Religion can make one a devil. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), shows how.
Roger Chillingworth, a sombre scholar, marries a pretty woman, Hester, much younger in age. During his long absence she develops an affair with Arthur Dimmesdale, a pastor. When a child is born to Hester in the protracted absence of her husband, she is labelled an adulteress and punished.
All this happens in the 17th century Boston, then a Puritan colony. The Puritans were a kind of religious fundamentalists. They followed the letter of the law. Love, mercy and other such tender feelings had no place in the Puritan worldview. People should abide by the law at any cost.
Hester is punished to wear “the scarlet letter” on her bosom throughout her life. The letter A, for Adulteress, is emblazoned on her chest, and she has to spend some time on the pillory everyday displaying herself for the edification of the public.
Dimmesdale is struck with guilt feeling and remorse. But he is a Puritan at heart, and a pastor to boot, and hence cannot transcend the straitjacket of the law. He lacks the courage to own up his guilt in public and accept his human failing as well as his love for Hester.
Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, who has returned wants to avenge the ignominy brought on him by his wife and her lover. But he won’t kill them directly. He knows that the scarlet letter is enough of a punishment for Hester. His intention is to seek out the man who brought the ignominy on him and punish him with the typical Puritan cruelty. It takes him a while to know that Dimmesdale is his enemy. And Dimmesdale is already wasting away because of his sterile guilt and remorse. The guilt and remorse have produced a stigma on Dimmesdale’s chest in the form of a scarlet letter. If Hester is wearing an artificial scarlet letter on her dress, Dimmesdale is wearing a painful physical stigma on his chest.
Dimmesdale goes through excruciating psychological and physical pain before he is able to make his confession in public. The confession kills him.
Hester goes on to become a character loved by the people as she turns to social service. The scarlet letter ‘A’ slowly loses its stigma.
Chillingworth dies within a year of Dimmesdale’s death. He does not have a purpose to live for anymore. His only purpose had become taking revenge on the man who had assaulted his wife’s marital fidelity. And he was firmly convinced that he was fulfilling a religious duty by pursuing his vindictive aspiration. He does not understand the implication of his wife’s observation, “... the hatred ... has transformed a wise and just man to a fiend!”
Stringent adherence to the law can transform a wise and just man into a devil. That’s one of the themes of the novel. Neither Chillingworth nor Dimmesdale – both of whom are very religious – understands the lessons of compassion and forgiveness that Jesus, their God, had taught. In fact, no religious fundamentalist understands the spirit of his/her religion. Fundamentalism is more about following rules and regulations than understanding the values of the religion and internalising them.
The narrator of the novel tries to present a moral in the last pages. “Be true! Be true! Be true!” says he. “Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” Live with transparency. Be true to yourself. Dimmesdale achieved that toward the end. But it was too late. His religion had already become a terrible burden for him by the time he understood its spirit rather than its legal scaffoldings.
Did Hester learn the lesson? Given the society in which she lived and the upbringing she had, she could only think of herself as sinful and hence in need of redemption through penitence. She continued to live as a penitent.
How would she live were she living in today’s society? She would have accepted her error, learnt the lesson, and then gone on to live a life of dignity. Falling is not the tragedy, refusing to get up and walk on is.
Error is natural to mankind. Each error should teach us the lessons they contain and help us to cultivate sympathy and understanding of others, help us in our personal growth. Religions often fail to teach this with their unhealthy focus on man’s sinfulness and suggesting rituals as the remedy. Understanding is the secret of spiritual health, not rituals or prayers.