Throughout The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the effects of sin on the mind, body, and soul of Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth are all visible even though there are manifested in different ways for each character. Each of the three are living an enormous burden of sin and each reflects the inner torture inflicted by carrying around such sin in differing ways. For example, in The Scarlet LetterHester remains beautiful and composed on the outside throughout her punishment but while her body and countenance is not affected, her mind is constantly struggling with the aftermath of her sin. Chillingworth, on the other hand, seems to make peace with his status as a villain and does not appear to struggle often with the fate of his soul or his conflicting thoughts. Instead, for Roger, the effects of his sin are most clearly visible on his body. He is, like Hester although in a different manner, marked by his sin. The outward burden of her sin is manmade (the letter itself) whereas his causes increasing deformities on his body and features. While Arthur Dimmesdale suffers from the effects of his sin in his mind and his body, it is most crushing to his soul. It could easily be argued, in fact, that Dimmesdale suffers the most from the effects of sin since he experiences inner turmoil in his mind, body, and soul—all to extreme degrees. Unlike the other two characters Nathaniel Hawthorne unravels, he wrestles with what the burden of sin means in eternity and this tears him apart and eventually appears to contribute to his death. In general, while all the characters suffer from the effects of their sin in mind, body, and soul, each manifests his or her guilt and shame in different ways.
Although it is Hester’s sin that forms the core of The Scarlet Letter, in some ways she does not seem to suffer as many ill effects on her mind, body, and soul that other characters such as Dimmesdale and Roger do. She seems to be able to live with her sin and accept her punishment, even with a grace that stuns thePuritan community. For example, while the community wishes to mark her for her sin visibly and physically, Hester does not simply allow this happen on their terms. She wears the letter both as punishment but she also makes a statement to the community when, “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A” (1032). While later in the text both Roger and Dimmesdale will become increasingly ugly and tainted by sin, Hester is different in that she makes the mark of her sin something different and more complex than a mere embarrassing punishment and the letter is at once beautiful as well as shameful. Just as in the case of her decoration of the letter, her body and appearance does not reflect the burden of her sin. The narrator of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne remarks on her beauty throughout her first appearance and states that “Here was the taint of deepest sin the most sacred quality of woman’s beauty, and the most lost for the infant she had borne” (1034). In other words, her sin only seems to exist in the minds of others because without foreknowledge of her guilt, she would be an otherwise beautiful woman holding an infant. It is at this first section where it begins to be clear that Hester might not think of her sin the same way her society does and thus she does not physically bear the marks of her guilt aside from the gilded letter.
While in The Scarlet Letter Hester might not reflect her guilt in her outward appearance or by her body like other characters do, the narrator makes it clear how she is still quite tortured by the effects her sin in her own mind. Although she strives to remain strong in the face of such public ridicule and disdain, inside she is suffering. The narrator of The Scarlet Letter tells the reader about how she passes many long days, “throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion” (1046). Hester recognizes that she has become a living lesson and this weighs on her. She isolates herself in the cottage near the woods and although she does find some happiness in her daughter and her sewing, she is never free from the mental burden of her sin. One has to wonder why she did not leave the town entirely when she was freed and it seems that the only answer is that she does not wish to forget her sin, but rather that she wishes to learn to live with it—something that neither Dimmesdale or the vindictive Chillingworth seem able to do. She allows there to exist many reminders of her sin aside from the letter and her daughter is the most significant. The narrator of The Scarlet Letter byNathaniel Hawthorne discusses Pearl’s reaction to the letter and how it tears Hester’s mind apart at time. For example, at one point in The Scarlet Letter it is stated that, “Weeks, it was true, might sometimes elapse, during which Pearl’s gaze might never once be fixed upon the scarlet letter; but then again, it would come as unawares, like the stroke of sudden death, and always with that peculiar smile and odd expression of the eyes” (1055). While Hester may not show outward signs of the burden of her sin, this constant reminder by her daughter is almost like her painful penance. Her body may be free of the mark of sin (aside from her clothing) but her mind and soul are forever chained to its consequences.
While Hester may not be marred physically or have bodily evidence of the effects of her sin, Roger Chillingworth it quite the opposite. Roger’s sin is in the way he completely gives in to malice and vengeance and he seems completely devoted to this sin and does not seem to be worried about the fate of his eternal soul. The effects of sin on his soul in The Scarlet Letter are not something one considers until he dies at the end, especially since his death is like a defeat. He dies a lonely and bitter man and does not ever make peace with himself or Hester. The effects of his sin on his mind are a bit more prominent but really only seem to surface when he thinks about what might have been. He realizes that he has gone from “a benevolent scholar” to a monster that is completely immersed in evil and at times he seems greatly saddened by this. At one point in The Scarlet Letter, he tells Hester, “Misshapen from my birth-hour, how could I delude myself with the idea that the intellectual gifts might veil physical deformity in a young girl’s fantasy!” (1043). While there is certainly a great deal of bitterness behind this statement, one gets the impression that there is also quite a bit of sadness as well. He sees that he has become hopelessly engaged in sin but seems unable to do anything to stop it. Instead of letting his mind struggle with hope he simply allows it to remain in sin and thus his mind, unlike that of Hester, remains focused and steady, even if it is on cruel revenge.
Unlike Hester as well, the effects of sin on Chillingworth are most visible in his outward appearance and body. Although the reader of The Scarlet Letter has already learned that he was “misshapen from [his] birth hour” his countenance grows even more threatening and scary as he becomes further entrenched in sin. He gains the name of the “black man” and eventually even the townspeople begin to be afraid of him. What is most notable about the effects of sin on Chillingworth’s body is the way his features and body seem to reflect an ever-deepening sense of evil. Even though he was already malformed, it is clear that when he thinks about his sin it is readily apparent. For example, when he comes to visit Hester at the jailhouse there is an almost instant transformation that takes place as he is speaking to her. “Very soon his look became keen and penetrative. A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed convolutions in open sight” (1036). The image of a snake appearing across his face is consistent with images of Satan, who is thought to appear as a serpent. In this scene the Devil is literally appearing on Chillingworth’s body, making it impossible not to think he has become possessed by evil and sin. When Roger looks at Hester and she sees this, she witnesses a “gaze that made her heart shrink and shudder, because it was so familiar yet so strange and cold” (1042). The fact that it was once familiar is important because it alludes to the fact that Roger used to be a different person until his face and body were encompassed by visible manifestations of his sin. Because of the way he acts and looks Chillingworth becomes associated with the Devil. The narrator even states that when Roger came to see the Arthur, Dimmesdale was being haunted by “either Satan himself or Satan’s emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth” (1073). In sum, while it is not clear how his soul is being ravaged or how badly his mind is suffering as a result of his sin, the proof of the extent of his sin is apparent through his body and face. This makes him quite unlike Hester who suffers most in her mind and different than Arthur who suffers most keenly in his soul.
In many ways Dimmesdale suffers the most in all aspects. His mind is constantly mulling over his sin and its consequences and it seems that he is never free from the mental effects of his sin. He thinks about it incessantly and even incorporates his feelings into his sermons so that others can share (albeit unwittingly) in his sin and inner torture. Like Hester, he is constantly struggling with his own thoughts. While it is clear that he is suffering from the effects of his hidden sin in his mind, his body also begins to bear the burden as well. Aside from the fact that he too bears a letter of his own at the end, physically, his body begins to show the effects of sin as he grows weaker. “His form grew more emaciated; his voice, though still rich and sweet, had a certain melancholy prophesy of decay in it; he was often observed, on any sight alarm or sudden accident, to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of pain” (1068). While this is a physical manifestation of his guilt and inner turmoil, the fact that he grows ever thinner is significant because it is symbolic of his soul being tortured as well. His soul is being drained and he considers it corrupt because of his sin. As a result he is like a hollow man, both inside and in terms of how he looks. Unlike Hester and Chillingworth, he feels that the biggest issue related to his sin is the effect on his eternal soul. The fact that Dimmesdale dies at the end of the story makes it clear that he was suffering far more than either Hester or Roger Chillingworth. While Roger dies too, it is more because of defeat rather than the keen inner torture the minister feels. He was being consumed, in mind, body, and spirit by the effects of sin since he was unable to be like Hester and Roger and accept his sin for what it was, despite the pain it might sometimes cause.
None of the main characters in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne are able to be completely free from the effects of sin. While they each deal with the consequences of sin in different ways, none of them ever still seem able to fully reconcile themselves with their sin. Hester does eventually move on and Pearl becomes a success but there is still a shadow over her. Her life would have been completely different if she had not chose to stay in a town that had condemned her just as Chillingworth and Roger might not have died if only they could have made peace with their sin and lived differently. The issue of sin is at the heart of this novel and through these three main characters it is possible to see what the effects of sin can be and what the outcome of living with it might be.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Nathaniel Hawthorne : An Overview of the Author and Thematic Analysis of Works • Full Summary and Analysis of “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne • Full Plot Summary and Analysis of “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne • Analysis and Plot Summary of “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathnaiel Hawthorne • The Use of Allegory in The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne • Puritan Influences on Modern American Culture and Thought • Analysis and Plot Summary of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel, Hawthorne. “The Scarlet Letter.” Anthology of American Literature. New York: Prentice Hall, 2003. 1028-1148.