The Scarlet Letter is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterpiece, published in 1850, that weaves together the themes of sin, redemption and identity through the story of adultery between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale.
Critics have sometimes disagreed about whether Hawthorne condones or condemns the adultery of Hester and Dimmesdale in the The Scarlet Letter. While I’d say that Hawthorne does not condemn this crime, neither does he outright condone the act, instead presenting it as something intrinsically human, as something that “sometimes just happens.” Rather, he seems to be condemning the Puritan society.
Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne subtly criticizes his Puritan ancestors for their rigid religious system. At the very beginning, when describing the multitude of people crowding around the scaffold, he notes that “amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England,” it could have “betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit.” But in this early “severity of the Puritan character,” anything from the whipping of a child, the exile of any heterodox religionist could take place on that scaffold, as even an act that would simply elicit “a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule today could be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself then” (The Market-Place). It is in the midst of this observation that Hawthorne introduces our main character, Hester Prynne, a woman who has committed adultery and is about to face the punishments for her sin. Hawthorne seems to be implying that such a crime does not necessitate the actions of the townspeople and the magistrates, who showcase her on the pedestal of shame and guilt, wearing a scarlet letter A to forever symbolize her sin, with little possibility of redemption.
As the story progresses, Pearl, Hester’s daughter, begins to heavily influence Hester’s thoughts and actions, acting as the living symbol of her shame, but eventually becoming her source of salvation, as when Mistress Hibbins asks Hester to join her at a witch-meeting, Hester replies that “had they taken [Pearl] away, [she] would have willingly gone with [Hibbins] into the forest” (The Elf-Child and the Minister).
Despite her isolation from society, Hester “sought not to acquire any thing beyond a subsistence, of the plainest and most ascetic description, for herself, and a simple abundance for her child.” She frequently gave her excess money to charity and to those “wretches”, though still a part of society, “less miserable than herself, and who not unfrequently insulted the hand that fed them” (Hester at Her Needle). Hawthorne portrays Hester, though a woman who committed a sin, as an altruistic and caring being, trying to help the very society that cast her off.
In addition, although the crime of adultery is the main focus and plotline for the novel, Hawthorne presents self-punishment and the internalization of guilt as an equal sin. Dimmesdale’s steady deterioration arising from the gnawing remorse inside of him, and the portrayal of him as one too cowardly to face his sins and punishments, implies that these sins of dignity and falsification are far greater than Hester’s sins of adultery.