The Real Scarlet Letter: H for Hypocrisy

25th November, 2010

Scarlet

Hester Prynne claims to love her daughter Pearl. Yet, she does not publicly confess that the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale fathered her child out of wedlock. By not revealing Dimmesdale's sin and dishonesty, Hester apparently believes it is not important for Pearl to have a father. Does she really love her daughter as much as she says? She certainly makes readers question her motherly devotion.

Hester Prynne's decision to conceal Dimmesdale's fatherhood is just one of many examples of hypocrisy in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. The novel's primary characters of Hester, Dimmesdale, Hester's husband Roger Chillingworth, and the Puritan society flood the book with hypocritical actions. They claim to have certain convictions but practice something different. Although many critics believe the book is about adultery and sin, hypocrisy surfaces as the novel's main focus.

Even though Hawthorne portrays Hester in a more favorable light than the other characters, she triggers most of the hypocrisy in The Scarlet Letter. In addition to hiding the identity of Pearl's father, she fails for seven years to reveal Dimmesdale's sin of adultery. If she had immediately confessed that she and Dimmesdale committed adultery and conceived a daughter, Dimmesdale would not have punished himself over his secret. His congregation and the Puritan community would have scrutinized him, but Dimmesdale's followers would have had time to move past the shock and possibly forgive him. As we'll discover later, Dimmesdale was a coward and could not directly confess his own sins. Hester, if she really loved him, could have broken the news of their sin, squashed any rumors that were floating around, and freed him from the torture of his inner demons. Instead, she worries about ruining his reputation.

What she really did, though, was ruin his life by keeping the secret. Hester also allows Chillingworth to add to Dimmesdale's pain without stepping in, and she doesn't even let her husband know about her secret lover. Hester commits more sins each day though her dishonesty and hypocrisy than she did with her act of adultery. If she had taken "heed how thou deniest him--who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself--the bitter, but the wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips," everyone's situations would have been different (Hawthorne 47). Hester compounds the problems through her endless hypocritical actions. Maybe she doesn't reveal her secrets because she can't trust the others involved. Or, maybe she simply can't trust herself.

Dimmesdale is not much better than Hester. In fact, the argument could be made that he's the worst hypocrite of all because he's a minister. Dimmesdale knows that the Bible several times warns against sexual temptations and says to "flee fornication," but he still decides to have an inappropriate intimate relationship with a married woman (1 Corin. 6:18). Although Hester shares much blame, Dimmesdale definitely takes advantage of her. He knows hiding his sin will cause suffering when he says, "What can thy silence do for him, except tempt him--yea, compel him, as it were--to add hypocrisy to sin?" (Hawthorne 63). Yet, he cannot muster the courage to admit his wrongdoing. Still, he displays hypocrisy each Sunday when he preaches against sins to his congregation. His continual dishonesty toward his church is more sinful than the act of adultery.

He's a human and will make mistakes, but he at least owes his congregation the truth about his predicament. Furthermore, he's actually sinning and dishonoring God when he injures himself. He's not atoning for his sin, and he will not receive forgiveness by hurting himself. The Bible says that "if any man defile the Temple of God, him shall God destroy: for the Temple of God is holy, which Temple ye are” (1 Corin. 3:17). Dimmesdale only cares about his reputation and the adoration of his followers. He's selfish. Dimmesdale also shows hypocrisy toward his relationship with Hester.

He supports her keeping Pearl since "God gave her the child," but he refuses to marry Hester (Hawthorne 78). Pearl even gives him a chance to finally reveal his secrets at the scaffolding when she asks him to "stand here with mother and me, to-morrow noontide," be he just stands there speechless as his fellow minister passes (Hawthorne 105). Again, he shows his hypocrisy. When Hester finally reveals Chillingworth's identity, he still did not atone for his sins. He wanted to run away with Hester, knowing she had a husband. He then has the audacity to claim God approves their adulterous relationship.

Roger Chillingworth also shares in the hypocrisy of The Scarlet Letter, but it's difficult to place much blame on him. His actions are also deplorable, but the sins of Hester and Dimmesdale entice him to become a hypocrite. Chillingworth, a doctor, first appears in the novel as a physically-deformed scholarly man who has a scientific and inquisitive nature. He naturally relies on his intellect and does not act on his emotions. When he learns of Hester's adultery and figures out that Dimmesdale is his wife's lover, he does not know how to handle his emotions. He pretends to befriend Dimmesdale, but as a physician he uses their fake relationship injure the already ailing Dimmesdale. He wants revenge and becomes a completely different person from what he claims to be. Chillingworth's expressions change as he falls into sin and hypocrisy.

Hawthorne says "Roger Chillingworth's aspect had undergone a remarkable change while he had dwelt in the town, and especially since his adobe with Me. Dimmesdale. At first his expression had been calm, meditative, scholar like. Now, there was something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed., and which grew still more obvious to sight the oftener they looked upon him" (117). Chillingworth even recognizes the hypocritical man he has become when he "lifted his hands with a look of horror, as if he beheld some frightful shape, which he could not recognize, usurping the place of his own image in a glass. It was one of those moments--which sometimes occur only in the interval of a year--when a man's moral aspect is faithfully revealed to his mind's eye" (Hawthorne 118). Yet, he does not repent. He continues his vengeance and hypocrisy.

Members of the Puritan community also show continuous hypocrisy. Puritans claim to believe in the Bible as the inspired word of God, but they seem to pick and choose which Scriptures to apply to their lives. The Bible advocates forgiveness; the Puritans do not. In fact, the Bible's main theme shows God's mercy toward fallen, sinful humans and their redemption through Jesus Christ. No one is perfect, and the Puritans don't have the right to judge others. Throughout the novel, the Puritans are portrayed as people who seek to punish sinners rather than forgive them. The Bible says that "whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:21). They are not instructed to condemn others.

The Bible also says to "not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in [his] brother's way” (Romans 14:13). By casting judgment and punishment of those who sin, the Puritans actually cause the sinners to fall into deeper sin. If the Puritan community had been open to forgiveness and toleration, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth probably would have been more comfortable revealing their sins. If the community had practiced true Christianity, it would have been able to help the sinners overcome their trials. However, it's difficult for a community to be righteous when their leader is a hypocrite himself.

Many critics say The Scarlet Letter is about adultery and sin. However, the theme of hypocrisy dominates Nathaniel Hawthorne's late nineteenth century novel. Hester and Dimmesdale are responsible for most of the dishonesty and hypocrisy. Chillingworth also falls into the hypocrisy trap, but Hester and Dimmesdale cause his outrage. If Dimmesdale and Hester had not had an immoral sexual relationship and illegitimately conceived Pearl, there's no reason to believe Chillingworth would have become a man of vengeance. However, that does not condone his actions. The Puritans did not help the situation. Their continual judgment against sin and desire to punish those for being humans also make them hypocrites. They claim to follow the Bible, but they do not show it.

Hester shouldn't have to wear the letter A for adultery. Instead, everyone should wear the letter H for hypocrisy.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2004. The Holy Bible. King James Version.

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