Posts Tagged ‘Sin’
Paul said, “…be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you…” I’ve thought often about this statement and wondered why Paul suggested it. Perhaps it’s because he knew we all need to be encouraged from time to time.
Do you ever get discouraged? I do. I’m older than some of you and younger than others but I’ve had enough experience in life to discover there’s not always someone there to cheer you up or help you on your way when things get tough.
Or is there? I’ll address that in a little bit.
Sources of Help
I learned very early in life that my parents didn’t have all the answers when it came to dealing with difficulties. I saw them struggle sometimes just like I did. I watched them make mistakes, lose their patience or give bad advice to others.
It was a little disconcerting at first, especially since I loved them so much and wanted them to be perfect. I’m grateful that over time, the Lord helped me to see my parents as good people trying to do their best but occasionally, no, often, failing. This realization only increased my love for them.
There comes a time in most of our lives, especially when we are young, when we turn to friends for guidance and direction. Maybe we don’t specifically ask them in words like “Hey, can you help me figure this out?” but we nonetheless look to them for help in dealing with things that concern us.
Unfortunately, friends can disappoint. Even though they may be well-meaning, they can sometimes be less than encouraging, mainly because they have no clue themselves what to do in our situation. It’s good to have friends, especially those who are patient and kind, but friends with good answers are rare.
We’re all Sinners
So what do you do when you get discouraged? You’re a good person, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. But you make mistakes. We all do. I do. The scripture usually cited to back this up is 1 John 1:8 – “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
Don’t be upset if this is the first time you’ve been called a sinner. We’re all sinners. If I were to pause right now and ask everyone here to think about some sin or weakness that is bothering you, everyone here would be able to bring something to mind, even if it’s the mistaken thought that you have no sins.
In fact, I think I will. I’m going to pause for just a few seconds. I promise you the Holy Ghost will help you think of something that bothers you, something you can improve or something that you know is displeasing to the Lord.
OK, that’s long enough. The thought or image that came to your mind was probably not very pleasant, was it? The memory of my weakness causes me to feel like a failure. It’s something I’ve struggled with all my life. I’m not going to tell you what it is and I don’t want to know what your weakness is.
Hope and Gratitude
Now I want to talk about hope. For me, hope is tied closely to gratitude. I’m grateful I’ve been taught all my life that we can overcome our weaknesses. It gives me hope to remember the reason I’m here on earth is to learn from my mistakes. That means I will make mistakes when I try to accomplish good things in life.
Just remembering that thought is very comforting to me. One of the biggest results of discouragement is that we stop trying to do new things or stop trying to do better in ways we know we should. For example, I know I should study the gospel more and read the scriptures every day. I don’t do as well as I should.
Every time I come to church and hear someone share something they discovered in their gospel study, I am encouraged and filled with hope. I then feel I can and will do better myself in my efforts to study the gospel during the week. I am especially encouraged by good teachers who are prepared to lead our classes.
God Gives Us Weaknesses
I just finished reading the Book of Mormon again. As I came to the twelfth chapter of Ether, I once again read these words with joy, “… if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble … if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”
I have decided I will confess my weakness unto you after all. In James 5:16, we read, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” I ask for your prayers in my behalf. Even though I’ve already been talking about it, to be very specific, my fault, my weakness is discouragement.
Now you may say, “Discouragement is no sin. We all experience it.” Yes, I know, but it can be debilitating, especially when it’s used by the adversary. When I get discouraged, I have a hard time remembering all the good things the Lord has done for me. I forget promises I have made about doing better each day.
I have made every effort to come unto the Lord as he has asked us to do in the scriptures. The Lord has not only shown me my weaknesses, he has also shown me how the adversary uses them as stumbling blocks to keep me from reaching my full potential in this life. Discouragement causes me to feel overwhelmed.
When I get overwhelmed, I tend to shut down. I refuse to take on new tasks or try new things. Do you ever get that way? When I get overwhelmed, I have a hard time deciding what among all the good things before me I should do with the limited amount of time I have been given. So I do nothing. That’s not good. Or worse, I waste my time with things that are not worthy of me.
Turn Weaknesses Into Strengths
I want that promise in Ether to be fulfilled. I want my weak things to be made strong. I also remember that the Lord gave me my weaknesses. Since my weakness is discouragement, can I accept that the Lord gave me that weakness? I can, especially because I know he wants to help me turn that into a strength.
Gratefully, this scripture teaches the secret to have our weak things turned into strengths. It is to humble ourselves before the Lord and to have faith in Him. In other words, we need to believe His promises and act upon them. He promises to help us become strong. I believe Him. That gives me hope.
I don’t know exactly how he does it. At this point in my progression, it’s still a miracle to me, something I don’t fully understand. I accept it on faith. I know that the Lord loves me and I know that he wants to help me. He has proven that to me many times in the past. I’m encouraged by the hope this scripture brings.
Working a Plan
So I pray unto the Lord, and even though I know He already knows, I tell Him I’m discouraged. I tell Him I’m overwhelmed. I tell Him I don’t know which of all the demands on my time I should address first. I tell him I’m tempted to do nothing for fear of masking a mistake or wasting my time.
Because He loves me, He doesn’t always tell me what to do. In fact, He is rarely specific. But He does remind me I have agency, encourages me to make a decision on a course of action and then present it to Him for confirmation. So I make a list, order the tasks in the way I think they should be done and then return to him in prayer with my list and a few ideas on how to accomplish them.
Invariably, the Lord says, “OK, sounds good. Go ahead. Looks like you’ve thought it out. Let’s see where that takes you.” Never have I heard, “No, that’s not a good idea. That would be a waste of your time.” The Lord always honors my agency and encourages me to try things to see what results I get. Occasionally, He even shows me the results in my mind’s eye in advance so I can plan better.
Doing the Work
Sometimes I discover after starting on my task that it did not produce the results for which I was hoping. That’s OK. At least I tried it. I then go on to the next item on my list and the next until I can return to the Lord and report I have tried everything I could think of to fix the problem. I know that pleases Him.
In the process I discover I have accomplished a lot of good things I might not have done had I not been trying to solve this problem, to fix this weakness, to overcome this sin or this temptation. People compliment me on how organized and efficient I am or that I get a lot done. Trust me, it’s only because I’m trying to do everything in my power to eliminate stress from my life.
In the end I know I can’t fix myself anyway, only the Lord can do that. I keep asking and keep pleading to be healed, but know that it will be on his timetable after I have learned whatever it is I am supposed to learn from the process of overcoming. Perhaps what I am learning most is patience with myself.
Thorn in the Side
I feel like Paul when he said that he had asked the Lord three times to remove a thorn in his side. We may never know in this life what he was talking about. Many scholars have assumed it was some sort of physical weakness or frailty. I don’t view it that way. Paul called it a messenger of Satan. I think it was temptation of some sort. He said it kept him from being overly exalted.
He also said he received an abundance of revelations. I’m not going to make a claim like Paul’s, but I will say I have felt the Lord give me answers to prayers and guide me in my thoughts as I turn to him for help in solving my problems. I have no doubt the Lord knows me and is willing to help me through this life. I am grateful for the gift of the Holy Ghost that seems to grow stronger each day.
As a people, I think we tend to be overly hard on ourselves. We’re prone to expect perfection sooner than we are ready for it. The word perfect has interesting connotations. In one sense, it means complete. We remind ourselves that in this life we cannot be perfect, but in the same breath, we say we must be perfect because we are commanded to be so. I think the Lord was simply telling us to finish the race, to endure to the end and to pass though all we are supposed to before we die.
Finish the Race
In other words, don’t quit, don’t give up before our days are through. I think most of know someone who has fought cancer or some other illness that, in the end, took the life of our friend or family member. I am constantly amazed by the faith of those passing through such illnesses. They believe they are going to get better. Their courage is a source of inspiration to all those around them.
But then they die. All of us must die. We don’t like to think about it. Sometimes we act like mortality will go on forever, especially when we’re young. “I have time to finish that self-improvement project,” we say to ourselves. When I graduate from college, once I get married, when the kids are grown, when I retire. The list goes on and on. But today is the day to do the work we are here to do.
Alma 34:34 – “Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.”
In other words, our eternity is what we make of it here. How can we become something we are not? The purpose of this life is to prepare for eternity, to be the person we want to be in the life to come. If we are happy when we depart this life, we will be happy when we enter the spirit world and when we’re resurrected.
I’m not teaching anything new here. This is all standard doctrine found in the scriptures. What I am trying to do is to help us step back and take another look at the big picture just for a moment. In the context of encouraging us to do those things that we know are hard to do, remember that this life is short and the whole purpose is to do those hard things, not to relax, take it easy or be entertained.
At the beginning of this talk I said that there’s not always someone there to cheer you up with you get discouraged. But then I questioned that statement. I’d like to clarify. If there’s one thing of which I am a witness, meaning I know from personal, first-hand experience, it’s that we are not alone. We are never alone. We have been given the promise of the Holy Ghost as our constant companion.
I read a lot about this idea, even from General Authorities, who teach that there are times when we will be left alone to work things out on our own. While I agree with them in principle, I still feel that we have the right to ask the Lord to send his spirit to help us through our trials and difficulties. When we are in agony, we can do as the Savior did and pray even more earnestly.
We are taught that in the end, the Savior was left on his own while on the cross to be able to claim the full power of the atonement as His. I can understand and do support that teaching. Like I’m sure you have, I have passed through some terrible moments when I fell entirely alone. I knew I was being tested to see how I would respond. I have prayed with great earnestness that perhaps my cup, my trial could be taken from me. I also prayed that the will of the Father be done.
Help from Angels
Even when I have felt that nobody could take the pain or sorrow from me, I have always felt that the Lord has constantly been there and very much aware of what and how I’m doing. When I have felt anger at having to suffer, or despair at the loss I knew I was about to experience, still, I knew the Lord or His Angels were watching me. Even when I did not have the comfort of the Holy Ghost, I felt the presence of someone watching over me. Always. All my life. Every day.
I don’t think I’m special or any different from any of you. I am tempted and tried. I make mistakes. I fail. I commit sins. I often do less than my best. But as far as I know, I have not had to pass through the feeling of being left totally alone that the Savior suffered in those last few moments on the cross. I am so grateful for the gift of the Holy Ghost, the Light of Christ and the presence of angels to watch over me and bear me up. Because of this, I know my Father in Heaven loves me.
He wants me to do better. He wants me to succeed. He wants me to be happy. He wants me to overcome and master the flesh. He understands that I am weak but continues to encourage me to be strong, get up and try again. If there’s anything I can say to help anyone here today who is discouraged, it would be just that. Get up, try again. God knows your struggle. He is cheering you on. I am too.
Be forewarned: This essay contains references to masturbation and other sexual acts. Once again by assignment, I examine the social impact of a controversial book first published over forty years ago, at the height of the sexual revolution. I’ve noticed a trend among most of the short stories and books that we have considered this year in our American Literature classes: many of them contain material that would be considered to be shocking or offensive to more conservative readers. Portnoy’s Complaint is no exception. In fact, if Ginsberg hadn’t broken the indecency barrier with his poem Howl a decade earlier, I am certain that Philip Roth would have been charged with breaking some sort of obscenity law. As it was, attempts were made to prohibit the distribution of the book in some countries and many U.S. libraries banned the book as too vulgar. Of course that was in 1969. Today it is considered an American classic.
I would like to address in this essay just what it is that makes Portnoy’s Complaint such an American classic, to discuss its universal appeal beyond the context of the Jewish culture in which the story takes place and to delve into the very important theme of religious influence on sexual thought, development and behavior. I can’t think of any two subjects that are more a part of our American literature tradition than religion and sex. Put them together in the same paper or book and you introduce conflict. Make them one in your treatise and you have broken a taboo. Roth’s book was a bestseller because he did just that. If you aren’t familiar with the novel, it was Portnoy’s Complaint that he could not enjoy sex because of the guilt that he felt from his religious culture. It is my thesis that the majority of American literature addressing this theme is faulty because of an incorrect understanding of the place of sex in religion. In fact, it is my contention that Portnoy’s Complaint is deeply flawed because of the focus on guilt as a direct result of religious culture and upbringing. But then, that’s what makes it so very American.
Alexander Portnoy understood the principle of guilt. He was an expert at guilt. In fact, he was a slave to it. He lived with it day in and day out. And where did he get it? He tells us that it came from his parents. After providing numerous examples he exclaims, “Doctor, these people are incredible! These people are unbelievable! These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time! They render it from me like fat from a chicken!” (p39) Did they do it on purpose? Are they to blame? Perhaps this later observation from Alex makes it clearer. “Doctor, what do you call this sickness I have? Is this the Jewish suffering I used to hear so much about? Is this what has come down to me from the pogroms and the persecution? from the mockery and abuse bestowed by the goyim over these two thousand lovely years?” (p40) In other words, he did not necessarily blame his parents for the guilt he felt; he blamed his religion. He equated Jewish suffering, and in particular, his own guilt, upon his cultural religious history.
At the age of fourteen, coincidentally about the age that most boys are in the midst of puberty, Alex decided that he would no longer participate in the traditional religious practices of his parents. He told them that he would no longer go to the synagogue with them. Since Alex has been masturbating, he has been experiencing guilt. It is clear that he attributes this guilt to his religious culture. In Jewish tradition, masturbation is prohibited, as are impure thoughts and sexual relations before marriage. In the midst of a long-winded diatribe directed at his father but more generally directed at his people, he says, “… instead of crying over he-who refuses at the age of fourteen ever to set foot inside a synagogue again, instead of wailing for he-who has turned his back on the saga of his people, weep for your own pathetic selves … It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass– I happen also to be a human being!” (p84) But he could not get away from the guilt he continued to experience because of his ongoing sexual activities.
Portnoy’s Complaint is not just a novel about masturbation or the sexual activities of a young Jewish man. It is really a very Catholic book, which means that the subject matter has universal and widespread appeal. Every young man goes through puberty, and if we are to believe the statistics, the majority of them (90% by some accounts) will have masturbated at least once by the time they are 18, with 60% masturbating regularly during their adolescent years. In America, the land of porn, we have the unique distinction of also being a very religious country. According to recent statistics, 83% of Americans claim to belong to a religious organization even though less than 40% formally participate by attending church regularly. Do you see my point? If the majority of young men masturbate and the majority of people in America have some sort of religious tradition in their lives, then this really is an American conflict that Roth has brought to our attention in such an entertaining manner. It is a characteristically American problem.
Portnoy’s answer to his complaint of guilt was to disassociate himself with his religious practices, a common solution for many young men in America who experience their own crisis of faith. In his case, he continued to have a very difficult time with guilt because being Jewish is more than just a religion. It is also his cultural heritage. He simply could not get away from the terrible feelings of shame and remorse he experienced even though he had renounced his faith. As he so eloquently exclaimed, “Doctor, I can’t stand any more being frightened like this over nothing! Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong! Make me whole! Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” (p 40) Even many years after his vow of non-participation, he still felt like he had to be a nice Jewish boy to please his parents. Even though he had graduated first in his law school class and was a very successful government lawyer, he could not free himself from the control of his parent’s beliefs, especially his mother’s ability to manipulate his feelings after so many years.
That was the wrong answer. Instead of rejecting his faith, maybe he should have listened to his father and embraced it, or at least the good parts of it. Alex went to Israel in a spontaneous attempt to find himself, his roots and some peace to his predicament. Unfortunately, he did not approach his quest with the right attitude. To him, it was purely an intellectual exercise. “I set off traveling about the country as though the trip had been undertaken deliberately, with forethought, desire, and for praiseworthy, if conventional, reasons. Yes, I would have (now that I was unaccountably here) what is called an educational experience. I would improve myself, which is my way, after all. Or was, wasn’t it? Isn’t that why I still read with a pencil in my hand? To learn? To become better? (than whom?) So, I studied maps in my bed, bought historical and archeological texts and read them with my meals, hired guides, rented cars—doggedly in that sweltering heat, I searched out and saw everything I could.” (pp284-285) In the middle of his travels, he hits up on the local Israeli girls but finds that he has suddenly become impotent.
Alex concludes that he has been cursed by God, or at least by some sort of all-powerful judge because of the way he treated the women in his life. He resolves nothing and returns to America to a long session with his psychoanalyst, which results in the book we have read. Of course this is a fictional account but it so aptly describes the typical intellectual approach of some to finding answers to the really big questions in life – like how to be free of guilt. I have read the writings of a good rabbi who advocates the need to feel remorse and make amends. If Alex had looked deeper into his faith, I am convinced that he could have found an intelligent way to eliminate guilt that is both rational and practical. Guilt is a universal part of the human condition. It is something that we all feel when we have done something that goes against our own moral beliefs. In Alex’s case, he knew that it was wrong to masturbate, or at least to take it to the level that he did. He also knew that he had hurt each of the women he introduced us to in the book. If he had studied his own religion even just a little bit (how did he ever get through his own Bar Mitzvah?), he just might have learned the true meaning of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, one of the holiest days of the year for his people.
To me, guilt is an indication that you still care about something that you once valued. If Alex didn’t care about these girls and their feelings, why did he keep bringing them up? If he didn’t really believe deep down in his heart that masturbation was wrong, then why did he feel so guilty after all these years? Alex was a good man, an intelligent man, but a confused man. He was confused by the idea that sex was something only meant for personal pleasure. If he would have considered that maybe, just maybe, what his faith taught about sex was worth considering, then maybe he could also have accepted the idea that he could be forgiven for whatever he has done that has caused him so much guilt. In Judaism, sex is reserved for marriage. It is intended to draw the married couple close to one another and to bind them as partners in their family. It is not just Judaism that believes this, so again this is a very catholic book with universal appeal. Alex did not want to get married, because to him, marriage was all about lust.
“Look, at least I don’t find myself still in my early thirties locked into a marriage with some nice person whose body has ceased to be of any genuine interest to me. How much longer do I go on conducting these experiments with women?” (p114) That’s pretty shallow. People do get old. Bodies change. Yet they stay married. Why? Because they are comfortable and happy together. It’s not all about sex. Marriage is more about a relationship, helping each other find happiness, learning and growing together. It’s not an experiment. It’s a commitment to one another. “I have affairs that last as long as a year, a year and a half, months and months of love, both tender and voluptuous, but in the end-it is as inevitable as death-time marches on and lust peters out. In the end, I just cannot take that step into marriage. But why should I? Why? Is there a law saying Alex Portnoy has to be somebody’s husband and father? I simply cannot, I simply will not, enter into a contract to sleep with just one woman for the rest of my days.” (p116)
No, Alex, there’s no law, but you are missing out on wonderful things that come from marriage and in no other way: a sense of security and belonging that lasts. People get married because they love each other. They get married for love. And because you love another person you agree to be faithful to them and to do all you can to help them want to be faithful to you. But he continues, “For love? What love? Is that what binds all these couples we know together– the ones who even bother to let themselves be bound? Isn’t it something more like weakness? Isn’t it rather convenience and apathy and guilt? Isn’t it rather fear and exhaustion and inertia, gutlessness plain and simple, far, far more than that ‘love’ that the marriage counselors and the songwriters and the psychotherapists are forever dreaming about?” (p117)
No Alex, love isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength, but then you’ve admitted that you know nothing about love. You don’t understand that love involves sacrifice and giving and caring. Actually, Alex, love is not convenient at all, it is often very inconvenient. Love is the opposite of fear, it is faith. One doesn’t enter into a marriage relationship at the end of a long series of exhausting sexual escapades, but at the beginning, when sex is a novelty to be discovered together by two people who are committed to each other and want to please each other for a lifetime. I think we can safely conclude that Alex is against marriage. He does not want to be married. He does not want to be faithful to one woman. He seems to think that a marriage will only work as long as there is a strong lust element. Yet, he also complains over and over that he is not satisfied with his lustful, perverted life.
He won’t marry because he doesn’t believe he can or will be faithful. He justifies dumping these girls because he says he knows that he will just tire of them and that he doesn’t want to cause them grief or pain down the road. He tells us that he knows he will have a mistress a few years into the marriage, and asks why “… my devoted wife, who has made me such a lovely home, et cetera, bravely suffers her loneliness and rejection? How could I face her terrible tears? I couldn’t. How could I face my adoring children? And then the divorce, right? The child support. The alimony. The visitation rights. Wonderful prospect, just wonderful.” (p117) He’s already decided that marriage will never work for him. He does not want to get married and probably never will. He does not see that it brings him anything that he is not already getting, because apparently all he wants is sex. Oh Alex, that is such a small part of marriage. You have no clue, you have no idea what joy can be found in a marriage relationship that does not involve the bedroom. You idiot! You’re so smart, but you’re such a schmuck! Grow up!
Get rid of that guilt by forgiving your parents, forgiving yourself and getting on with your life. Decide that you’re going to change your approach to sex and marriage into something much more wholesome. Get a clue from your religion. Talk to your rabbis again. Maybe you should study your theology and discover what it really teaches about how to overcome guilt. You’re not the first person to ever experience this you know. And Alex, thanks for the entertaining novel and for contributing greatly to this very American literary tradition of religion and sex in such a unique way. But couldn’t you have done it without so much obscenity and vulgarity?
Roth, Phillip, Portnoy’s Complaint, New York: Bantam Books,1969
As created by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, the character of Hester Prynne is a powerful woman. She interacts impressively with those around her in the epoch that the story takes place – Puritan America of the 1640’s. If she had lived in the days of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) it is certain that she would also be looked upon as an influential woman of that time. In fact, if she had lived in our day, there is no doubt that she would be a leader among women in our society.
The source of Hester’s power is her moral integrity. Now, that may be a fantastic claim for the main character of a novel that addresses adultery. But I am confident that you will at least understand the thesis, if not agree with it, once the evidence is presented and considered.
We will first review the social structure that prevailed in Puritan America, including the roles of men and women. We will observe how Hester related to the male hierarchy and especially how she dealt with the austere consequences of her choice that were thrust upon her. The strength of Hester’s moral character will become apparent as she remains true to promises made to other key characters in the story. Her power will clearly be made manifest in a few final scenes in which it is obvious that she is the real pillar of the most important relationships in her life.
Hester Prynne rises above the events that mold her life, and demonstrates how embracing her identity and especially her sexuality allow her to be a powerful influence for good among all those who know her. Through Hester, Hawthorne helps us see the personal power of a woman, in this case a woman of deep passion who is forced by a cold society to subdue and master that passion, which is so evident in her youth, beauty and spirit.
Hester Makes Her Appearance
We are introduced to Hester as she comes out of the jail where she had been incarcerated ostensibly for adultery and presumably where she gave birth to her daughter, Pearl a few months previously. She had come to this land ahead of a husband, who was apparently lost at sea. We are not certain if she is a member of the Puritan faith, but it is certain that she now lives among their society. Looking for direction in her time of recent loss, she seeks guidance and comfort from the local minister. Comfort turns to passion and the result is now borne in her arms.
She emerges to “a people amongst whom religion and law are almost identical” (Hawthorne, 45). The crime of adultery could have been punished by death or by public flogging, but in this case, Hester is required to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her bosom as a sign to all of her crime. Being good with the needle, she has made it into a beautiful emblem, and embroidered it with a gold thread.
Some of the people are surprised, but show no sympathy. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead,” (Hawthorne 47), proclaims one of the women in the market-place where Hester is brought forth for public ridicule. “This woman has brought shame upon us all and ought to die. Is there not a law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book” (Hawthorne 47).
The magistrates of the community are no more compassionate than the gaggle of gossiping women as they interrogate her publically and once again ask her to reveal the father of the child. They even have the Reverend Dimmesdale implore her with passionate speech to name her lover. Looking directly into his eyes, she refuses and expresses the desire that she “might endure his agony, as well as mine” (Hawthorne 63). This is a clear indication of the moral strength of this woman. She knows what it will do to the minister if she names him. But she is willing to sacrifice herself that he might continue on in his office. That is impressive! But he cannot hide from the torment of his own guilt and shame.
The Long-Lost Husband Appears
A major character in the story makes his appearance in the market place and witnesses what is taking place without revealing who he really is – Hester’s long lost husband who had been delayed by both shipwreck and falling among savages. Hester had recognized him but they did not speak until later when he comes to visit her and the child in the jail. He is a scholar and a chemist and treats the distraught pair that they may be at peace. A conversation ensues in which we come to know that theirs was a loveless marriage. He also asks her to name her lover but she continues to refuse.
He then swears her to secrecy regarding his identity. “I will keep thy secret, as I have his,” (Hawthorne 71) said Hester. And she took the oath. Once again, we see that Hester is a woman of moral integrity as she never reveals who he is until much later in the story and only then after getting his permission. She wonders what his purpose is at the time but it becomes obvious later that he is out for revenge. He promises that he will discover her lover and destroy him, which he proceeds to do by becoming close to him over time.
Hester Learns From Her Punishment
Hester accepts her punishment, wears the scarlet “A,” becomes an outcast from society and yet finds a way to provide for herself and Pearl by her skills with the needle as a seamstress. At one point, hearing talk that the magistrates are considering her fitness as a mother, she goes to the governor to deliver a pair of gloves and to discuss with him the welfare of the child. She is told that she may not see his worship now. “Nevertheless, I will enter,” (Hawthorne 96) she answered as she pushes past the servant and makes her way into the house to find the governor. By this one simple action we sense the dignity and power of this woman. She cannot be deterred when she has a mission to perform.
She has heard aright, they have been considering the child’s welfare and ask her mother what she can do for her. “I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this,” (Hawthorne 102) and lays her finger on the scarlet letter. She has obviously already become a wiser woman as she emphasizes the lessons are for Pearl’s good. They address Pearl directly and ask her who made her, hoping to determine if she has learned from her mother some basic Christian doctrine. Pearl replies that she has been plucked by her mother off the wild rose bushes that grew by the prison door.
Hester Defends Herself With Passion
It doesn’t look good for Hester but she passionately defends herself by proclaiming, “God gave me the child! He gave her in requital of all things else which ye had taken from me. She is my happiness—she is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me, too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a millionfold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall not take her! I will die first!” (Hawthorne 104) Wow! What passion!
She then turns to Reverend Dimmesdale and says, “Speak thou for me! Thou wast my pastor, and hadst charge of my soul, and knowest me better than these men can. I will not lose the child! Speak for me! Thou knowest—for thou hast sympathies which these men lack—thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother’s rights, and how much the stronger they are when that mother has but her child and the scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will not lose the child! Look to it!” (Hawthorne 105)
She knows what she is doing. Here is the father and she knows that he must defend her rights as the mother or risk exposure himself. Once again, the moral courage of Hester shines forth as she courageously defends herself by virtue of her position as a woman and mother, in spite of the control of the male-dominated system. Her influence upon Dimmesdale is obviously very powerful as he is able to convince the governor that Pearl should remain with Hester, for both their sakes. The mission for which Pearl was born has not yet been fulfilled.
Hester gets Permission to Break Her Oath
Space does not permit numerous other examples that demonstrate the power of this woman so we will consider the two most obvious. Let us skip forward to the forest scene where the Reverend Dimmsdale is returning from a visit to a friend. It is Hester’s intention to reveal to her lover the true identity of the man who is seeking to destroy him. As was noted earlier, she obtained permission to break her oath after confronting her husband and demanding that he release her from her bond.
She can no longer stand what her husband has been doing to her lover with his slow torture, both emotional and probably chemical. She convinces the old man with her eloquent and passionate speech that the Reverend needs to know the truth. Relenting to her persuasion, he says “It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may! Now, go thy ways, and deal as thou wilt with yonder man” (Hawthorne 163).
The Famous Forest Encounter
She waits for the Reverend on the forest path. She calls his name and they begin their first private conversation in seven years since the night of their passion. His pain is almost palpable to Hester. He is so miserable because of the lie he has been living for so long. She reveals the true identity of the doctor; that he was once her husband and that he has been taking his revenge out on the Reverend for all these years. She begs his forgiveness. He refuses.
“Oh, Hester Prynne, thou little, little knowest all the horror of this thing! And the shame!—the indelicacy!—the horrible ugliness of this exposure of a sick and guilty heart to the very eye that would gloat over it! Woman, woman, thou art accountable for this!—I cannot forgive thee!” (Hawthorne 183) And then, with the power that only a woman has, and in what is arguably the best scene in the book,
…with sudden and desperate tenderness she threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom, little caring though his cheek rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should look her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her—for seven long years had it frowned upon this lonely woman—and still she bore it all, nor ever once turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven, likewise, had frowned upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of this pale, weak, sinful, and sorrow-stricken man was what Hester could not bear, and live! (Hawthorne 183)
The Power of a Passionate Woman
He cannot resist the power of this passionate embrace and so forgives her and asks God to forgive them both. Now for only a brief moment in the forest, we are privileged to witness once again the awesome power of this woman as they make plans to leave and go away together to England. “If this be the path to a better life, as Hester would persuade me, I surely give up no fairer prospect by pursuing it! Neither can I any longer live without her companionship; so powerful is she to sustain—so tender to soothe!” (Hawthorne 190) Hester then
undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves. The mystic token alighted on the hither verge of the stream … The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom! By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair, and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her features. There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale. Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable past, and clustered themselves with her maiden hope, and a happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour (Hawthorne 191).
This scene is so powerful because it illustrates the influence of one woman upon a man whom she loves. Such was “the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly-born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!” (Hawthorne 192) Trite as it may seem, and overused as the phrase may be, Hester’s personal power was the power of love – a love that heals and that binds two souls together. And Hester was blessed with an overabundance of this powerful gift.
We must conclude this essay demonstrating the power of this woman by considering the last scene. After delivering an emotional election-day speech, the minister comes forth from the church and goes to where Hester and Pearl have been waiting for him at the scaffold, the same place where she was publically ridiculed for her crime seven years earlier. He has resolved that he is too sick to live much longer and decides that running away is not the best thing to do. He extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter.
“Hester Prynne … in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what—for my own heavy sin and miserable agony—I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me! Thy strength, Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath granted me! … Come, Hester—come! Support me up yonder scaffold” (Hawthorne 237).
Drawing obvious strength from Hester as she supports him with her arm about him, he makes public confession of his part in the crime of passion that brought forth little Pearl. Speaking in the third person, “He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! (Hawthorne 240) Baring his breast, he shows the multitude the he too bears the mark of his sin, even though it is not described in detail.
“Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head against her bosom.” (Hawthorne 240). He acknowledges Pearl as his child and she kisses him. She has been waiting for this day for so long. At last, her earthly father has acknowledged her as his. “A spell was broken … Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was fulfilled” (Hawthorne 240). The minister dies after his confession, now believing that his soul is saved and attributing it to the torture of Hester’s husband and the ignominy of his confession before the people of his crime and in hiding his sin all those years.
Although it seems such a sad and unfulfilling ending, think about what has just happened, all because Hester Prynne endured her punishment with courage and strength of character. She did not give up. She loved Pearl and raised her as best she could. She turned a deplorable and unfair situation into a triumph because of her determination to see that things were set right in the end. She suffered public humiliation and ignominy for seven years while it appeared that the man who was her partner in crime got away, adored by others.
And yet, because of her love for this man, she was able to cause him to confess his crime, acknowledge his child and perhaps, even help to redeem his soul. “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!” (Hawthorne 241) Nathaniel Hawthorne left us with the dying words of the Reverend expressing doubt that he and Hester could ever be together in the hereafter. “I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion” (Hawthorne 241).
But love knows no bounds, including time and space. Who is to say, if these were real characters, that they couldn’t be together in the world to come, bound by the power of the love demonstrated by Hester Prynne? Hester lived on, quietly, and became something of a legend in the community of Boston. The scarlet letter made her what she became, and, in the end, she grew stronger and more at peace because of her suffering. She continued to wear the scarlet letter to the end of her days, but she wore it as a symbol of her power. This is a power that no man could ever wield. Such a power belonged only to a woman with the courage and strength of moral character like that of Hester Prynne.
Source: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850.
New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003.