Black & White & Red All Over: Lessons from The Scarlet Letter

Scarlet LetterThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“He to whom only the outward and physical evil is laid open, knoweth, oftentimes, but half the evil which he is called upon to cure. A bodily disease, which we look upon as whole and entire within itself, may after all, be but a symptom of some ailment in the spiritual part.”

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a classic work of American literature and undoubtedly the author’s best-known book. It appears on many high school reading lists, and unfortunately many students seem to find it dreary and boring, but I feel it’s one that every student and Christian should familiarize themselves with, as it’s a valuable and memorable story that teaches much about human nature and the consequences of sin.

Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and takes 40 pages of introductory material to provide the setting and background for the story, which takes place in Boston 200 years earlier. This introduction is definitely the driest part of the book, and if you find yourself having a hard time slogging through it, I suggest you skip it altogether and just jump right in at Chapter One. I’ll summarize the Intro for you: The author claims to be a descendant of the Puritans of the period and a native of New England, which he believes gives him the right and the credibility to tell the story. He admits to being ashamed of the “cruelties” of the Puritans and suspects that his ancestors would in turn have been ashamed of him as a “degenerate writer of story-books.” However, as a man who likes people and who isn’t harsh or judgmental of others but tends to think the best of them, he feels he is capable of telling the story objectively and fairly. He then explains that after taking a position as a clerk in the Custom House in Salem, he discovered in a pile of old documents a package containing an old piece of embroidered scarlet cloth in the shape of the letter “A” along with the history of a woman named Hester Prynne.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, here it is in a nutshell: Hester Prynne, a married woman, is discovered to have been unfaithful to her absent husband when she is found to be with child. As her punishment, she is forced to always wear a red letter A (signifying Adultery) sewed on her bosom. In spite of the public shame and ignominy she suffers, she refuses to name the man responsible for her state. When Hester’s husband returns to find her with a baby that he knows isn’t his, he begins a search to learn who the man is and to get his revenge. Meanwhile, Hester lives as a social outcast on the outskirts of town with her daughter, Pearl.

Admittedly Hawthorne’s book certainly did the Puritans no service and helped to promote an extreme, unbalanced view of them by depicting them as a very strict, harsh, and unforgiving society. However, since the book is fiction and not history, The Scarlet Letter shouldn’t be read for the purpose of understanding what the Puritans were like; there are better historical works that would provide more accurate and faithful picture of them. Rather, it’s much more profitable for the truths and principles the book reveals about human nature and life in general.

Hawthorne’s tale opens by introducing the main theme of the story and a fact of life: sin has consequences. Even in the newly established colony of Boston, founded by godly Puritans as a Utopia, there is visible evidence that sin is always present: a prison for law-breakers and a cemetery for the dead. In a time when a book like Fifty Shades of Grey is all the rage, is it any wonder that a book that depicts sin as a black and white issue is not often mentioned as a favorite among modern readers?

But for those who are willing to give it a chance, here are some truths I found illustrated in the Scarlet Letter:

1.  All sin is serious and should be viewed as such. Hawthorne describes Massachusetts Bay Colony as priding itself on being a place where “iniquity is searched out, and punished in the sight of rulers and people.” Sinful acts were not tolerated or winked at, and were dealt with publicly to serve as a warning to the rest of society. Granted, they took this a bit to the extreme in some cases; we are not called by God to be the judge and jury of anyone we believe to be in sin, and we can’t change the heart of a society by forcing them to be religious. But the Puritans had an understanding of the holiness of God and the evils of sin that we just don’t have these days. Consider these titles written by Puritans: Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (1652), The Evil of Evils: The Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin (1654), The Mortification of Sin (1656), Temptation: Resisted and Repulsed (1658), The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin in Believers (1667), Sin: The Plague of Plagues (1669), The Sinfulness of Sin (1669), The Mischief of Sin (1671), and a bit later, the famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741). How different from our day, in which sin is no longer called out for what it is, and is ignored, or worse, even admired. (Jerry Bridges addresses this issue in his book Respectable Sins.)

2.  Sinful choices often affect others; and some sins have natural consequences that are irreversible. Even if you’re forgiven by God and by those whom you’ve offended, there are some sins which have long-lasting effects that cannot be undone. Hester sinful act not only hurts her husband, Chillingworth, but actually brings out an evil, vengeful side of him. As for her daughter, Hester herself declares, “My child must seek a heavenly Father; she shall never know an earthly one!”

3.  God is gracious and can bring blessing even out of man’s sinful choices. “God, as a direct consequence of the sin which man thus punished, had given her a lovely child…She named the infant “Pearl,” as being of great price — purchased with all she had, — her mother’s only treasure!” While Pearl is a visible daily reminder to her mother of her sinful act, she is also her one source of comfort and companionship, and someone to live for.

4.  “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23). While Hester is on display, refusing to identify her partner in sin, one observer comments, “Perhaps the guilty one stands looking on at this sad spectacle, unknown of man, and forgetting that God sees him.” Man may only see the outward appearance, but God sees the heart of a man. No matter how good and virtuous others may think we are, the Lord knows our hearts, and if we think we can hide unconfessed sin from Him, we are dangerously deceiving ourselves.

5.  It’s always better to confess and repent of sin rather than to keep it hidden and unconfessed. As she stands on public display, Rev. Dimmesdale counsels Hester,

I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him, yea, compel him, as it were – to add hypocrisy to sin?

As the reader may suspect and soon learns, it is Dimmesdale himself who is Hester’s partner in sin. As he lacks the courage to confess on his own, he pleads with her to expose him. As time passes, we see his health deteriorate and are reminded of Psalm 32 in which David states,

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was turned into the drought of summer.

I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Dimmesdale never truly experiences this relief of sins forgiven and peace with God, for it appears that he never turns to God in complete repentance.

6.  Nothing you can do of your own will or power is adequate to remove your sin. Dimmesdale does everything privately he can think of in an effort to punish and purify himself, but all to no avail. Even Hester deceives herself into thinking that by remaining at “the scene of her guilt…perchance the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul and work out another purity than that which she had lost.” But no, for as the words of the hymn reminds us, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

7.  We can never find relief or refuge from our sin by fleeing or by turning to another person. When Hester suggests to Dimmesdale that they leave together and start a new life where their guilt won’t follow them, it’s as if suddenly a burden has been lifted from him and he is regenerated. He says to her,

Do I feel joy again? Methought the germ of it was dead in me! O Hester, thou are my better angel! I seem to have flung myself – sick, sin-stained, and sorrow-blackened…and to have risen up all made anew, and with new power to glorify Him that hath been merciful!

To whom does Dimmesdale look for strength, comfort and forgiveness? Not to Christ, but to Hester. But he soon learns that a person cannot run away from his guilt or sin.

8.  We must remain vigilant and on our guard against sin and temptation. We are naïve and vulnerable if we think we are above being tempted by any sin. Likewise, the more we get away with sin, the more likely we are to willingly risk sinning again. Once Dimmesdale believes he will be able to leave town without being exposed, his guard drops and he finds himself faced with such temptations that he had never experienced previously and never thought he was capable of.

9.  Finally and simply, “The wages of Sin is Death” (Romans 6:23). As a result of Adam’s first sin, death entered the world (Rom. 5:12), and each man is born in sin and spiritually dead. In the end, as Dimmesdale’s sin eats away at him from the inside out, he receives the due payment for his sin. Although a person must recognize he is a sinner, this is not enough to bring salvation and peace. He must then look to the only remedy for sin that God has provided and the only Savior of sinners: the Lord Jesus Christ.

A final word to the reader: do you have hidden sins that you hope no one will discover and that you think you are hiding from God? God sees and knows all things, even the most secret acts and most hidden thoughts. Read Psalm 139 and let such truths about God serve as a source of comfort to you as it did to David, rather than of fear and shame. You see, sin is, quite frankly, a black and white issue. But the good news is that there is no heart so black with sin that the blood of Christ cannot make it white as snow. Bring your sin to the foot of the cross and leave it there, and you will be able to say with David,

“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!”

If you’ve read The Scarlet Letter, what was your reaction to it?

P.S. I usually enjoy movies based on novels I liked, but I haven’t seen the film based on The Scarlet Letter, and based on the reviews I’ve read (see below), I don’t plan to.

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2 thoughts on “Black & White & Red All Over: Lessons from The Scarlet Letter

    1. Thanks, Jim. This is one of many classic works that is a good example of the fact that Biblical principles can be gleaned from a secular work, if the reader is willing to look for them.

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