What is Altruism?
According to the Psychology Today article “What is Altruism?” ,altruism requires a person to act in avoidance of personal gain or loss. Thus, altruism revolves around self-sacrifice or selflessness. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, main character Hester Prynne develops altruistic tendencies from the acceptance of her sin. As punishment for committing adultery, the town forces Hester to forever wear a scarlet A on her chest as a representation of her sin. The novel begins with Hester standing on a scaffold before a crowd packed with devout Bostonian Puritans. At this moment, Hester is forced to confront her sin and accept it. For the rest of her life, the scarlet letter’s impact not only cripples her reputation, but refines her morality as it influences her to make altruistic decisions. Hester’s literal partner in crime, Minister Dimmesdale, struggles as he cowardly refuses to confess his sin to the town. He fails to reach peak morality, after he meets with Hester in the woods. Hawthorne employs irony since Hester the adulteress remains the most moral and the minister (famous for his purity and loyalty to God) remains the most iniquitous. Hawthorne uses irony to prove acceptance of sin actually strengthens a person’s morals.
Firstly, Hawthorne utilizes irony to prove acceptance of sin improves one’s morals, as Minister Dimmesdale suffers as a hypocrite and does not achieve peak morality until after he accepts his sin. Throughout the book, Hawthorne employs irony as the Minister Dimmesdale struggles with his sin. since Dimmesdale is the most pure and well known minister in Boston, yet he can’t confess his sin. Through his struggle, Dimmesdale physically punishes himself and does not achieve acceptance of until he meets Hester in the forest. This meeting signifies Dimmesdale’s acceptance of his sin, since afterwards he feels a strong inclination to confess his sins. When Dimmesdale meets one of his deacons, “...it was only by the most careful self control that [he] could refrain from uttering certain blasphemous suggestions…” (179). His desire to confess his sin, shows his improved morality since he is willing to accept the consequences for his actions. Also, Dimmesdale no longer cares about his reputation and only cares about telling the truth, thus, he acts altruistically. Later, Dimmesdale calls Pearl and Hester on the scaffold and “With a convulsive motion [he tears] away the ministerial band from before his breast and says ‘Thou, too, hast deeply sinned’ ” (209). Now Dimmesdale is finally willing to sacrifice his own reputation, in front of the whole town, for those he loves. Hawthorne uses this example to show that one must accept their own sin before their morals can be improved. This is ironic since Dimmesdale is the most pure and well known minister in Boston, yet he can’t confess his sin.
In contrast, Hawthorne uses irony to prove acceptance of sin remains vital for a person to improve their morals when Robert Chillingworth fails to ever even admit his sin and dies immoral. Robert Chillingworth, Hester husband from England, appears in Boston as Hester stands at the scaffold. He soon learns of her adultery and begins on a secret path of revenge against minister Dimmesdale.
Hawthorne ironically uses Hester Prynne’s adultery to prove people need to accept their sin to strengthen their morals since she adheres to altruism once she embraces her sin. Once the town publicly condemns Hester, she’s forced to immediately accepts and confesses her sin. Later, Hester and Pearl attend a party at the Governor's house and Hester arrives with the suspicion that the clergy deems her an unfit mother. Once she discovers they plan to take Pearl away from her, she realizes she must protect who she loves. When making her case, she tells them that the scarlet letter “ ‘... has taught [her]- it daily teaches [her]-...lessons whereof [her] child may be the wiser and better...” (92). Hester adds that, “ [She] can teach Pearl what [she has] learned from this…[while] laying her finger on the red token” (92). Once Hester accepts her sin, she also learns the meaning of true sacrifice since she wants to help and teach her daughter to learn from her own sin. With this, Hester disregards her own reputation and instead makes the welfare of her child her highest priority. These actions are based on her new altruistic outlook since Hester’s actions/means are truly selfless. Hawthorne displays irony since Hester’s altruistic actions demonstrate the utmost morality (in comparison to Dimmesdale and Chillingworth), despite her reputation as a devilish adulteress.
Additionally, Hester demonstrates her cleanse in virtue when Ms.Hibbins confronts her with an opportunity. After the party at the governor's house, the town “witch”, Ms. Hibbins, asks Hester to join her in the woods. However, instead of following her, Hester politely refuses and replies that she must walk home and look after Pearl. Hawthorne then notes that, “...the child saved her from the Satan’s snare” (97). Hester’s decision to not go with Ms. Hibbins reflects her increased morality since she instinctively thinks of Pearl instead and suppresses her temptations to “[go] with thee into the woods…” (97). In other words, Hester’s choice represents altruism since acted in Pearl’s behalf and did not take her own wishes into consideration. This remains ironic since typically the sinner eternally bears the mark of immorality, however, Hester learns from her actions and alters her morals.
In this way, Hawthorne proves that acceptance of sin is key for a person to reach their peak in morality, since Hester reaches hers after her acceptance of sin.
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