Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel The Scarlet Letter examines the phenomena of guilt and shame in Puritan New England. Hester Prynne is an adulteress forced to wear a scarlet letter "A" at all times as a reminder to all of her crime. Hawthorne's novel, like other works of literary merit, produces a healthy confusion of pleasure and disquietude in the reader. This confusion is the result of a moral ambiguity in the story's situations and characters. In The Scarlet Letter, this "healthy confusion" brings the reader's own beliefs into question, proving that its themes are still relevant in today's culture.
The moral ambiguity in The Scarlet Letter starts with the situation of the novel. The heroine is an adulteress, a sinner found guilty and tried by the Puritan religious court. Is Hester not deserving of her punishment? Hawthorne seems to insinuate such throughout the novel. Hester's crime is reduced to a crime of passion, an expression of her individualistic rebellion against the harshness of her society. Hawthorne writes, "She had wandered without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest... Her intellect and heart... roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free." Passages such as this seem to echo the Romantic and contemporary beliefs that individualism is an expression of the highest good. Is Hester's crime made less sinful because it is an individualistic expression? Hester's ultimate fate seems to suggest not. She does not die of her guilt as her lover, the Reverend Dimmesdale, does; but she lingers on earth, forever wearing the stigma of the scarlet letter.
The character of Pearl, Hester's daughter, suggests otherwise. Like Hester, "there was a trait of passion, a certain depth of hue..." in Pearl's character. Pearl is the distillation of Hester and Dimmesdale's deep, hidden wells of freedom and individuality. Chillingworth comments on Pearl's unpredictability, wondering, "Hath she any discoverable principle of being?" "None," answers Dimmesdale, "-save the freedom of a broken law." Freedom is generally regarded as a positive characteristic, yet this freedom is the result of lawless rebellion. When coupled with the Romantic belief that children are innocents, unsoiled by the sins of humanity, this ambiguity is reinforced. Like Hester, Pearl's fate gives further insight. Pearl, who has been the symbol of individuality and freedom taken to an extreme, becomes a rich heiress, and lives a happy life- the only character to do so. It is also interesting to note that Pearl has inherited two things; from her parents, the individuality of her character, and from the evil Chillingworth, Hester's rightful husband, the property and money that allow her to live a happy life.
Chillingworth is another character who contributes to this moral ambiguity. Although he is primarily described as dark, evil, even demonic, the reader's sympathies favor him somewhat, as it is apparent that Hester's infidelities have affected him deeply. Chillingworth is a wronged man, but he determines to take revenge against Dimmesdale. Is it his desire for revenge that makes him evil, or is it his method of seeking it? This is not made clear. Dimmesdale expresses a rationalization of this demonization of Chillingworth, proclaiming, "We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man's revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!" Dimmesdale disregards the wounds they have instilled on Chillingworth. This oversight accentuates the doubts in the heart of the reader. Are Hester and Dimmesdale deserving of their sympathy, and Chillingworth of their revulsion?
Dimmesdale is also a source of moral uncertainty in the novel. The character of the "polluted priest" is a common one, and is commentary on the impossibility of attaining the purity of God on earth. Corrupted by sin and living the lie of holiness, Dimmesdale wonders if his charade is necessary to ensure that God's work is accomplished on earth. Dimmesdale wrestles with the idea of salvation through works, persevering in his churchly duties in the hope of redeeming himself. Dimmesdale explains this situation to Chillingworth as he outlines why a hypothetical person might keep his sins a secret. "...guilty as they may be, retaining, nevertheless, a zeal for God's glory and man's welfare, they shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in the view of men; because, thenceforward, no good may be achieved by them; no evil of the past be redeemed by better service." Are Dimmesdale's hopes in vain? As with the other examples, his fate might serve as insight into the truth. Dimmesdale confesses his sin after an inspired Election Day sermon, dying as he reveals the truth. Is this an indication that no works, no matter how miraculous, are enough to keep a sinner from his fate? Or, since his life was such a torture, is his death not justice, but mercy? Has he earned death and a respite from the pain of guilt? This is but another example of the moral ambiguity in Hawthorne's novel. We cannot make any inferences based solely upon the text. Therefore, The Scarlet Letter has created a "healthy confusion" in its reader.
The moral ambiguities in The Scarlet Letter force readers to reevaluate their own beliefs as it plays with the reader's sympathies. It is the introspection demanded by Hawthorne's work that makes it a lasting piece of literature. The questions asked by The Scarlet Letter are so timeless that they remain relevant in today's society.