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The Evolution of Sin as Depicted in The Scarlet Letter

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Evolution is defined as “a process of change”(Webster’s Dictionary), and it has been proved many times in the past that sin is a direct process that leads to change in one’s spiritual as well as fleshly life. The three main characters, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, are all revealed as sinners and whether for the best or for the worst, reveal sin’s “evolution” upon their lives. Hawthorne reveals a lucid portrayal of this change by providing the reader insight into the deepest chambers of the characters’ thoughts regarding this sin.

Hester Prynne first appears to the reader as a horrible and unrighteous woman, gossiped about by all the “pious” and “righteous” puritans, but yet it is stated “…seen in this beautiful woman…an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity…”(54). This statement proves that she gives the onlookers a vision of the Virgin Mary, beautiful, innocent, and pure. Upon her return to the prison she erupts into an emotional frenzy and she was “…found to be in a state of nervous excitement…”(67) leaving Master Brackett in shambles of what he is to do with this “possessed” woman. However, her independence is revealed when she begins a profession of needlework, which allowed Hester “…to supply food for her thriving infant and herself.” (78) This statement shows that Hester was trying to let this sin and her living token of sin (Pearl) affect her positively and help her achieve the redemption she so faithfully sought.

Starting in the thirteenth chapter and thus onward, Hester’s position in the puritan society begins to transform from the “unrighteous hussy,” to a “…self-ordained Sister of Mercy…”(158) and conquers back the notoriety of some of her former ridiculers by her soft, gentle, giving, and merciful nature. The Scarlet Letter “A” evolved from a meaning of “Adultery” to a strong interpretation as meaning “Able.” Soon the reader is shown a happy Hester with “…the thrill of another joy,” (200) when her and Dimmesdale’s love are reunited in chapter seventeen. Although her sin had not been forgotten it merely lay dormant, and so dormant that Hester’s heart no longer felt the burden after removing the Scarlet Letter. In the end Hester reveals once more to the reader her strength and that she was and is, now more than ever, the backbone of the affair when she helped carry Dimmesdale onto the scaffold. This sin has “evolved” Hester, not into a viler sinner, but into a more caring, compassionate, and merciful human being, which shows not only that the Scarlet Letter showed its purpose, but also that her faith and resolve in God allowed her not to get dismayed and bound to her sin, but to thrive within the glory and grace which God gives us. It says Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As well, Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Although to some this may not be considered “exact” due to different doctrines of theology, this makes the reader ponder that Hester died spiritually at the time of this sin, that she was yet reborn once again, and cleansed by the wonderful hand of God, by her faith in her Lord and Heavenly Father. This thought proves that Hester “evolved” her life into a more faithful, humble life on account of this sin, which in the long run, increased her spiritual walk with God.

The character of Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is revealed as a “…pale young man…”(63) with “…eloquence of religious fervor…and a dewy purity of thought” (64). Never would such a “pious” and “religious” reverend commit such an act as adultery, but it is shown that not even the reverenced Arthur Dimmesdale was spotless, for it says in Romans 3:23-24 “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is Christ Jesus…” As the novel continues, the reader sees that this notable Reverend is slowing dying. Despite Dimmesdale’s protests, “I need no medicine…” (118), the puritan community sees it as Providence that Chillingworth should be his doctor to help cure him of his ailment. Dimmesdale becomes “…feeble…” (139) in body structure, and his cheeks grow paler every Sabbath day. Though he was greatly reverenced, his mind only thought of that as a greater burden, that he was a “false-prophet” and a “hypocrite” who had led so many “pious” men and woman into a disillusion of his true self. Dimmesdale resorted to punishing himself by whipping his back, and he had horrid visions concerning Hester and Pearl. In chapter seventeen he reveals to Hester that he is “…most miserable…” (188) and says that his life was “…all falsehood!”(188). After delivering his most prestigious sermon to date, as the progression continued to the marketplace, in an act of utter brokenness, and yet strength, he lifts the burden of his sin and admits to the entire crowd his adultery, and with a saying very suitable, his last words were “God is merciful…Praise be his name!”(252). This incident tells the reader that Dimmesdale knew that God was not responsible for the pain he had felt for those seven years, and that it was sent by the devil. Dimmesdale also indicates that “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men,” (Matthew 12:31), namely, that God would not punish him for a sin that he had repented of, and that God had forgiven. Thus although the minister’s “evolution of sin” did not have as much of a positive affect as on Hester, it did help him to “evolve” more into his faith and, relying on that faith in the end, to grant him redemption by the merciful grace of God.

Roger Chillingworth, otherwise known as Roger Prynne, was know to all of the Puritan community as “…the man of skill, the kind and friendly physician…” (120). After witnessing his once pure bride standing on the “pedestal of shame” carrying her token of sin, he was driven to “…a quiet depth of malice…”(136) as he sought revenge upon the man who stole his wife. Jesus says revenge is unrighteous, saying “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good those to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Yet, instead of following the direct will of God, he is bent on revenge and thus becomes the captive of sin. It says in John 8:34 “…Whoever commits sin is the servant of sin.” Whereas all people commit sin, it is those who dwell within that sin and consistently repeat the sin who become the servants of that sin, and Roger Chillingworth become a full-fledged disciple of revenge. Hester thought that this quest for revenge transformed the old scholar from “…a wise and just man into a fiend.”(170). Reverend Dimmesdale compares Chillingworth’s sin to Hester’s and his own and states that Chillingworth was the vilest sinner for he “violated the sanctity of a human heart.” (191). Dimmesdale realizes Chillingworth is a “…deadly enemy…” (192) with “…disturbed bad evil…”(247) and capable of any devious and hellacious action. The reader sees that this “servant” of sin, although some consider him a victim, was in fact held in bondage to sin by his lust for revenge, which “evolved” his life in the worst possible way. This possessed scholar sought to take justice, which is God’s, into his own hands and inevitably he failed to receive the outcome he so vigorously sought.

Hester and Dimmesdale both chose to let their sin in some way help them to achieve their redemption, whereas Chillingworth fell deeply in bondage to his self-righteous sin. Sin will forever “evolve” life, change perspectives, and lead to growth or demise. The characters are testaments to what it says in Ephesians 2:8 “God is able and willing to forgive the vilest sinner.”

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