Hawthorne in the 1860s
(Nathaniel Hawthorne, Public Domain, U.S.A.)

“Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13)

Here are the two quotes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter I am referring to:

“To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,—it is impalpable,—it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist” (Chapter 11).

“The judgment of God is on me,” answered the conscience-stricken priest. “It is too mighty for me to struggle with!” “Heaven would show mercy,” rejoined Hester, “hadst thou but the strength to take advantage of it” (Chapter 17).

I bring these two great quotes from The Scarlet Letter to your attention because I believe they are a powerful reminder of two of the most basic and fundamental aspects (or elements) of the Christian life – namely, that sin always harms us and that authentic repentance and acknowledgement of our sins heals us. The central message of The Scarlet Letter reminds us that man sins and God forgives; and that God’s forgiveness is infinitely more powerful and transformative than man’s sin, or even a community’s reaction to sin. The Scarlet Letter is ultimately about the triumph of the Divine Mercy! (see my post, “Who Was Saved in The Scarlet Letter?”).

With respect to the first quote from Hawthorne in Chapter 11 (who is, in essence, providing us with a theology of sin, “to the untrue man, the whole universe is false”), we have essentially a reflection on the tremendous psychological harm Rev. Dimmesdale endures due to the concealment of his sin, and Hawthorne draws this out in excruciating detail, and in a masterful way. Theological giants, such as Augustine and Aquinas, have commented that sin is “privatio boni, the absence, the privation, of good.” Sin is essentially “non-being,” or unreal, the very absence of all that is good. We might say, then, that “sin is the cause of all unhappiness,” and that is precisely the situation for Dimmesdale, who is profoundly depressed, and who is living an unreal existence. The point here is to come to grips with the harm sin causes in our lives. Thus, Hawthorne says, “To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,—it is impalpable,—it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist”. Dimmesdale’s “diseased soul” is Hawthorne’s brilliant and remarkable demonstration of this principle (Dimmesdale “thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify, himself.” – Chapter 11).

With respect to the second quote from Hawthorne in Chapter 17, we see that Dimmesdale lacks, of himself, the power and strength to properly repent of his sin, an effort which will require him to mount the scaffold in broad daylight and confess his sin! Dimmesdale is sort of like that Catholic man who lives just a few miles from his Church but somehow he can’t muster up the strength or the courage to get into his car on a Saturday afternoon and drive to church for Confession. He’s held back by some unknown force that makes the effort nearly impossible! And thus Hester cries out to Dimmesdale, “hadst thou but the strength to take advantage” of God’s mercy! Indeed, what do we need more in life than God’s mercy!

At some point when they meet in the forest, Dimmesdale and Hester decide on a purely human plan of (geographical) salvation: to leave Boston, to sail to Europe, and to get away from it all and start a new life. But after enduring vehement diabolical temptations on his walk home, Dimmesdale is given the grace to see that no amount of miles between himself and Boston can ever really solve his underlying problems of guilt and concealment. Thus, the true path to freedom for Dimmesdale will be to mount the scaffold of guilt and confession, to “unconceal” to all what he has been hiding for seven years. It is on the wooden beams of the scaffold that he can unveil his heart to the crowd, and reveal publicly his true situation. Hester, Pearl and even Mr. Chillingworth accompanied Dimmesdale onto the platform, and they too received life-changing graces there in solidarity with Dimmesdale.

CONCLUSION: The harm caused by sin and the great grace of true repentance are underlying themes in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne’s story reminds us that sin plunges us into an unreal life, where we become, in some sense, a “shadow” of our true self. But “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The circumstances of Rev. Dimmesdale’s life teach us a great lesson: not only that sin does harm to our souls, but, moreover, that “God never abandons us in this mortal life,” giving us graces to the very end to truly repent of our sins, unhindered by concerns for human respect (an obstacle that Dimmesdale was ultimately able to overcome). Dimmesdale also teaches us not to delay repentance. God always gives us the strength to repent, and we simply need to take advantage of it!

Speaking of the grace of repentance in reference to that Catholic scaffold called Confession (see James 5:16; John 20:23) , Saint John Paul II makes the following profound observations:

“It must be emphasized that the most precious result of the forgiveness obtained in the Sacrament of Penance consists in reconciliation with God, which takes place in the inmost heart of the son who was lost and found again, which every penitent is.  But it has to be added that this reconciliation with God leads, as it were, to other reconciliations which repair the breaches caused by sin.  The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being, where he regains his own true identity.  He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way attacked and wounded.  He is reconciled with the Church.  He is reconciled with all creation.

As a result of an awareness of this…there arises in the penitent a sense of gratitude to God for the gift of divine mercy received, and the church invites the penitent to have this sense of gratitude.  Every confessional is a special and blessed place from which, with divisions wiped away, there is born new and uncontaminated a reconciled individual — a reconciled world!” (Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance, Paragraph 31, IV. (December 2, 1984).

Hawthorne emphasizes this “reconciled world” in the persons of Hester, Pearl and even Mr. Chillingworth, whose lives were profoundly changed for the better as a result of their solidarity with the dying Rev. Dimmesdale on the scaffold of redemption.

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

References: An article from on sin states the Catholic tradition that “sin is a horrible voluntary lapse into nothingness against the interest of the being and good of the creature.  St. Augustine’s definition is famous: sin is privatio boni, the absence, the privation, of good.  We find this notion also in the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas.  S.T., Ia, q. 48, art. 1 c. “

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