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Scarlet Letter Essay, Research Paper

The Punishment Doesn’t Always Fit the Crime

The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a book about Hester Prynne, a woman whose one night of passion leads to a lifetime of punishment. It takes place in a Puritan society in the New World during the 17th century. Hester commits adultery with the Reverend Dimmesdale and is sentenced to wear a letter “A” on her bosom for the rest of her life. Dimmesdale, however, does not admit to his sin and this leads him to a life of agony and torture within himself. At one point, the Reverend even says to Hester that she is lucky to be wearing the scarlet letter on her chest for all to see. Some might believe that he is lucky to have gotten away with this sin and that he should keep quiet and just try to go on leading a normal life. The Reverend feels differently. He wishes he were the one to have gotten punished because self-punishment is far worse than any other punishment that can be given from anyone or anything. This sin that he has gotten away with is really eating away at the Reverend to the point where he can’t live with himself anymore. Hester, wearing the letter “A”, is willing to accept her punishment and therefore able to move on in her life. She is paying the price for her sin. The Reverend wasn’t punished for his sin and can’t move on. He is stuck at this obstacle in his life that can’t be hurdled until confronted and yet he doesn’t have the courage to face it.

The town did not punish the Reverend Dimmesdale but he is punishing himself. By not admitting his sin, he is letting it control his life. Everything he says or does is in the shadow of this sin. He can’t get away from it. Slowly it is destroying him, not just mentally, but also physically. When Governor Bellingham, Mr. Wilson, and Roger Chillingworth were meeting with Hester to discuss taking away her daughter Pearl, Hester insists that Dimmesdale do something. “…at once he came forward, pale, and holding his heart.”(104) This sin has now become more than a sin. It is a disease, which is slowly, painfully killing the Reverend. Dimmesdale is now in a state where his failing health is noticeable to other people. “Whether it was his failing health or whatever the cause might be, his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth (104).” By looking into his eyes you can tell it is not just the cold or flue that is making the Reverend sick, it is something deeper; something that is killing him from the inside; something that he wants so desperately to be rid of but feels he can’t. The Reverend is punishing himself by allowing his sin to stay a secret. As long as this stays a secret the Reverend will continue to slowly deteriorate till he mentally and physically breaks down.

Although the original punishment for adultery was death, the town made an exception for Hester. The punishment might seem far less severe; however, the cruel intentions were the same. Hester, in spite of the town’s intentions, makes the letter “A” a part of who she is. She overcomes this belief that she has to be ashamed of the letter and actually tries her hardest to make it noticeable by decorating it. She accepts herself for who she is and is not hiding anything from anyone. Because she was punished she was able to move on with her life. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, was not punished so he carries this guilt and shame around with him. This is what is killing him. The fact that he never admitted his sin makes it unable for him to accept himself. The Reverend; however, does have his own scarlet letter to deal with. “Any slight alarm or other sudden accident, to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and then a paleness indictive of pain (110).” The Reverend’s letter is on his inside. His letter is the physical pain he feels in his heart due to the secret that he has kept there for so long. He can ask no one else to heal this pain he has for he knows the only way to rid himself of it is to tell his secret. The Reverend’s “letter” will drive him to his deathbed unless he frees himself of his guilt by admitting his secret.

Eventually, after many years, Hester becomes a respected citizen of the town. “A species of general regard had ultimately grown up in reference to Hester Pyrnne (147)” The people believed she had served her time for her sin and that she had done it unselfishly and nobly. This respect from the town was what Dimmesdale wanted. He did have their respect as a Reverend but not as a man who had committed adultery. He wanted to know if he could be forgiven for the sin he had committed. This is why at the end of the book he makes a great effort to let everyone know, before he died, the truth about him and Hester. He wanted to rid himself of the shame and guilt that he felt for never letting anyone know that he was the guilty one. “People of New England! ye that hath loved me-ye that hath deemed me holy. At last I stand upon the spot where, seven years since I should have stood (231).” Dimmesdale was letting them know that he realized that what he did was wrong and should had been taken care of seven years earlier. He had let Hester and even Pearl take the fall and had sat back and done nothing when they were being punished. He even had the audacity to tell the “father of the child” to show himself and admit his sin. Now, when he realized he was dying, he wanted to let everyone know that he had made a mistake. That the man the town had put their faith in and looked up to was actually a hypocrite and a sinner. Dimmesdale was looking for a final forgiveness from the town before he would have to face God and ask for his forgiveness.

Even though Hester had to wear the Scarlet Letter “A” on her chest for all to see and sneer at, she went through a lot less pain both mentally and physically then Dimmesdale. When Dimmesdale decided to keep his secret to himself he decided to live a life full of guilt, shame, and remorse. After a while, he realized that by keeping his secret to himself he was punishing himself and that was far worse than any punishment he could have received from the town. Hester was able to accept who she was and what she had done because she admitted it. Dimmesdale on the other hand couldn’t accept himself for who he was because he was living a lie. Everything good about him was overshadowed by this lie. It wasn’t long after he mentally started to break down that his physical health started to deteriorate. This secret inside him that he kept there for seven long years eventually killed him.


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