A View on Sin: The Scarlet Letter

JULY / AUG  2014: BY HANNAH PRICE

scarlet

Sin is a heavy-handed word, bearing the load of all sorts of wrongdoing and evil connotations. A sin can be seen as the smallest mistake in human eyes, or the most horrendous travesty ever done.

The word has a negative and impacting ring to it, because it’s a word of great significant proportions. It’s the reason for all the unhappiness, evil and tragedy in the world, the reason for God having to send His only Son into the world to die for us, why we need forgiveness, and the reason for man’s ultimate downfall, from the Garden of Eden to the end of the world as we know it. You see, sin isn’t  just a word Christians use in place of the world’s preferred uses of “mistake,” “mishap,” or “misstep.” These words do more than just dumb down the meaning of sin, they also make it seem that it is something we can correct on our own.

We can easily fix our mistakes, right? Step back into the right path on our own, correct? No, of course not. There is an unyielding weight to the word “sin,” for it carries every facet of our separation from God in the Garden and the price He paid to free us from its grasp. I hope you can see that sin is a mighty word as well. Evil has power in the world, and sin is the word for our use of it. When we lie, cheat, steal, swear, lust or covet, we aren’t simply making “missteps,” we let the power of evil to seep through us into our actions and lives, affecting everyone around us and our relationship with the Creator of all that is good, pure and holy.

The original The Scarlet Letter (1850) seems to view sin in a similar light. It revolves around the consequences of a single sinful act between two formerly pious people, Reverend Dimmesdale and Mrs. Hester Prynne. Their adultery brings about a child, a physical manifestation of their sin, and a very large embroidered red letter A, which Hester is forced to wear by the townspeople as a constant reminder of her sin. Dimmesdale doesn’t come forward until his dying day as the father of Hester’s child, but the sin weighs on him just as heavily, a hidden symbol of his secret guilt and shame. The book deals with the strict rules and unbending religious order of the Puritans and is full of symbolism. Their adultery isn’t treated lightly, and remains recognized throughout the book as a wrong act chock full of consequences, a sin to be forgiven, not merely a mistake.

The 1995 film adaptation has different views. Of course it differs, you might say, as the film is a Hollywood-ized and self-proclaimed “freely adapted” version of a religious story. It is a fact universally acknowledged that Hollywood is secular and makes movies that eschew reverence for the Christian faith. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that they took a hammer and bludgeoned the source material. Absolutely no respect is paid to Hawthorne’s symbolism and ideas, character motivations and religious observances. The Scarlet Letter is a religious book that deals with weighty issues, something that should not be skimmed over.

Let me take a short moment and say that as a cinematic work alone, I cannot dislike the film as much as others are prone to. Gary Oldman is one of my favorite actors; I love period pieces, forbidden romance, unusually haunting scores, and I must admit that despite my deepest reservations, I like happy endings, even if they’re not in the book. I enjoyed the movie despite myself, but can’t defend it against dissenters because I agree with them. It is a movie freely adapted indeed, straying as far as you can from the original source material while still calling it an adaption.

The biggest flaw is the way the filmmakers chose to portray Hester and Dimmesdale’s sin. They didn’t even call it an outright “mistake.” Instead, the film portrays the act and consequences of their sexual intimacy as at least semi-right, because it’s true love. When Hester and Dimmesdale learn of her husband’s apparent death, they decide to consummate their love because it is no longer “adultery.” Their conversation beforehand revolves around how long Hester must remain in mourning before she can marry again. After one minute of reflection and consideration, the pair give in to their desire for one another. Never once throughout the movie does the issue of sexual intimacy outside of marriage come up as a sin. The townsfolk see Hester’s actions as sinful because she is going outside convention and is supposed to be in mourning. They call it adultery because there is no outright proof of her husband’s death, and she is still bound to him after death for a pre-determined duration of time (of course, as Hester finds out later, her husband is still very much alive, but by then the damage is already done). Hester stands up for herself, defending her actions and those of her lover, whom she refuses to name (to Dimmesdale’s chagrin), standing trial, going to prison, having her child and then being branded with the embroidered scarlet letter in public, all while holding to her belief that society and convention are wrong, not her.

Feminism and legalism issues aside, the biggest problem is that Hester and Dimmesdale adhere to their belief that their passion isn’t wrong; society’s views are. It’s true that the rigid Puritan society deemed adultery very wrong and severely punished those in error for their transgressions, sustaining views and methods that were often harsh and unyielding and in need of tempering by mercy, forgiveness and second chances; but Puritan society’s inherent beliefs weren’t legalistic concoctions meant to oppress, they came from the Bible’s statements that sexual intimacy must be within the bounds of marriage. The book’s Hester and Dimmesdale knew that, and when they protested and argued they were arguing with their consciences and with God, not merely “society.” The movie’s characters are purely 20th century incarnations that channel modern views, challenging the morals of society and the rules of the system. ”Why do you wait? Put it on. It is not a badge of my shame but your own,” Hester says while on the scaffold having the scarlet letter pinned to her breast. Her love is true, so where could the sin possibly be? Or so Hester, Dimmesdale, and the secular Hollywood backing them contend. Love is love, regardless of race, gender or religion. Do what makes you happy, as long as you’re not hurting anyone. People make mistakes, but it makes us human. Sin, what sin? So many superficial modern morals put into the mouths of characters originally symbolic of Adam, Eve and the Fall.

“Do you not believe that you have sinned?” the judge asks of Hester. “I believe that I have sinned in your eyes, but who’s to know if God shares your views,” Hester replies. Later on, her child follows by saying, “Who’s to say what is a sin in God’s eyes?” in voiceover as her parents ride off into the sunset to start a new life away from society’s oppressive rules. But even though it feels good to root for true love to win out, it is a betrayal to how God really works to say that Hester and Dimmesdale deserved to win and were redeemed by their love. They sinned, simple as that, and needed God’s forgiveness, not their society’s. They could have been truly redeemed by admitting to fault before their Lord, putting their guilt and shame behind them, and choosing to move forward. It’s such a shame Hollywood had to get in the way of what could have been their happy ending. ♥

julyaug2014

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Hannah Price thrives on creativity and loves to be inspired by the creativity of others. Her passion is storytelling in all its forms of expression. Some of those loves are American Sign Language, theater, film, audio drama and the varied mediums of art (painting, drawing, etc.). She wants to be involved in film production someday, as she is already involved in theater production and would like to be able to turn her hobbies into a full time occupation. 

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