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2. Overview: Sin + Guilt = The Story

The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850
Famous for: That scarlet letter “A”, the tormented Reverend Dimmesdale, and fiendish husband Roger Chillingworth.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller considers the power of guilt to reform the guilty.Remember that time you told a white lie? Or maybe it wasn’t very white at all. Maybe it was a whopper. What happened afterward?

Did it eat away at you? Did you feel guilty and ashamed? Did you almost wish you could be exposed—just to get the guilt off your chest? Just so you could move on?

Or were you glad you got away with it? Glad and relieved.

However you feel about past mistakes, you’ll be able to identify one of the characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

Hester, Arthur, Roger & Co.

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The Scarlet Letter is, to put it simply, a story about the effects of sin and guilt. The effects of sin and guilt on individuals, and the effects of sin and guilt on a community.

Hester Prynne, the main character, has her sin (adultery) exposed—and she’s publicly punished for it. She still feels guilty after the fact—horribly guilty, in fact. But as the story progresses, you’ll see how having her sin out in the open also allows her to atone for it. To make amends, and to move forward, at least in a few small ways.

Her partner in sin, Arthur Dimmesdale, isn’t so lucky. No one even suspects him of sin, because he’s the pious and good reverend. Dimmesdale’s also too weak to confess what he did—to man up to the truth. Instead, he tortures himself in secret.

While Hester never moves on from guilt, she at least finds a way to rise above it. Dimmesdale just gets sucked further and further into guilt’s vortex until at last, it completely destroys him.

Finally, there’s good old Roger Chillingworth. He’s Hester’s husband—although no one else knows that. Chillingworth doesn’t feel guilty, but he does prey on Dimmesdale’s guilt. He’s determined that Dimmesdale suffer for what he did. But the sick thing is that Chillingworth’s devilish plan ends up making him suffer, too.


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