit their sin, so that they could punish that person, almost as if they were playing God. Dimmesdale did get what he deserved, but it was in private. He first punishes himself by whipping himself. In addition he allows Chillingworth to torment him with remarks that made him feel even guiltier until the point where he was totally out of it. Dimmesdale can be considered an evil man because even though he is a man of God, he cannot find the strength to admit openly that he has had an affair with Hester. His weakness is a strong indication that he is more evil than Hester. Dimmesdale doesn’t want to admit that he sinned against God because Dimmesdale strives to be perfect, but because of the sinful act of passion that he has committed; his ‘record for God’ has been besmirched forever.

After seven long years of struggle, Dimmesdale does triumph over his weakness at the day he predicted, judgment day, the day he would die. Finally, we talk about a person whose intellect gives him the title of the most evil and sinful person in the book, Roger Chillingworth. At first Chillingworth seems to be more of a bystander that is just watching the sinners rather than be an actual sinner himself. After all, he was held captive by the Indians for a year, and then returns to civilization to see that his wife is standing on the town scaffold telling him to pretend he doesn’t know her. Midway through the novel, the audience’s view of the character changes dramatically when we find out to what extent Chillingworth will go through to find personal information regarding his patient, Dimmesdale. Hawthorne describes it as ‘The physician advanced directly in front of his patient, laid his hand upon his bosom, and thrust aside the vestment, that, hitherto, had always covered it even from the professional eye.'(Ch.10 p.121) Chillingworth really commits two major sins.

His first sin is against Hester when he married her and took away her youth; he admits: ‘Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay.’ (Ch.4 p.68-69) Chillingworth’s second, and far more evil sin, is tricking the heart of a fellow man and sacrificing a friendship to satisfy his own self-interest. What Chillingworth does is that he becomes friends with the priest and becomes his doctor. Through observation, Chillingworth notices that there is something alot more than physical is wrong with him. Thus Chillingworth starts to dig deeper and deeper until he hits the jackpot and finds what he is looking for, finding more way into destroying Dimmesdale’s life even more. As Chillingworth investigates farther and farther into Dimmesdale’s life, Chillingworth is starting to resemble the devil more and more. Hawthorne illustrates this event when he remarks, ‘Now, there was something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed, and which grew still the more obvious to sight, the oftener they looked upon him.'(Ch.9 p.112).

As we approach Chapter 14, Chillingworth’s transformation is too late to change from who he is and who he has become. He became purely evil. Everyone is evil, but there are different levels of sin and evil. The quote that brings the whole book together is one where Hester and Dimmesdale are in the woods and they are discussing the magnitude of their sin. Dimmesdale comments to Hester, ‘We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so.'(Ch.17 p.170)

Alongside beliefs of the Puritan’s, her child Pearl Prynne also helped establish her punishment. Children by nature are born as incredibly sensitive creatures. They have the capability of sensing any emotion an adult might feel by observing just the particular person’s body language and facial expressions. As the daughter of the adulteress Hester Prynne, the townspeople scrutinize Pearl as a demonic entity in angel’s clothing. She is seen as the reason why that “A” was placed by Hester’s bosom. The townspeople have a belief that Pearl uses this information to taunt Hester by constantly mentioning the letter in order to make Hester feel guilty. This is not true. ‘ ‘Nay, Mother, I have told all I know,’ said Pearl more seriously than she was wont to speak…’But in good earnest now, Mother dear, what does this scarlet letter mean? -and why dost thou wear it on thy bosom? -and why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?’ She took her mother’s hand in both her own, and gazed into her eyes with an earnestness that was seldom seen in her wild and capricious character’ (Hawthorne 175).

Through this dialogue one does not see words of a demon, but instead see words of a child who is absolutely curious about what the letter on her mother’s bosom means. Pearl is not the demon many consider her to be; instead she is intelligent and aware of her surroundings through which she can understand more about the scarlet letter her mother wears. ‘The neighboring townspeople…had given out that poor little Pearl was a demon offspring; such as, ever since old Catholic times, had occasionally been seen on earth, through the agency of their of their mother’s sin, and to promote some foul and wicked purpose’ (Hawthorne 95-96). This statement gives many readers the impression that Pearl is a possessed child. However this is not the case. By no means is Pearl an imp. Until one can separate Hawthorne’s fabricated description of Pearl’s demonic soul and Pearl’s true intelligent nature, a character analysis of Pearl’s identity cannot truly be created.

When Hester Prynne refuses to reveal the who Pearl’s father is, Pearl’s burning curiosity quickly ignites and forces her to shout out the following demand, ‘Tell me! Tell me!…It is thou that must tell me!’ (Hawthorne 95). Alongside wanting to know her father’s name, Pearl’s curiosity has sparked many times throughout the novel. In fact, there are many times where Pearl becomes inquisitive over one mystery or another. One example of when Pearl was overwhelmed by curiosity is when the entire population of Boston is decked in their best clothes and Pearl is not sure why. ‘Why, what is this, Mother? ….Wherefore have all the people left their work today? Is it a play-day for the whole world?’ (Hawthorne 224). This situation is a strong indication that as a behaved Puritan child would ‘keep silent,’ Pearl asks question after question hoping to jget and answer to something that is an enigma to her. Pearl’s natural curiosity and sensitive nature of discovering the truth behind the scarlet letter drives her on the quest to get some answers about the mystery of the scarlet letter “A”.

An example of this sensitive nature is shown after the custody battle when Hester fights for the right to remain the guardian of Pearl. ‘Pearl…stole softly towards him, and taking his hand in the grasp of both her own, laid cheek against it’ (Hawthorne 112). This seems to be Pearl’s act of gratitude towards the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. This is a true shocker which leads one to question; why the short-tempered child would behave in such a sweet way towards Dimmesdale? It is a possibility that she might have noted her mother’s frenzied voice while she pleaded with the men who wanted to take Pearl away to give her a ‘proper Christian upbringing.’ Pearl might have also noticed the way Dimmesdale requests for the child to remain with her mother. Without hearing a single word that was being discussed, Pearl can easily see how Dimmesdale saves both her and her mother from this monstrous situation that would have caused both the mother and the child a lot of distress. Hence, it is a possibility that the loving gesture that Pearl makes towards Dimmesdale is maybe her silent way of saying, ‘Thank you for the gift of youth you have just given me.’ Using Pearl’s characteristics of curiosity and sensitivity, one can make assumptions about whether or not Pearl understands what the scarlet letter symbolizes.

Even though she is too young to comprehend Puritanical sin and punishment, Pearl can easily understand that the letter is her mother’s punishment and embarrassment. ‘And, Mother, he has his hand over his heart! Is it because, when the minister wrote his name in the book, the Black Man set his mark in that place? But why does he not wear it outside his bosom, as thou dost, Mother’ (Hawthorne 184)? This statement made by Pearl indicates that she does indeed spot a connection between Hester’s letter and Dimmesdale’s habit of covering his heart with his hand, even though she has no idea what the connection is. Pearl is amazing child, and even though the townsfolk and Pearl’s own mother are afraid of the child, Pearl is, under close examination, a naturally curious and unpredictable child. Although some readers of this novel may not care to read between the lines and see beyond the labeling of demon and imp, the true Pearl is completely different from this stereotype. In fact the real Pearl is a curious, intelligent, and beautiful child, becomes the symbol for salvation in this novel. Pearl may be the product of sin and ‘filthiness,’ yet she possesses traits that make her an amazing child. Indeed, Pearl is the rosebush which grows near the prison door: she is the one bright spot the prisoners of this novel see as they watch from their small windows in the dungeon of their minds.

In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester is an admirable character who ignores all perception that people have of towards her. Hester Prynne displayed many qualities especially when she stood up to Governor Bellingham and his gang. This confrontation about her daughter Pearl allows her to be perceived as a woman well ahead of her time. She is proud, head-strong, and confident in an age where women were supposed to be seen not heard. Hester was a victim of a crime which was severely punished despite the fact that she could only be accountable for half of the incident. She was forced into the marriage with a man she did not love and after being estranged for a long amount of time, she became attracted to another man. Hester is a lot stronger then her partner (Dimmesdale) in adultery. Dimmesdale bottled up his guilt inside, and eventually dies due to the torment he tolerates at keeping the event a secret. Hester bears her punishment without a saying a word against it and in the process of doing so she grows from it, making her a stronger and more admirable women.

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Adultery, Betrayal, And Deception In The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne. (2022, May 10). Retrieved from

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