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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Theological Reflection on The Scarlet Letter

My wife and I just finished listening to The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  I have to admit I knew a very basic plot but never read it until this past weekend.  It is very probable that there is much discussion, information and analysis, especially relating to literary qualities about this novel.  I won't try say much about it in this regard, but just a simple observation.  Hawthorne's description of characters is very thorough and deep. It appears he was very keen in studying human nature and took his time describing it through the characters he created.  Quite the opposite exists in popular novels nowadays.  Current novels are written for mass consumption and entertainment and not for the exploration of human nature. Many find classics like Hawthorne's unappealing and unreadable because they do not fit the modern paradigm of a good novel. How much we are missing!

But the most impressive for me, in this novel, was the rich theological presuppositions layered throughout.  I will try to be brief, though much can be said. First, Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter shows us the sinfulness of man and the effects it has on us.  All of his major characters demonstrate this point.  Hester Prynne the adulteress is the most obvious.  Not only has she committed the sin of adultery but she is the one who pays the most for it.  She spared of the death penalty but her punishment is just as good as being dead.  She would carry the letter "A" engraved on her and forever be ostracised for her sinful act.  The Reverend Dimmesdale is also guilty of immorality and even though he hides it, his sin finds him out. He is tortured by it for seven years.  Roger Chillingworth,  Hester's husband is guilty of the sin of revenge.  It dominates his life completely. Not only are the major characters sinful, but the whole Puritan community is as well.  Their pride, lack of compassion and judgmental spirit makes them just as sinful as the rest.

I find it interesting the Hawthorne never minimizes sin and its consequences. I didn't find the novel a treatise condemning hypocrisy or making sin be less than what it is.  For us readers in these modern times it may a bit "antiquated" because the idea of sin is almost foreign.  Adultery and immorality is commonly accepted in our society.  The threat of being punishable by death, as it was during Colonial Times, not only sounds antiquated but absurd, especially those with no religious background. It could easily be said that we are just as bad. We have thrown out all of our morals for the sake of being tolerant. But Hawthorne does not minimize sin. He writes: "After exhausting life in his efforts for mankind's spiritual good, he had made the manner of his death a parable, in order to impress on his admirers the mighty and mournful lesson, that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike."

The Scarlet Letter also deals with the concept of mercy, both human mercy and God's mercy.  Hester life is spared as an act of mercy. More evident is God's mercy.  God's mercy is evident by the fact that even as sinful as we are, God does not judge us accordingly.  No one understood this more than the Reverend Dimmesdale who said, "God knows; and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast!"  He saw all of his inner guilt and persecution by Roger Chillingworth as an act of God's mercy.

Another concept is the idea of living our life according to what we believe. For us Christians, it is to live for Christ each day.  In Hawthorne's words, "Be true! Be true! Be true!" Don't pretend to be something you are not. Live what you believe.

Much more can be said about his novel, especially about the dear seven year old child Pearl.  No one shows the hideousness effects of sin that this child who suffers the consequences of everyone's wrong doing.  She pays a hefty price and yet her innocence shows us what we have lost; what we need: Faith, love, virtue, and compassion!
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