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The Scarlet Letter centers round the consequences of sin, especially shame and guilt. It is to be noted that the sin of adultery is, in itself, not the subject matter of the novel. In fact, the novel opens after the sin has been committed and Pearl, the offspring of the sinful, but natural, union is three months old. As Hawthorne himself states in the opening chapter, the novel is about human weakness and its resulting sorrow.
Hawthorne's focus of attention is the effect the sin has on Hester and Dimmesdale. They constantly suffer from shame and guilt throughout the novel. Both of them lead joyless lives. Dimmesdale, however, suffers much more intensely than Hester.
Hester is made to publicly acknowledge her sin. A scarlet letter "A" is permanently placed on her dress to symbolize her adultery, and she is made to stand on the scaffold with her baby for several hours of public humiliation. She becomes a social outcast of the Puritan society and lives in isolation on the outskirts of town. Pearl, her lively and uncontrollable daughter, is the daily living proof of Hester's sin. With pride, she dresses her daughter in brightly colored clothing and holds her on head up high. She also concerns herself with doing acts of charity and kindnesses for other people. Even though her life is difficult and drab, Hester, through her own doing, rises about the scarlet letter "A" on her chest.
In complete contrast to Hester, Dimmesdale does not publicly confess his sin, and it eats away at him bit by bit. His health begins to fail, and his body is seized by nervousness. He hints at his sinfulness in the pulpit, but his congregation simply assumes he is being humble and honors him even more; this only increases his sense of shame and guilt. Chillingworth, who realizes that Dimmesdale is Pearl's father, adds to the minister's torture. Under the guise of help, the evil physician torments Dimmesdale daily.
Not courageous enough to tell the truth to this Puritanical community, Dimmesdale accepts Hester's plan to escape from Boston. Running from the truth makes him feel even more guilty. Finally, he can bear the shame and guilt no longer. On Election Day, he climbs the scaffold with Hester and Pearl and publicly confesses his sin. Since he has admitted his guilt and won his personal victory, he is free to die in peace.
Unfortunately, the consequence of the sin for Hester and Dimmesdale is eternal shame and guilt. Their lives are ruined as a result of their sinfulness. Since their sin is committed in the strict, moralistic Puritan society, their suffering is made even greater. Dimmesdale, however, suffers the most, for he is tortured by his hypocrisy and hidden guilt.