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In "The Scarlet Letter," Hester Prynne's identity changes as the stultifying effects of stringent Puritanism rob her of her innate passion. Initially, Hester is
tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was lady-like, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace. And never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like, ...than as she issued from the prison....Her attire...seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood,...that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom...had the the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself. (1)
That Hester is "enclosed in a sphere by herself" becomes quite evident as the narrative progresses. She casts off the resplendent garments and wears grey, covering her head with a grey cap. The A on her bosom seems to become her only identity. She loses her individuality, becoming
the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful passion. (5)
sought not to acquire anything beyond a subsistence, of the plains and most ascetic descriptions, for herself, and a simple abundance for her child. Her own dress was of the coarsest materials and the most sombre hue; with only that one ornament,--the scarlet letter,--which it was her doom to wear. (5)
Later in Chapter V, it is rumored that whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night, the letter "could be seen glowing all alight." When Scarlet meets Dimmesdale again, she casts off her letter and tosses her cap; in the sun, her drab hair becomes lustrous again,
dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance....A crimson flush was glowing on her check, that had been long so pale.
However, when Hester replaces the cap upon her head and the scarlet letter upon her breast, all the rush of life recedes once more from her. Hester's consent to the punishment of the Puritans has cost her the life-giving energy of her passions, and she is no longer what she once was. After Dimmesdale and her plan to return to England is aborted, and after his revelation of the A upo his chest and his death, Hester leaves with Pearl for England. Nevertheless, she returns to her humble cottage away from the community. On the threshold of her poor cottage, in "a gray robe," she bends and picks up the scarlet letter and places it upon herself; she takes back "her forsaken shame!"
Known for a brief time as "angel," because she cared for people, Hester' identity is tied inextricably to the letter on her clothing since she has consented to her awful punishment, believing herself unredemptive.
Dimmesdale, too, feels guilt for his sin. He appears "emaciated" after the opening scaffold scene.
He looked now more careworn and emaciated...his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth....with a voice sweet, tremulous, but powerful...(8).
He constantly places his hand over his heart. Some of the townspeople think that Dimmesdale,
like many other personages of especial sanctity, ...was haunted either by Satan himself, or Satan's emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth....There is gloom and terror in the depths of the poor minister's eyes, the battle was a sore open, and the victory anything but secure. (9)
With a spirit "shattered" and, as Hester tells him, "crushed under this...weight of misery," Arthur Dimmesdale shrinks within himself and is destroyed. In a most ironic statement, Hester asks him if the universe lies "within the compass of yonder town." Hester fails at freeing Dimmesdale of the burden.
Finally, in the last chapters Dimmesdale is overcome with emotion, and he writes his final sermon. So inspired is he the next day that he fails to recognize Hester as the spirituality of Dimmesdale overcomes him and his
complaint of a human heart, sorrow-laden,...telling its secret...to the great heart of mankind...breathes inspiration through [his] mortal lips.
Yet, as he dies upon the scaffold, Hawthorne describes the Reverend Dimmesdale as having a death of "triumphant ignominy." And, in a sense, so, too, is Hester's ignominy as she has triumphed by choosing to return on her own to the Puritan community.
I would like to add two quotes to what has been presented; I feel they are critical to understanding Hester and Dimmesdale.
The first concerns Dimmesdale:
In no state of society would he have been what is called a man of liberal views; it would always be essential to his peace to feel the pressure of a faith about him, supporting, while it confined him within its iron framework.
I think this sums up Dimmesdale's "character"/state of mind and explains why he cannot extricate himself from his guilt. His faith supports/defines him; he cannot exist without this support, even though it confines him within an unbending, and unyielding, set of values (iron framework) and dooms him to a life of misery.
Hester, on the other hand, has no such requirement; she is able to define herself through her conscience.
"What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou forgotten it?"
"Hush, Hester!" said Arthur Dimmesdale, rising from the ground. "No; I have not forgotten!"
Although Hester may not be correct (does SAYING that something is "consecrated" actually consecrate it?), it is clear that she feels no obligation to any iron framework; she defines her own reality, accepts herself AND the punishment that the society demands of her, and moves on with her life. Although Dimmesdale has "not forgotten," his need for the framework prevents himself from accepting what he is and moving on.
how did Roger Chillingworth present himself to the community?
Who had provided medical treatment/surgery for the Bostonians?
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