Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: The Scarlet Letter, Part Two

This post is a continuation of the first Scarlet Letter post. If you’d like to read that one first, please click here. Also, please Google a summary of the novel if you have not read it already…I apologize for not explaining the plot beforehand. Thank you!

In our last post, we discussed five key quotations from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, having mainly to do with the consequences of hiding sin. To conclude the series, we’ll talk more about deceit as well as the core of the Biblical Gospel. Let’s go through them together, shall we?

“Canst thou deem it, Hester, a consolation, that I must stand up in my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to my face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from it!—must see my flock hungry for the truth, and listening to my words as if a tongue of Pentecost were speaking!—and then look inward, and discern the black reality of what they idolize?” ~Reverend Dimmesdale, Chapter 17, “The Pastor and His Parishioner”

If one commits a sin and attempts to hide it under a carefree face, then he is bound to fall into sadness, a melancholy that only grows when those around him bubble over with praise for his outer “godliness.” The principle seems quite contrary to what we would usually expect–—surely praise for righteousness and honor never depress the Christian! Yet it is so when the victim of adoration knows that he is borrowing the devil’s ploy of using something seemingly beautiful and worth pursuing to disguise the ugly consequences of falling into the temptation to sin. One who commits an unconfessed sin before the eyes of the Lord and gains praise as if he has not done so is crushed by applause, not because he never liked it, but because it only serves as a reminder of the Father who is following him without fail, earnestly desiring to once more draw His child close to Himself (James 4:8).

“The judgment of God is on me,” answered the conscience stricken priest. “It is too mighty for me to struggle with!” ~Reverend Dimmesdale, Chapter 17, “The Pastor and His Parishioner”

Sometimes we can lose sight of either or both of the reality of God’s judgement as well as its severity. The pain of incurable guilt and shame, the blinding light of God’s saving grace opening our eyes for the first time—we like to ignore all of it and maybe even think it might have all been a delusion. But what could be more real than what we cannot see? Things we can see always go away; eternity always remains, and that includes divine judgment. Though we know full well it is so, we tend to dismiss the truth in the idea that pushing away our confession never negates our need to do it. Both Christian and non-Christian must stand before the throne of God one day, and how deeply will it hurt when His child, though redeemed by the blood of the cross, will realize how much time was wasted and suffered in by not glorifying Him and losing sight of just how striking and crucial salvation truly is! When we stand before the throne, He will know everything. Friend, you cannot ignore the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb who overcame the world (John 16:33).

“[W]e are sinners all alike…[T]he holiest among us has but attained so far above his fellows as to discern more clearly the Mercy which looks down, and repudiate more utterly the phantom of human merit, which would look aspiringly upward.” ~Conclusion

All great Christians are far from using the adjective “great” to describe themselves in any positive sense. For example, the apostle Paul himself even said he was the greatest of sinners (First Timothy 1:15). Why the paradox? Well, the one who is closer to God always has a deeper knowledge of how much mercy is needed for our salvation than those who are farther away. Nathaniel Hawthorne puts it this way: Those who want to have mercy always seek to see themselves in the eyes of the One who looks down in love and grace over us; the ones who are convinced that they do not need mercy are the ones who follow the “phantom” or illusion of their heart’s flesh and look upward in an attempt to be a god. As such, we should look aspiringly upward in a different sense—not to replace god (because we already know and acknowledge that we can’t) but to grow more similar to His character and glorify Him as the only one worthy of worship.

“It may be, that, when we forgot our God,—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul,—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions.” ~Reverend Dimmesdale, Chapter 23, “The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter”

I believe this statement by Reverend Dimmesdale is a near-perfect summary of the Gospel. When humanity fell in the Garden of Eden, they pushed God away from their minds ever since (not exactly forgetting, but very very close), and all relationships were thus shattered by sin and selfishness (“violated our reverence each for the other’s soul”). Though all humanity might have met in hell, it wouldn’t have been “in an everlasting and pure reunion” with God in heaven if it were not for God’s mercy, often proven to us most ironically in our “afflictions.” We sinned, God saved, and in the end, everything will be sanctified.

“But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” ~Acts 20:24, NKJV

Though Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is one of the most difficult reads I’ve experienced, his piercing thoughts about the darker parts of man are too profound to skip mulling over. I’ve tried my best to save his best for this post, but I do not in the least intend for my “Literary Wisdom” to be an excuse for skipping hard novels and stories and plays. If it has intrigued you or if it has convicted you, do not be afraid—pick up Scarlet Letter (or any other classic book I’ve discussed), study each page, and let it wrestle your conscience and intellect. Old books—the Bible on a level of divine perfection instead of earthly—are simply the finest way to study our souls.


~Sarah Merly

May 30, 2018

Isaiah 53