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The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Empathy

1

“[S]he felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts.”

Hester’s solitary existence in the world, burdened as it is by the badge on her breast, actually gives her a new sense, allowing her to detect in others the secret sins they try to conceal. Even as Puritan society rejects her, she is privy to all the crime and shame that go unspoken. The scarlet letter, then, gives Hester a deep intimacy with a community from which she has supposedly been expelled, and an ability to feel empathy for other individuals.

2

“People brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble.”

For the duration of Hester’s life, people seek her out for advice and help. This is partially because they think her own experiences might give her some insight, but also because they can tell that she is not judgmental and will have empathy for the mistakes and flaws of others. Although Hester has suffered a lot, this empathetic bond with others seems to be one good thing that comes from her experiences.

3

“This child of its father’s guilt and its mother’s shame hath come from the hand of God.”

Dimmesdale defends Pearl to Governor Bellingham and other important figures.  Although he has personal reasons for justifying that Pearl is a good child, he also shows more general empathy by pointing out that it is not Pearl’s fault what circumstances led to her birth. Any individual, no matter where they come from, has the potential to live a good life and be a good person. Pearl’s happy fate at the end of the novel confirms that Hawthorne shared this perspective.