Guilt in The Scarlet Letter
When people think of a "scarlet letter," we immediate think of a person outwardly branded for something they have done. Credit Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" for that -- it's an intense, impassioned (if slightly hammy) story of a strong-willed woman in Puritan New England, who is branded for her sins and her love for one weak man.
In the mid-1600s, a passionate young woman named Hester Prynne has been accused of adultery -- she recently had a baby, even though her husband was abroad. Just as damning to the elders is the fact that she won't name baby Pearl's father. Even her estranged husband -- a cold-hearted older man calling himself Roger Chillingworth -- wants to know her lover's identity, but Hester steadfastly refuses to even hint at the man's identity.
We learn early in the book that Pearl's dad is actually the local minister Arthur Dimmesdale, who is wracked with guilt, hallucinations and sickness because of his secret adultery. Chillingworth slowly deduces who his wife's lover was, and begins to scheme revenge on Dimmesdale. Will the former lovers manage to escape their guilt-ridden lives, or will they reveal the truth to everyone?
It sounds like "The Scarlet Letter" is JUST a story about guilt and sin, but it's also a story about love and steadfastness. Hester remains strong and kind throughout her life despite others' cruelty to her, and her love for Dimmesdale and Pearl is what gives her that strength. Chillingworth (symbolic name!) is a cuckold, but it's impossible to like him because of his lack of love -- he loves no one, and lives only for revenge. And at the same time, Hawthorne reminds us that goodness can overcome your past sins. Hester slowly overcomes the Puritans' loathing for her by simply being charitable, kind, helpful and loving, until eventually her sin is eclipsed by her virtues. On the flip side, Dimmesdale is annoying because of his weakness and cowardice -- I know he's supposed to be wracked with guilt, but he's so pathetic compared to Hester that it's just infuriating.
Hawthorne's writing may take a little while for modern audiences to get used to. It's very 19th-century in style, with staid, slightly stuffy prose gilded with hauntingly poetic moments and intense passion ("Never, never!" whispered she. "What we did had a consecration of its own"). At times Hawthorne's story gets a little... hammy (such as Dimmesdale revealing his "A" burn scar), but the power of his story keeps this from getting silly.
"The Scarlet Letter" is used to describe outward signs of guilt, but Hawthorne's novel is actually about strength and love, and how they can blot out misdeeds.