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Laura Amy Schlitz

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6. Themes.
As Old As Sin: Hawthorne's twist on a trope.

The Scarlet Letter

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

East of Eden, like The Scarlet Letter packs biblical themesHester and Arthur. Adam and Eve. You don’t have to look hard to see ancient Biblical roots in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s morality tale.

Of course, Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise. Hester Prynne and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale suffered different fates– different from Adam and Eve, and different from each other.

There’s Hawthorne’s twist on an ancient biblical theme, with a message that’s distinctively American and about as contemporary as you can get: When you have nothing to hide, you’re free to be you.


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You hear a lot about it when it comes to The Scarlet Letter. No surprise: Hawthorne loves sin..as a theme, anyway. Hester Prynne and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale are practically a Puritan version of Adam and Eve.

Of course, the story of Hester and Dimmesdale isn’t a carbon copy of the “Original Sin” story of Adam and Eve. But it’s a story about the nature of sin, about the link between sin and knowledge and how both can change you.

A lot like the story of Adam and Eve…but with a twist.

Here’s the twist: In Hawthorne’s version, Hester and Dimmesdale aren’t the only sinners. Remember Hester’s vengeful husband, Roger Chillingworth, consumed by his desire to destroy Dimmesdale by any means necessary. Don’t forget the townsfolk and their sinful secrets. In The Scarlet Letter, sinners are everywhere. That’s one reason sin is such a complex theme the hands of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Another reason? Think about that scarlet letter”A”.  Hester is sentenced to wear the symbol of past sin, and to wear it openly. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, meanwhile, continue to conceal their sins. Hester has nothing to hide, which means she’s now free to be herself: She wins the affection and respect those around her. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, on the other hand, meet with sad and tragic ends.

So here’s a question for your English teacher: In Hawthorne’s mind, what’s the greater sin: Sin itself… or hypocrisy?


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