The Scarlet Letter: The Use Of Conscience

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 11th grade November 2001

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Puritans remain sinners in the hands of an angry God, a God who shows little mercy, and controls every aspect of the simple Puritan life. Although simple and holy, each person who lived the Puritan way of life seemed to struggle against his or her own personal sins. In the story The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne this battle against personal sin is made easy to see to all. In The Scarlet Letter the Puritan conscience displayed itself in many physical forms.

In this novel many grievous sins are hidden from the public's eye, and all who hide their sin are destroyed by their guilty consciences. The Reverend Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne are the first to fall victim to this fate. The reverend and Hester together commit the sin of adultery during Hester's husband's absence from the colony; a child is borne as a symbol of their sin. Hester faces the full blame from the village, while Dimmesdale is left to deal with his own conscience and guilt.

Hester is forced to bear the weight of a "Scarlet letter" on her breast, which shows to anyone who looks upon her that she is a true sinner in the eyes of God. She is forced to endure the painful stares of her whole community, and accept her fate as a fallen child of God.

Hester Prynne's conscience manifested itself in the physical form during chapter sixteen, a forest walk. Hester is plagued with her feelings of immense guilt, and throughout this chapter the sunshine and forest nature mirror her conscience.

""˜Mother,' said little Pearl, "˜the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. Now, see! There it is, playing, a good way off. Stand you here, and let me run and catch it. I am but a child. It will not flee from me; for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!' (Shepherd, 173.) Hester's guilt takes on a physical form through the forest scenery of this chapter.

Dimmesdale's conscience tears him apart throughout this story. The reverend is left to realize his soul is tainted and he will never find retribution from his sin. His guilt takes on the physical manifestation of poison throughout the novel.

" The wretched minister! He had made a bargain very like it! Tempted by a dream of happiness, he had yielded himself with deliberate choice, as he had never done before, to what he knew was deadly sin. And the infectious poison of that sin had thus been rapidly diffused throughout his moral system." (Shepherd, 210.) The reverend's body grows weaker and weaker from his built up guilt and biting conscience as time passes in the novel. As the reverend Dimmesdale's guilty conscience becomes a more lethal poison, the Reverend's life dwindles: "Hester Prynne was shocked at the condition to which she found the clergyman reduced. His nerve seemed absolutely destroyed. His moral force was abased into more than childish weakness." (Shepherd, 150.) Through the metaphor of poison, the reader can clearly see a physical manifestation of the Puritan conscience.

Roger Chillingworth was another character within this novel that was changed drastically by his conscience. Roger Chillingworth, the true husband of Hester Prynne, was changed a great deal when he realized his wife was an adulterer. Chillingworth became overwhelmed with the evil thoughts of revenge, and is eventually consumed by an ultimate dark force: "But the former aspect of himself of an intellectual and studious man, calm and quiet, which was what she best remembered in him, had altogether vanished, and had been succeeded by a eager, searching, almost fierce, yet carefully guarded look"¦. Ever and anon, too, there came a glare of red light out of his eyes, as if the old man's soul were on fire, and kept on smoldering within his breast, until, by some casual puff of passion, it was blown into a momentary flame"¦. In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of man's faculty of transforming himself into a devil." (Shepherd, 159.) Roger Chillingworth lost all sense of right and wrong when his mind was full of revenge. His wife's act of adultery changed Chillingworth's conscience, and caused him to become an evil fiend. In this novel Chillingworth's conscience changed him into a whole different person.

Hawthorne uses this novel to show his true feelings towards the pilgrim experience. Hawthorne uses each of the characters' reactions to their guilt, to show how the Puritans were a very judgmental society, which blindly took their faith to heart. Hawthorne shows that each Puritan holds their faith above all else, through the destruction of Dimmesdale's spirit. Dimmesdale held his religion above everything, and as a result his guilt grew in strength and eventually led to his demise. Through the death of Dimmesdale Hawthorne shows how the Puritan society caused pain and death. Through each character Hawthorne shows the flaws in the Puritan way of life.

In The Scarlet Letter the puritan conscience displayed itself in many physical forms. In this story Chillingworth, Hester and the reverend Dimmesdale were physically changed by their morals and beliefs. In all people their morals and conscience control their lives, and The Scarlet Letter proves this point. The Puritan conscience displayed itself in many physical forms in this novel.