Hypocrisy in the Scarlet Letter


The Scarlet H

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is about the trials and
tribulations of Hester Prynne, a woman living in colonial Boston. Found
guilty of adultery, Hester\'s punishment is to wear a visible symbol of her sin:
the scarlet letter "A." Through the book, the reader comes to know Hester,
the adulteress; Dimmesdale, the holy man Hester had the affair with; and
Chillingworth, the estranged husband of Hester who is out for revenge. The
Scarlet Letter examines the interaction of these characters and the reaction
of these characters to Hester\'s sin. Although Hester\'s sin is at first supposed
to be adultery, in fact adultery is just one of the many bases Hawthorne
could use to build the story around. The underlying sin that Hawthorne
deals with in The Scarlet Letter is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is the practice of
professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess. All
three main characters, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, commit the
sin of hypocrisy. Hawthorne shows that hypocrisy is indeed a sin by
punishing the offenders.
Hester Prynne is a strong, independent woman who deals with her sin
of adultery very well. Instead of running away from it, she lives with it and
accepts her punishment. However, while succumbing to the will of the court,
she does not for an instant truly believe that she sinned. Hester thinks that
she has not committed adultery because in her mind she wasn\'t really
married to Chillingworth. Hester believes that marriage is only valid when
there is love, and there is no love between Hester and Chillingworth. In the
prison, defending her actions against him, she declares, "Thou knowest, thou
knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any" (74).
Then, later, speaking to Dimmesdale, Hester further imparts her belief that
she has not sinned, saying, "What we did had a consecration of its own. We
felt it so" (192). Therefore, Hester, in her mind, has not committed a sin.
The fact that she accepts the courts decision so meekly and wears the scarlet
letter denoting her as an adulteress is the first way in which she is
hypocritical. Hester, although she does not believe she has sinned, portrays
herself as a sinner by wearing the scarlet letter without complaint. Over the
ensuing years, Hester endures the shame and ridicule brought about by the
scarlet letter. However, the true source of the shame and ridicule is not
adultery, but her own sin of hypocrisy. If Hester had not been hypocritical, if
she had instead told the townspeople how she truly felt, then perhaps she
would have earned their respect and not have forced to undergo the
humiliation and punishment of the scarlet letter. Hester\'s acceptance of a
false sin is not the only hypocritical act she carries out. Another way in
which Hester is hypocritical is her agreement with Chillingworth to keep his
name a secret. Hester, even though she claims to love Dimmesdale, agrees
with Chillingworth to keep Chillingworth\'s name and mission secret (76).
Hester is responsible for the pain that Chillingworth causes Dimmesdale,
because she allows him to enter Dimmesdale\'s house without warning
Dimmesdale.
Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester\'s partner in adultery, is another character
who is punished for his hypocrisy. Dimmesdale is a minister, one whom the
people look up to for guidance and direction. The people consider him almost
sinless, the perfect model which to follow. The townspeople thought of him
as "a true priest, a true religionist, with the reverential sentiment largely
developed, and an order of mind that impelled itself powerfully along the
track of creed" (120). Believing himself to have committed the grave sin of
adultery, Dimmesdale\'s responsibility is to step down from his clerical
position or at least admit his sin to the public. Instead, Dimmesdale hides
his sin and actually uses Hester\'s sin in his sermons. A "true priest" would
not hide his sin from his congregation, as Dimmesdale does. The fact that
Dimmesdale hides his own sin while expounding on Hester\'s sin, which is
actually the same, makes Dimmesdale a hypocrite. Dimmesdale is not only
hypocritical to his congregation, but to Hester as well. Dimmesdale commits
an act of adultery with Hester. He does so secure in the knowledge that he