“Guilt and its handmaiden, shame, can paralyze us––or catalyze us into action. Appropriate guilt can function as social glue, spurring one to make reparations for wrongs” (Guilt.) This is a common modern analyzation of the effects of guilt, but let us explore and see if this is how it affects our main catalyst Hester Prynne. In the early chapters of the Scarlet Letter we observe being humiliated and mocked on the town scaffold. This woman has sinned against her God and her husband. Hester Prynne has committed adultery with an unidentified man. A punishment more than public shaming was a scarlet letter “A,” that Hester embroidered herself (as that was her traid,) that she must wear on her bosom for life. This letter “A” stood for adulterer marking her out as marred and different, and served as a forever reminder of the sin she had committed. One thing also reminded her of her constant sin, her dear illegitimate daughter Pearl. In this paper I will explore how guilt seeks out Hester in both judicial and personal shame as sin continues to consume her until it is resolve. First, I would like to explore the all too familiar scarlet letter Hester is forced to wear as punishment which can be connected with judicial guilt. How interesting it is the extent that a piece of fabric on the chest can tear one apart and torment you as it serves a constant reminder of the sin you wish you could just forget. But you cannot, and neither can Hester Prynne. For all of her life she must wear this reminder of her mistake and pay. Throughout the book this letter is seen torturing Hester in guilt and shame, punishing her, forever bringing to mind her transgression and even convincing her that she is responsible for the sins of others, for example in Chapter Two Nathaniel Hawthorne says: “she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real” (Chp. 2 pg. 15.) First, there is the babe, born of her sin, but then there is the shame, the guilt, the scarlet letter. Again: “The scarlet letter burned on Hester Prynne’s bosom. Here was another ruin, the responsibility of which came partly home to her” (Chp. 14, pg. 116.) This imagery pictures the letter literally burning through Hester Prynne with its shame and guilt of the sin it represents.  Second, I would like to look at the personal shame that the illegitimate child which Hester birthed through her adulterous relationship laid upon Hester. Pearl, her daughter, is a perfect example of how everyday the beloved child of her own, while a blessing, still reminded her of her ever consuming sin. In the Scarlet Letter, sin creeps its way into the loving mother-daughter relationship between Hester and Pearl. From the beginning, Pearl is seen to be both her mother’s only joy, and yet her greatest sorrow. In Chapter two, Pearl actually is seen to be as much a source of shame and guilt as is the letter: “wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another” (Chp. 2 pg. 9,) and again: “so infinite was the torture inflicted by the intelligent touch of Pearl’s baby-hand” (Chp. 6 pg. 47.) However, we know this is not the end.”Sometimes pride keeps us from admitting our sin or keeps us from forgiving ourselves when we sin…” (Life.) As the story unfolds, we learn that the unidentified man is Mr. Dimmesdale, the town pastor, and he seems to struggle with this very idea. As Dimmesdale is consumed by his own hate, sin, and guilt, he begins cutting his own “scarlet letter” into his chest. Later, Dimmesdale earns the respect and privilege to speak at a town parade, which was a coveted position. There at this parade, Dimmesdale tells all, briefly after which he passes away from common illness. Hester now attains a freedom through both new outlook on her life by herself and by others. After everyone snapped back to reality and realized what she had been through after Dimmesdale’s confession, they feel compassion for her. The people even see a renewed outlook on Pearl no longer is she a witch-child or imp, but a sweet little girl like all the others. Hester was even allowed to not wear her letter anymore, even though she did. Both modes of her guilt and shame were even taken away or given new meaning and identity.In this paper, I explored the ways the scarlet letter itself and Pearl awakened a guilt and shame within Hester which ultimately rooted from her consuming sin. As interesting it is to explore a deep and complex relationship such as Hester and her guilt, how joyous and praiseworthy is it to have a God who takes all our guilt and shame and hides it under the cloak of His righteousness? How amazing it is to be able to say on judgment day that by none of our own accord we are free from sin and clothed in righteousness. Is it not a joy that “God’s forgiveness includes a cleansed conscience” (Lesson?) As Christians, we have the true knowledge that we may come to Christ with our guilt, shame, and consuming sins, and have them washed white as snow because of His loving sacrifice. Quoting the words of John Piper: “Turn away from all the intellectual, physical, and religious tactics the world uses to evade its guilt, and rest in Jesus” (Piper.)


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