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Essay/Term paper: Hypocrisy in the scarlet letter

Essay, term paper, research paper:  The Scarlet Letter

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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
loved her, and she loved him. However, when it comes time to pay for their
actions, Dimmesdale declines. Dimmesdale refuses to climb the scaffold with
Hester to acknowledge the sin. Dimmesdale, although professing his love for
her, refuses to be associated with her. Hester explains this to Pearl, saying
"[Dimmesdale] will be there, child. But he will not greet thee to-day" (224).
Dimmesdale's refusal to be associated with Hester is cowardly, as is his
refusal to climb the scaffold. It is hypocritical because he claims to love her,
but he wants to keep that love secret.
Roger Chillingworth, the husband of Hester Prynne, is the third
character who commits the sin of hypocrisy. Chillingworth's hypocrisy is
directed towards the practice of medicine. All doctors are supposed to care
for their patients, according to the Hippocratic Oath. Chillingworth, a doctor,
should adhere to this oath, but instead he breaks his vows and consciously
uses his skill to hurt his patient, Dimmesdale. For Chillingworth, it is a
matter of revenge, but that does not justify his betrayal of the vows which he
took. Boasting to Hester, Chillingworth relates how he enjoyed torturing his
patient (168). When Hester asks him if he hasn't tortured poor Dimmesdale
enough, Chillingworth responds, "No! -- no! -- He has but increased the debt!"
(169). The fact that Chillingworth takes pleasure in his patient's discomfort
while at the same time claiming to be a physician of the highest caliber
makes Chillingworth a hypocrite. He is punished by Hawthorne for his
hypocrisy. Hawthorne makes Chillingworth deformed, both physically and
mentally. Chillingworth has been gnarled with age, but his mental condition
is worse. He has turned into a man bent on revenge, with no regard for
anything except sating his thirst for revenge. Chillingworth proceeds to lay
blame of his own present deformities on Dimmesdale. According to
Chillingworth, it is Dimmesdale's fault that he, Chillingworth, is a "fiend."
Aside from being hypocritical towards his medicine, Chillingworth is
hypocritical regarding Hester as well. Chillingworth admits to Hester that
he is to blame for their poor marriage. He says,
It was my folly!. The world had been so cheerless! My heart
was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and
chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one!.
And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost
chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy
presence made there! (74).
Chillingworth goes on to admit that he has no desire for vengeance against
Hester: "I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between thee and
me, the scale hangs fairly balanced" (74). Later on, Chillingworth shows that
he was lying when he says "I have left thee to the scarlet letter. If that have
not avenged me, I can do no more!" (169). Chillingworth, despite what he
said earlier, had been avenging himself not only on Dimmesdale, but on
Hester as well, demonstrating again the lying, hypocritical ways he practices.
Through the punishment of the three main characters, Hester,
Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, Hawthorne clearly shows that hypocrisy is
a sin meriting terrible punishment. The sin of adultery, for which Hester is
branded, is not the true sin in The Scarlet Letter. Rather, it is just one
possible sin that can lead the sinner and those involved into the treacherous
depths of hypocrisy, the true sin of The Scarlet Letter.
 

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