What are some examples of the theme of "head and heart" (intellect and emotion) in Chapter 17 of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter often explores relations between the head and the heart (that is, the intellect and emotion), and certainly these themes appear in Chapter 17 of the book.  Examples of such appearances include the following:

  • Early in the chapter, when Hester surprises Dimmesdale in the forest, the narrator says this of the minister:

Gathering himself quickly up, he stood more erect, like a man taken by surprise in a mood to which he was reluctant to have witnesses.

Dimmesdale makes a conscious, intellectual decision about how to present himself, whereas his first reaction to Hester’s approach had been rooted in emotions (“taken by surprise).

  • Later, when Dimmesdale expresses his emotional pain and even says that he is miserable, Hester replies,

"The people reverence thee . . . . And surely thou workest good among them! Doth this bring thee no comfort?"

In other words, Hester tries to respond to Dimmesdale’s emotions by reasoning with him. Indeed, she uses what today would be called “cognitive therapy” by trying to help him think accurately and reasonably about the full reality of his situation.

  • Later still, when Hester gets up enough courage to speak truly to Dimmesdale, the narrator says that she “conquered her fears.” In other words, she uses her reason or intellect to subdue and control her passions or emotions.
  • Even later, the narrator describes Hester’s assessment of Dimmesdale by saying, “She now read his heart more accurately.” Once again, Hester is here associated with proper use of the intellect, while Dimmesdale is associated with emotion.
  • Hester is so concerned about the effect of Dimmesdale’s heart upon his head (that is, about the effect of his emotions upon his intellect), that she even worries that he may become insane. The earthly result of his torment, she thinks,

could hardly fail to be insanity, and hereafter, that eternal alienation from the Good and True, of which madness is perhaps the earthly type.

Consistently, then, throughout the first part of this chapter, Hester is the character who seems most reasonable, while Dimmesdale is the figure who seems most controlled by his passions.

  • Later, Dimmesdale is presented as a person whose intellect (his higher powers) are wrestling with his emotions:

The minister looked at her for an instant, with all that violence of passion, which—intermixed in more shapes than one with his higher, purer, softer qualities—was, in fact, the portion of him which the devil claimed, and through which he sought to win the rest. [emphasis added]

Here the conflict between his reason and conscience, on the one hand, and his passions, on the other, is clearly emphasized.  Here, too, however, his reason and conscience seem to be associated with love, tenderness, and compassion -- an association that would not have surprised the Christian theologians of his day.

[For further comment on Chapter 17, see links below.]

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