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In The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne demonstrates changes in his major characters through his use of diction. Diction, in this case, refers to word choice.
Hester Prynne is initially characterized as feeling the sting of public shame over her sin of adultery. Although she is defiant to some degree (which is why she embroidered the scarlet letter so ornately), she accepts her role as an outcast and allows herself to be manipulated by Chillingworth when she promises not to reveal that he is her husband. In chapter 13 Hawthorne shows how Hester has developed with the following passage:
Strengthened by years of hard and solemn trial, she felt herself no longer so inadequate to cope with Roger Chillingworth as on that night, abased by sin, and half maddened by the ignomity that was still new, when they had talked together in the prison chamber. She had climbed her way, since then to a higher point.
Hawthorne's choice of words, especially ". . . climbed her way . . . to a higher point" signify that Hester has grown stronger over the years and overcome the stigma of the scarlet letter and public humiliation she has had to endure.
Roger Chillingworth is initially characterized to the reader as a man who has been wronged by his wife. As he befriends Dimmesdale and assumes the role of his physician his character begins to develop in a suspicious manner. The reader has to wonder if his intentions are pure or if he has ulterior motives regarding Dimmesdale. Finally, when Hester meets with him to let him know that she will expose his secret, he is described this way:
It seemed to be his wish and purpose to mask this expression with a smile; but the latter played him false, and flickered over his visage so derisively, that the spectator could see his blackness all the better for it. Ever and anon, too, there came a glare of red light out of his eyes; as if the old man’s soul were on fire, and kept on smouldering duskily within his breast, until, by some casual puff of passion, it was blown into a momentary flame.
Look at the key words that Hawthorne uses: false, derisively, blackness, glare, red light out of his eyes, soul on fire, smouldering duskily. These words depict a man who is filled with hate and the desire to injure another.
Dimmesdale’s character is suffering with guilt from the beginning of the story. In chapter 17 Hawthorne develops him further with the following exchange with Hester Prynne:
“Alas, what a ruin has befallen thee!” said Hester, with the tears gushing into her eyes. “Wilt thou die for very weakness? There is no other cause!”
“The judgment of God is on me,” answered the conscience-stricken priest. “It is too mighty for me to struggle with!”
“Heaven would show mercy,” rejoined Hester, “hadst thou but the strength to take advantage of it.”
“Be thou strong for me!” answered he. “Advise me what to do.”
Again, look at the words: ruin, befallen, die, weakness, judgment, conscience-stricken, struggle. Here, the reader sees Dimmesdale, who is highly regarded by the public, asking Hester, the fallen woman, what he should do. This is a complete reversal of the expected roles of these two characters. Hawthorne shows how far Dimmesdale has fallen and how weak he has become by showing him powerless and lost in the presence of Hester.
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