American Literary Traditions
4 October 2018
The Rise of Humanity in The Fall of Man: Acceptance of Sin in The Scarlet Letter
Sin is, and always has been, an inevitable part of the human condition. In Christianity, humanity’s never-ending struggle between good and evil is a consequence of Original Sin, which originated from Adam and Eve’s fatal act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Nathanial Hawthorne uses this biblical story as a basis to reflect upon the concepts of sin and redemption in his novel, The Scarlet Letter. Set in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, The Scarlet Letter tells the tale of Hester Prynne, who after having a clandestine love affair with the esteemed Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, is convicted of adultery. As a punishment and symbol to remind her of her sin, Hester is forced to indefinitely wear a scarlet letter A, for adulterer. In a way, the Puritans view the New World as their own Garden of Eden, a safe-haven embodying the highest standards of purity, innocence, and perfection. Puritans did acknowledge humanity’s tendency towards sin, however they also recognized that this came into conflict with their vision of a virtuous society; thus, they sought to combat sin by demanding conformity, submission, and repentance in all aspects of life. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne criticizes the Puritan response to sin through the characterization of Puritan society and the experiences of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale; Hawthorne’s novel asserts that rather than seeking validation from the church, acceptance of the human tendency towards sin is the only way to achieve salvation.
By exposing the sinful tendencies of a society which claimed to have based itself on the highest principles of Christian morality, Hawthorne reveals that the Puritan response to sin is a failure. In the opening chapter of the novel, “The Prison Door,” Hawthorne describes the Puritan settlers’ vision for their colony as an “Utopia of human virtue,” yet they soon realize, “it was among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as… a site of a prison” (35). Even in the early stages of settlement, the prevalence of crime has already hindered the Puritans’ plans of establishing a Christian Utopia. Hawthorne describes the Puritan’s need for a prison as a “practical necessity,” emphasizing the fact that sin is unavoidable and transcends all boundaries, even tainting the “virgin soil” of the New World. In the proceeding chapter, Hawthorne establishes the callous character of the Puritan citizens in their lack of sympathy towards Hester: “Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders, at the scaffold” (36). By describing the observers as “bystanders,” Hawthorne asserts the passivity and inconsiderate attitudes of Puritan society. This absence of communal empathy and hostile treatment towards acts of imperfection isolated and ostraci...