A critic, Edward Wagenknecht explains that the scarlet letter upon Hester’s breast in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter “had not done its office.” This means that the actions of the magistrates punishing Hester for her sin is like usurping God’s power, and the scarlet letter keeps Hester from living a miserable, guilty life such as the one led by Dimmesdale. Hester openly shows her scarlet letter and the sin she commits and as a result, this saves her from much grief and misery. Dimmesdale on the other hand, carries his sin which makes him sick and weak.This is the idea surrounding Wagenknecht.
From Hawthorne’s point of view, he feels that a sin should not be delt with like a crime.
When he states that “The scarlet letter had not done its office”(160), Hawthorne shows that the
magistrates did not effectively punish Hester. Furthermore, Hawthorne shows that the magistrates are arrogating God’s power. Thus, he feels that only God can effectively punish sin and that anything otherwise is sacrilegious. The scarlet letter upon Hester does not chastise her but only prevents Hester from grievance and unhappiness. Moreover, Dimmesdale does not show any sign of sin to the public and this causes him to suffer with guilt.“Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret!” (183), examplifies Dimmesdale’s misery and pain.
Furthermore, Hawthorne shows how Hester becomes stronger as a result of the scarlet letter . This strength is shown in the forest when the role of pastor and parishioner switches. When Hester says, “Thou God punish! Thou shalt forgive” (178), she asks the forgiveness of God rather then man. This displays punishment done by God is more austere then man.
Another example of man punishing sin is Roger Chillingworth. He tries to handle God’s job of punishing the sinners into his own hands. Revenge for Dimmesdale turns into the reason why he lives:
“I shall seek this man, as I have sought truth in books; as I have
sought goldin alchemy. There is a sympathy that will make me
conscience of him. I shall see him tremble. I shall myself feel
shudder, suddenly and unawares. Sooner or later, he must needs
In the end, Chillingworth dies and Hawthorne shows that punishment of sin must not be carried out by man and as a crime but sinners only can be punished by God. Wagenknecht supports Hawthorne on this theme and it shows how the scarlet letter “had not done its office” to Hester but on the other hand, Dimmesdale, has this sin burning inside him.