In a religious society, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne creates, the worst thing a person can do is commit a known sin. In both “The Minister’s Black Veil” and The Scarlet Letter, this kind of social norm determines the main characters’ fates. To many in this society, a sin is an irredeemable act that forever limits one‘s future, but ironically, only those who outwardly accept their mistakes can grow as a person. The act of sin continues to be a defining characteristic yet its true meaning and cost are always changing.
Throughout both of these works, Hawthorne contrasts supposed versus actual sin to define its consequences in religious societies. In the eyes of pious people, sin is a defining characteristic with supposed visible consequences. For Hester Prynne, a scarlet letter “A” embodies a punishment that she must wear for eternity as a “deeply branded” outward mark of her immoral mistakes Likewise, although the reader never finds out the true meaning of Hooper‘s black veil, he assumes that Hooper wears it to indicate the mistakes he makes while also symbolizing how everyone has “sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil”.
As Hawthorne develops these characters, it becomes obvious to the reader that true sinners hide their sins to avoid the consequences. These actual offenders often hypocritically judge those who accept their mistakes, such as the townspeople in both stories who force Hester and Hooper to “[stand] together in the same circle of seclusion from human society”. In this manner, they isolate the people who they should actually commend.
Hawthorne continues to develop this ironic situation by contrasting the supposed versus the actual cost of sin in religious societies. How sin actually limits a person is unknown, but within these religious societies, the supposed biggest cost is one’s soul. In society’s mind, committing this kind of egregious mistake permanently sets one‘s afterlife future. However, as Hawthorne shows, the people who lose the most are not these publicly punished sinners, but rather those who hide away from their mistakes.
For instance, Chillingworth willingly enters into “a bond that will prove the ruin of [his] soul“, but because he never reveals his true intentions, he becomes pure evil, physically and spiritually, as though he is “transforming himself into a devil”. Dimmesdale‘s unwillingness to accept his mistakes leads to his own ”scarlet letter,..imprinted in the flesh” as a reflection of the intense inner remorse he feels Until he reveals this imprint, he never reveals his true self, and only when he does so, does he gain an inner peace that allows him to die peacefully. In Hooper‘s sermons, he emphasizes the dangers of hiding sins, “those sad mysteries”, and how in reality, accepting sin and its consequences makes a person stronger. These public punishments give the supposed sinners a “new sense…[and] sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in others’ hearts”, an advantage those who hide their sins never gain. Although these religious societies deem both Hester and Hooper sinners for eternity, the cost of their sins is actually a benefit.
They gain a new perspective without losing themselves as people, and as such find inner peace, sin is never as it seems and although many try to define it, its actual consequences are opposite from the assumed. Hawthorne attempts to demonstrate this point to his readers by contrasting a religious society’s supposed cost of sin versus sin’s actual consequences. Through irony, Hawthorne demonstrates how members of this kind of society hypocritically assume the worst, but never accept who they actually are‘ Those who refuse to confront their mistakes miss the chance to learn and grow. However, those who “be true” to themselves and outwardly accept their mistakes ultimately fare better in life, as only they can reach selfvforgiveness even when others condemn them.