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Moral Ambiguity in the Scarlet Letter: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Moral ambiguity refers to a lack of clarity in making ethical decisions when people are faced with situations, issues, and questions that encompass moral dimensions and implications. Moral ambiguity emerges because the person making a decision takes unclear moral actions due to ethical systems, conflicting principles, or situational perspectives. Moral ambiguous characters are important in any setting for various reasons. Firstly, morally ambiguous characters allow the readers to choose whether it is ethical to make certain decisions, such as lying to protect other people. Secondly, Moral ambiguous characters allow the readers or viewers to measure their willingness to judge others without clear information about why such people made certain decisions. Lastly, ambiguous characters make the people tom view characters in a novel in a grey world rather than black and white, meaning that the reader of the novel allows the reader to understand the moral action of the ambiguous characters and weigh them according to their perspectives and worldview. In the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, various characters are depicted as purely good and as purely bad. This paper, therefore, will explain the charters in the letter and their actions, supposing their ambiguity.

Hawthorne’s first character expressed as ambiguous in The Scarlet Letter is Hester Prynne. In the book, it is hard to identify whether the actions of Prynne were sinful or if they were out of love. The Puritan town of Salem views Prynne as an adulterer after she gives birth to her daughter, Pearl (Hawthorne142, 143). The death of Prynne’s husband was confirmed about a year ago before she gave birth to Pearl. Therefore, the Puritans consider this birth a crime. In the beginning, Prynne expresses the ability and strength to overcome turmoil and the great trial in her life. However, the shame and guilt in her life overwhelm her. As a reminder of her crime, Prynne is pushed to wear the Scarlet Letter all the time. Moreover, the view of Prynne on the Scarlet Letter she is forced to wear varies from a shameful curse in the beginning to a familiar companion throughout the text latter (Hawthorne 157). Yet, she chooses not to leave despite the severe shame. Prynne decides to speculate on social organization and human nature to ponder whether it is worth accepting existence despite her challenges.

Prynne’s hypocrisy is also identified in the way she treats Dimmesdale. The fact that she does not reveal Dimmesdale as her co-adulterer might be viewed as an act of love. Prynne does this act to save Dimmesdale from the public shame she found herself in. However, protecting Dimmesdale from public shame is questionable as she vowed to be an honest woman. According to the author, Prynne holds the desire to sin with Dimmesdale again deep down in her heart even though she regrets having done so before. Her love for Dimmesdale remains intact in her heart, and if Dimmesdale did not die, perhaps, they would sin again.

Roger Chillingworth, the deceptive character in the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, might be another perfect example of an ambiguous character. Chillingworth’s moral ambiguity is evident in the novel because of his unknown history, deceptive behaviors, and clever character. Chillingworth misleads the readers about whether he lies on the bad or good side. Moreover, at the end of the Scarlet Letter, the reader remains nub about Chillingworth, thus challenging the readers on the side of moral ambiguity on which he is to be placed. Chillingworth enacts the role of a physician and conceals his relationship with Prynne in the book to try to fool the reader (Hawthorne 182). It is ambiguous that despite Chillingworth living with Arthur Dimmesdale as a helpful medicine, Chillingworth depletes the life of Dimmesdale from his bones.

Chillingworth’s deceptive actions are evident in the text on several occasions. For example, Chillingworth approaches Prynne innocently as if he has never met her again. Chillingworth even questions a man in the local town about Prynne to purposively disconcert anyone who would read the Scarlet Letter. The moral ambiguity withheld by Chillingworth allows him to achieve several things, such as the death of Arthur Dimmesdale.

Moral ambiguity is also evident when Hester Prone leaves prison. The rosebush in front of the prison is explained by Hawthorne in the novel. Hawthorne states that “or whether the rosebush in front of the prison has risen under the footsteps of Ann Hutchinson the sainted”(Hawthorne 172)). This statement is combined with mockery and ambiguity of the Puritans. For example, Hawthorne mocks the fact that Puritans increased the essence of the supernatural to occurrences every day. Therefore, the readers are required to decide whether Hutchison had anything to do with planting the bush in front of the prison.

Another occurrence of moral ambiguity is evident when Dimmesdale questions the Sociolinguists concerning the herbs he had collected. According to Hawthorne, the sociolinguists’ answer to Dimmesdale startles him. It is fascinating that the sociolinguists tell Dimmesdale that he had collected the herb from the man’s heart, who died of a sin that was unconfused in his heart (Hawthorne200, 201). This answer makes the Timescale mind worry because of the heavily lying sin in his heart.

The ambiguity of this conversation is created as Dimmesdale is desperately looking for a chance to speak out about his sin. Moreover, this conversation was aimed at Timescale to relieve himself from the guilt in his heart. Hawthorne states that Dimmesdale is willing to undergo any cost to ease his guilt and heart burden so long as he does not suffer the consequences of his sin. Dimmesdale’s mixed actions and emotions make the readers confused as they try to establish what is true and what may not.

In a nutshell, Nathaniel Hawthorne challenges the readers to deliberately question the actions of different characters based on what should be considered good or bad. Various characters such as Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Hester Prynne were trapped in situations that needed moral decisions in the puritan community. Their fiction tales perpetuate emotions of hatred and pity at the same time among the readers because of their morally ambiguous actions. The book also exposed the reality of religion and its influence on making a moral assessment. The predicament of these characters allowed the readers to fictionally use their moral concert to question their decisions and actions based on moral reality.

Work Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter Spotlight Edition. Prestwick House, 2004.


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