Sin, by Merriam Webster’s dictionary, is defined as “an offense against religious or moral law”. Almost everyone has sinned, whether it is telling a young child about Santa or lying about plans so one can stay home. The characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter are no exception. The Puritan community in this novel has a passionate devotion to their church, their Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and to the strict rules that govern their society. For every mistake, there is a harsh consequence. For example, Hester Prynne committed adultery and her punishment was some time in jail as well as wearing a scarlet letter. However, one can reflect on their mistakes if they admit them and serve the time. Most people never admit their mistakes unless they are caught. The biggest sinner in the Scarlet letter was not Hester Prynne, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, but the Puritan society themselves.
Hester Prynne is the first “sinner” that we meet besides the brief mention of Anne Hutchinson who was banished from the colony for preaching Antinomianism. When she was deported, a wild rose bush seemed to bloom as it did again when Hester Prynne arrived at the jail. The rosebush symbolizes Hester’s complicated path of sin. The thorns represent the passionate sin of adultery while the roses are a simile to Pearl, Hester’s daughter who was created from the sin. Children are seen as gifts and she represents the rose petals. Hester committed the act, but she also served the time and wears the scarlet letter. Much to others chagrin, she has embroidered the letter making it a decorated centerpiece of her clothing. Many of the townspeople, especially the women dislike the adornment saying that “if we stripped Madam Hester’s rich gown off her dainty shoulders; and as for the red letter, which she hath so stitched so curiously, I’ll bestow a rag of mine rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one!” The townspeople believe that this is Hester’s way of not coming to terms with the punishment and reprimand her for it.
When Hester Prynne gets out of prison, she makes clothing to sell for in order to support herself. Most women at this time worked in the home, attending to matter considering children, food, and other domestic work. Though Hester was a fallen woman, her skills made her quite popular as a seamstress. “In this manner, Hester Prynne came to have a part of perform in the world.” Her fanciful skills made even high officials such as governors sought her skill out. People wanted her clothes as fast as she could make them, showing that, “there was a frequent and characteristic demand for such labor as Hester Prynne could supply”. The rich disapprove of her actions and make snide remarks, all while they are clad in Hester’s garments. Hester, by accepting her fate and making a living off of her sin accepts her mistakes and can therefore not be the biggest sinner. When men in her past life ask her to keep secrets, Hester is quick to promise that she can keep them and hold onto anything they tell her to. This does not mean she is sinning even more because she holds secrets, but rather she is less of a sinner by not betraying their trust. Whether it is Chillingworth not wanting people to know of their previous marital status or Dimmesdale’s sin, Hester’s honesty shines through.
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is not honest and innocent as he initially seems. Kenneth Pimple, in his essay “Subtle but Remorseful Hypocrite: Dimmesdale’s Moral Character,” says that “Dimmesdale’s first words provide one of the best examples of his profoundly manipulative doubletalk.” He quotes Dimmesdale’s appeal to Hester to name her partner in crime during the scene by the scaffolding. The townspeople believe that Dimmesdale is addressing a member of their congregation when in fact he is referring to himself. His plea for Hester is also a plea for help because he is too afraid of coming out with his sin and would rather be announced. Dimmesdale is pleading that Hester reveal him, but she ignores all the hints and leave him to do his own job. Dimmesdale, later attempts to admit his sin but does not address what exactly his sin was. However, he knows that his people will not interpret this as a confession that is related to adultery because there is no reason to. He seems to talk with a straightforward message, but, as Pimple puts it, ” Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy fests itself in the split between the semantic meaning of what he says and the pragmatic meaning conveyed by the way he says it.” He is leading his people on, a sinful thing to do when one knows that they are making a mistake. It is at this point, we can see Dimmesdale stressing over his inability to express the truth which overwhelms him like the plague.
When Dimmesdale finally gathers the courage to admit his sin, he starts off by including Hester by using the phrase, “we” and “our”. Hesrer Even as Dimmesdale admits, he shows “a triumphant display of that egocentric conviction that man builds his universe from within” in the words of Edward H. Davidson’s in his essay “Damnation: Dimmesdale’s Fall” which is part of a collection of literary criticisms titled “Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Scarlet Letter.”
His physical health also begins to deteriorate, but he still does not speak out of fear of ruining his reputation. Because of his health, he begins to fear that “his outward semblance of look and behavior may reveal his secret” (David) His emotional and physical health are on the decline, and it is both that will lead to his eventual death.
As Pimple explains, ” Dimmesdale manipulates Hester in the forest by exploiting the same discursive strategy which allows him through the years to buttress his congregation’s belief in him as a saintly minister while avoiding telling any outright lies: he plays the literal meaning of his words off against the context in which he speaks them…tone of voice, his position as minister, his reputation as a saintly man, and the genre of the sermon allow him to say, “I am the greatest sinner among you,” but be understood to be humble, pious, and godly” Hester is seen as the instigator in the forest, the one who decided that the two of them should run away and start a new life. However, Dimmesdale, as invigorated as he might be to escape his life that he is living as a lie, can’t because he wouldn’t want the Puritans to think ill of him. Dimmesdale reveals, finally his need to be seen to Hester. It is at this point that Hester makes clear of what Chillingworth’s true identity is. Dimmesdale is furious and claims that she will never be forgiven for hiding such important, sensitive information (192-194). This is quite hypocritical of him to become enraged because he holds his own secrets that he does not spill until he is hours from death, a victim of his pride.
Though Dimmesdale is one of the most sinful characters in the Scarlet Letter, this is not entirely his fault. From the first time we meet him, he is connected to a “godly” presence in reference to Hester Prynne committing an act of adultery in Dimmesdale’s godly church. Even in Europe, Dimmesdale was revered so much that he “was considered by his admirers as little less than a heaven-ordained apostle, destined…to do as great deeds for the now feeble New England Church as the early Fathers have achieved for the infancy of the Christian faith” (109, Hawthorne). He was set up for success by everyone, and his congregation seems to believe that their cherished minister can do wrong. Though he does admit to being a sinner, he never admits what the sin is — the hardest part. The townspeople, still in love with their minister, think that he is admitting to some minor crime such as a drinking. This would be a crime, but the townspeople thought he was admitting something in order to relate to the townspeople more. In this way, the townspeople are setting up Dimmesdale to never truly express himself and come out with his sins. Thus, the biggest sinner in the Scarlet Letter is not Hester Prynne nor Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, but the Puritan Community who poisoned the reputation of an imperfect reverend. Everybody in the Puritan community is a sinner if all the rules are followed to a T. Those that never accept their mistakes commit the gravest act of all.
Sin is the basis of the Scarlet Letter as it is the lens in which we meet the cast of characters. While Hawthorne’s goal in writing this novel is not to determine who the biggest sinner was- this novel highlights interesting nuances in Puritan life– which was partly Hawthorne’s goal. The Puritans are the least likely culprit but also the biggest offenders of breaking code. In fact, one could argue that though Hester was painted to be the biggest sinner, she is the purest of them all because she was able to embrace the situation that she was put in and not only live, but thrive. Dimmesdale, as long as it takes him, does eventually comes to terms with his sin and announces that he is guilty of the same crime as Hester. Sin can mean a variety of things to people today because moral codes are inherently different. Back then, however, everything was dictated and the Merriam Webster’s definition truly encompasses all the problems in Puritan society that both Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale were able to let go of. These two characters did not seek this salvation from their sin the traditional way, but their own unique way of dealing with it is far more meaningful than the rest of their society.