Adultery in The Scarlet Letter

In the highly acclaimed novel, The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne creates a story full of sin, guilt, forgiveness, and strength. He presents a narrative about an adulteress, Hester Prynne, who must face and overcome the challenges of her punishment for her sin while also portraying the sufferings and actions of those around her. Many critics have argued whether or not Hawthorne condoms or condemns the adultery in the novel. Some say he condemns the adultery by showing the extreme pain and suffering Hester must endure throughout the novel while others claim that he condoms this sin by ending the novel in a positive light with Hester respected by the town. In truth, Hawthorne does not completely condemn or completely condone the adultery, but instead, he expresses both disapproval and forgiveness for this sin.

By showing the pain and suffering the characters must endure from the sin, Hawthorne portrays his adverse judgement for adultery. He portrays Hester’s pain from becoming an outcast of society. However, he truly expresses his disapproval of the sin through Dimmesdale. Unlike Hester, Dimmesdale refrains from openly admitting to his sin. Instead, he decides to keep his sinful actions private. This decision causes extreme and unbearable guilt, especially for a highly respected member of the church, and eventually leads to his demise. Dimmesdale is driven to madness by his guilt and even begins to “[loathe] his miserable self” leading to hallucinations and self-inflicted torture (The Interior of a Heart). Dimmesdale is driven to madness from his guilty conscience, leading to his crippling health, final weak admittance of his sin, and eventually his death.  By showing the deterioration and grim ending of Dimmesdale’s life,  Hawthorne portrays his disapproval of adultery for those who do not openly admit to their sin.

On the other hand, Hawthorne expresses forgiveness of adultery for those who openly admit and accept society’s punishment. From her sin, Hester is forced to live a life as an outcast, wear the scarlet letter constantly labeling and reminding her of her sin, and endure the gossip and shun from the town. Throughout the novel, Hawthorne portrays Hester as a strong and independent woman. Even from the beginning, when first emitted from the prison, Hester displays confidence and dignity by allowing her beauty to shine and “[make] a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped” (The Market Place). By the end of the novel, Hester is a respected member of the town. She even voluntarily wears the scarlet letter as it has transformed from a mark of shame to one of her identity. From Hawthorne’s portrayal of Hester’s strong, independent, and dignified character despite her public shame, Hawthorne shows that he condones adultery for those who openly admit and bear the consequences.

Despite what some critics may say, Hawthorne truly both condones and condemns the sin of adultery. He expresses disapproval of Dimmesdale who refrains from openly admitting to sin for several years by portraying his deteriorating health and eventual demise.  But, he forgives Hester who openly admits and endures the punishment for her sin by portraying her strength, beauty, and independence.

Works Cited: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Signet Classics, 2009. Print.


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