Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: The Scarlet Letter, Part One

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is one of the most dreaded books teens are forced to read in high school. It’s made up of everything modern society doesn’t like—rambling sentences; an excessively drawn-out plot; mystical, enigmatic symbolism; and early modern English dialogue (think Shakespeare, with “thou” and “dost”). On top of that, Hawthorne occasionally has some…interesting “theology.” Yet somehow it’s still considered a classic, one of the finest literary masterpieces America has ever offered in the form of a novel. Why?

Though fans of The Scarlet Letter can point to a multitude of the novel’s various strengths in proving it to be a classic, what stood out the most to me, what defined the book, sharpened its convicting power, and flowed as the undercurrent all throughout, was the theme of hiding sin, even when this sinful concealment brings others to shame and bitter persecution that one ought to share in. And to think that this pastor, so greatly respected amongst his colony, would stoop to fornication!—yet I suppose those same sins pervade through modern times, too, particularly with wolves who dress like the sheep of the church to fleece God’s flock. And the way Hawthorne speaks so directly against sin can make the book extremely difficult to continue reading at times. As we study a few selections from the book, then, let us both examine our hearts, that God may show us where we err and bring us to confession.

“Skilful men, of the medical and chirurgical profession, were of rare occurrence in the colony. They seldom, it would appear, partook of the religious zeal that brought other emigrants across the Atlantic. In their researches into the human frame, it may be that the higher and more subtile faculties of such men were materialized, and that they lost the spiritual view of existence amid the intricacies of that wondrous mechanism.” ~Chapter 9, “The Leech”

Sometimes man can be the perfect image of the proverbial ostrich. We bury our heads in the sifting yet tantalizing sands of the fleshly world, not realizing that the spiritual world in the skies above is a glorious one, vast and free and filled with the presence of God Himself. In the case of these doctors, they spent so much time looking at the results of life pulsing through the human body, and are so fascinated with its organs that they are blinded by their studies, forgetting the source of life that begs to be noticed. Indeed, it is when we feel we have finally found knowledge aside from God that we are most urgently lost.

“Wouldst thou have me to believe, O wise and pious friend, that a false show can be better—can be more for God’s glory, or man’s welfare—than God’s own truth? Trust me, such men deceive themselves!” ~Roger Chillingworth, Chapter 10, “The Leech and His Patient”

The Christian mind is all too easily and frequently convinced that, in a few particular cases, deceit delights God more than truth. When we pray merely out of duty or ritual, we comfort ourselves by thinking that God doesn’t actually know the true state of our hearts. When our giving is limited only to the tax-deductible sort, when it has some profit for ourselves, we puff our chests and say, “But surely God loves a cheerful giver, and certainly I was one of those today!” When we attend church infrequently and ignore the needs of Christ’s body, we brag in our knowledge of the Scriptures, arguing that since salvation is gained on an individual basis, church is not necessary. The irony here, Hawthorne claims, is that in trying to deceive God, we end up deceiving ourselves. That only leads our souls to torment and gives God sorrow.

“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.” ~Roger Chillingworth, Chapter 10, “The Leech and His Patient”

When we let sin settle on our hearts, when it sticks to us as a virus and drains our will & inner peace, it begins to shape who we are on the outside. In the case of Arthur Dimmesdale, the aforementioned fornicator/pastor, every time he saw the woman with whom he had had intimate relations, his hand always grabbed the part of his shirt under which his heart lay, and he became physically ill for years. It illustrates perfectly the consequence of sin we so often avoid thinking about—if we have committed a grave sin, no matter how hard we try to hide it, the offense will always clearly manifest itself to others, whether or not we realize it.

“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. The only truth, that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth, was the anguish in his inmost soul, and the undissembled expression of it in his aspect.” ~Chapter 11, “The Interior of a Heart”

It’s only when we realize our hearts are false that we see the world as such. If we believe our flesh (or what popular culture calls our “hearts”) are true, the world matches that belief, and we feel free to do what we want, though a whisper inside our conscience seems to say that we’re living a lie. But the pang of guilt, the weight of shame, that is the key to seeing the world as it really is—a “sterile canopy of vapors” ornamented with deceitful distraction. And though it may be painful to see the world this way, God uses this key to bring us both to confession of our sin and of Himself as our Lord.

“No eye could see him, save that ever-wakeful one which had seen him in his closet, wielding the bloody scourge. Why, then, had he come hither? Was it but the mockery of penitence? A mockery, indeed, but in which his soul trifled with itself! A mockery at which angels blushed and wept, while fiends rejoiced, with jeering laughter!” ~Chapter 12, “The Minister’s Vigil”

In this portion of the story, our minister is so terribly ashamed of his sin that he creeps out of his house at night to stand on a platform above the ground and consequently proclaim to the people he had done wrong (standing on the platform indicated those who had sinned in the colony, at least in the novel). But what he cannot do is stay there during the day, when everyone will be in the square, when the light shines upon him, when he is forced to explain his actions. See, Minister Dimmesdale is scared of public confession, even though he knows it to be necessary to free him from shame. He hoped that acknowledging his sin in the dark would be enough, only to find that all he did was mock himself and bring himself to further torment. He needed to remember—perhaps even to learn—that secret sin never eliminates shame. There can be no imitation that will suffice for the process of true repentance.


~Sarah Merly

May 26, 2018

Isaiah 53