The Fruits of Sin (Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter)

The world of Puritan New England, like the world of today, was filled with evil influences. Many people were able to withstand these temptations; unfortunately, many others have fallen victim to the evil. Often, a single act of iniquity has devastated a person's life. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale were each destroyed mentally and physically by one diabolical act that mushroomed to overcome their lives.

Hester's life was the one which most externally displayed the destruction inflicted upon it by wrong-doing. Physically, she "stood on the scaffold of pillory, an infant on her arm, and the letter 'A' in scarlet, fantastically embroidered with gold thread upon her bosom" (The Scarlet Letter 66). Because of the "A", the entire community knew she had sinned, and she became a social outcast. In her attempts to pay penance for her sins, she lived a life of poverty, donating most of her income to charity. However, even the most lowly and wretched of the creatures in Boston, which she helped, "not unfrequently insulted the hand that fed them" (87). Furthermore she left behind her beauty and elaborate dress for a dress of the "coarsest materials and the most sombre hue" (86).

Hester's sin also harmed her mind and soul. The joy she found in knitting, "like all other joys, she rejected it as a sin" (87). Also, she suffered each time she saw Dimmesdale. A mutual love remained between them, but they could not show the love. Even a brief encounter with Dimmesdale, the father of her daughter, would cause "a deeper throb of pain; for, in that brief interval, she had sinned anew" (89). Moreover, at one point, she had begun to lose faith in the fact that her daughter was human. She began to believe the sayings of townspeople who "had given out that poor little Pearl was a demon offspring" (100). Hence her body and mind suffered greatly for her sin of adultery.

Roger Chillingworth's life was also destroyed by his evil. The most noticeable of his changes was the degradation of his physical appearance. When he was first seen in the novel, "there was a remarkable intelligence in his features, as of a person who had so cultivated his mental part that it could not fail to mould the physical to itself and become manifest by unmistakable tokens" (67). Chillingworth then took up residence with Dimmesdale and began his quest to punish the minister. After he began his quest the townspeople observed "something ugly and evil in his face which they had not previously noticed, and which grew still the more obvious to sight, the oftener they looked upon him" (126). Soon his wife, Hester, found "the former aspect of an intellectual and studious man, calm and quiet, which was what she best remembered in him, had altogether vanished and been succeeded by an eager searching, almost fierce, yet carefully guarded look" (163). Furthermore, his life had become controlled by evil to the extent that once Dimmesdale had died, Chillingworth "withered up, shrivelled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight" (242).

Though evil took a great toll upon him physically, it caused much more damage to his mind.

He had begun the investigation, as he imagined, with 
the severe and equal integrity of a judge, desirous 
only of truth, even as if the question involved no 
more than the air-drawn lines and figures of a 
geometrical problem, instead of human passions and 
wrongs inflicted on himself.  But, as he proceeded, a 
terrible fascination, a kind of fierce, though still 
calm, necessity seized the old man within its gripe 
and never set him free again, until he had done all 
its bidding. (127)

When he started, Chillingworth did not notice the change that had come upon him, but, after it was too late to change directions, he realized that his life had become obsessed with evil. He told Hester that "he had grown to exist only by this perpetual poison of the direst revenge" (165). And furthermore, he declared, "I have already told thee what I am! A fiend!" (166). He knew that the devil now had full control of his life, and he could do nothing but further perpetrate the evil that he had started.

Though Dimmesdale committed the sin of adultery with Hester, his punishment was augmented because he failed to immediately confess. As the town's minister, he knew the harm of an unconfessed sin, and charged Hester to:

"speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-
sufferer!  Be not silent from any mistaken pity and 
tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he 
were to step down from a high place, and stand there 
beside thee on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were 
it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life.  What 
can they silence do for him, except to tempt him - 
yea, compel him, as it were - to add hypocrisy to the 
sin?  Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that 
thereby though mayest work out an open triumph over 
the evil within thee, and the sorrow without.  Take 
heed how thou deniest to him - who, perchance, hath 
not the courage to grasp it for himself - the bitter, 
but wholesome, cup that is now presented to they 
lips!" (73)

However, Dimmesdale held his sin within himself, using the justification that some sinners, "guilty as they may be, retaining, nevertheless, a zeal for God's glory and man's welfare, they shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in the view of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be achieved by them; no evil of the past be redeemed by better service" (130). Unfortunately, he did not trust this reasoning. He had tried many times to confess his sin, but he always fell short.

Dimmesdale's feelings of guilt for his unconfessed sin caused him to seek his own private penance. To help relieve his soul of the agony caused by his sin, Dimmesdale fasted "rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath him as an act of penance" (141). He also "kept vigils, likewise, night after night" (141), that he might have the evil of his sin relieve from his conscience. This resulted in a great physical suffering, for:

His form grew emaciated; his voice, though still rich 
and sweet, had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay 
in it; he was often observed, on any slight alarm or 
other sudden accident, to put his hand over his heart, 
with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of 
pain.  (119)

His continual decline of health allowed Chillingworth to obtain residence with him. In these close quarters, Chillingworth became "a chief actor in the poor minister's interior world" (137), and had the ability to make the minister suffer both mental and physical agony.

Evil destroyed the lives of Hester, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale. Each had the potential for excellence in his own field, whether it be medicine, ministry, or womanhood, yet a single sin turned their lives on a downward path. Each of the primary characters in The Scarlet Letter failed to see the consequences that he would face after tasting the fruits of sin. Likewise, Jim Bakker, Marion Berry, and Gary Hart are examples of people from today's society who committed major sins. Their sins grew to crush their hopes of obtaining great success in life.