Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

A Characterization of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale

The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne unfolds its plot during the era of Puritanism, not less than two centuries ago, in Boston, Massachusetts. One’s attention is drawn to the character of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. As the father of a child, born out of wedlock to Hester Prynne, Dimmesdale is portrayed as a character who, though consumed with guilt for his part in an action which brings ignominy to Hester, is unable to publicly announce his culpability as a partner in this scandal.

Thus, the Reverend begins to lead a double life – a life which brings him torment. To the outside world, he is the model Reverend. He assumes the posture of one totally innocent regarding such misdeeds; in fact, he condemns them. As his parishioners note, “he took it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.” (Hawthorne). When Hester is forced to stand upon a scaffold in public view as atonement for her sin, The Scarlet Letter A (for Adulteress emblazoned upon the bosom of her garment, it is Dimmesdale who self-righteously implores her: “I charge thee speak out the name of thy fellow sinner and fellow-sufferer!” (Hawthorne 73). When the clergy elect to take the child, Pearl, away from Hester, considering her unfit to raise the child, Dimmesdale does nothing to stand in the way of proceedings to this end until Hester beseeches him to speak on her behalf. Only then does he come to her defense, saying: “This child of its father’s guilt and its mother’s shame hath come from the hand of God . . . It was meant for a blessing . . . for a retribution too. . . .” (Hawthorne 114). It was due to his persuasive argument that Hester was allowed to keep the child.

One is amazed by the fact that Dimmesdale can utter words of condemnation with such passion, yet keep his identity as the child’s father concealed. However, as a direct result of his guilt, the Reverend becomes increasingly ill. Those best acquainted with him attributed his decline to a too earnest devotion to study and fulfillment of parochial duties. Yet the Reverend is aware of the fact that the “poison of one morbid spot was infecting his heart’s entire substance. . . .” (Hawthorne 137). Knowing his public venerated him caused him agony: he knew he was being deceitful. Thinking of his grave, he wondered whether grass would ever grow on it, “because an accursed thing must there be buried!” (Hawthorne 139).

Thus, although he longed to speak out and tell the people who he was: “I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!” (Hawthorne 140), he could not. His own stance to the world was revealed when he stated those that are guilty go about “looking pure as new-fallen snow; while their hearts are all speckled and spotted with inequity of which they cannot rid themselves.” (Hawthorne 130). However, he realized that admission would be a great relief: “It must need be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it all up in his heart.” (Hawthorne 132).

It is through the character of Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s ex-husband who, while symbolically representing the Devil, acts as the Reverend’s physician and friend, that Dimmesdale’s character is revealed: his inability to step forward publicly and act in...

(The entire section is 1399 words.)

What is Sin? The Art of Forgiveness in The Scarlet Letter

The Puritans whose world was disrupted by Hester Prinn’s presence and actions have an extremely orthodox, structured view of sin. To them, a sin is a simple refusal to follow their laws, which they claim are supported by Biblical truth. Apparently, sin is also permanent; the red letter A Hester is forced to wear as a result of her adulterous affair and the child that results from it guaranteed that her sin would never be forgotten, or forgiven. But forgiveness, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s view, can be found elsewhere. By standing up to her situation, facing her sin, and getting on with her life, Hester is forgiven by not only her peers, but herself, perhaps the most important forgiveness of all.

In the beginning of the novel, Hester stands on a scaffold, accused of adultery. The child she clutches to her chest is proof of her sin. Rather than put her in the stocks or have her whipped, as they might for other crimes, Boston’s Puritan government chooses permanent public humiliation, a constant reminder to others that Hester is less then perfect. The sin of such humiliation, of treating a person like an animal with a brand, goes unmentioned. By not having any of the characters mention it, Hawthorne makes this sin as bold as the one Hester committed, and as permanent.

In addition, the Puritans commit a sin by allowing Hester to take full blame for what is obviously a sin that can only be committed by two people. The identity of the father doesn’t seem to warrant a full investigation once Hester accepts the letter; simply having a scapegoat is enough to appease their need for justice. This lazy neglect of their own laws counts as another sin.

But then, there is plenty of sin to go around in The Scarlet Letter; Dimmesdale, for committing adultery, lying about it, and putting his “co-conspirator” in jeopardy; Chillingworth, for concealing his identity and outright murdering Dimmesdale; so many unnamed townspeople, for simply letting Hester be humiliated. By today’s standards, none of these characters would be free of guilt. There is one profound difference between these sinners and Hester, however. Hester’s sin is confessed, and she lives with two constant reminders of that sin – the scarlet letter...

(The entire section is 920 words.)

Is Hester Prynn a Role Model?

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is centered on the sin and punishment of Hester Prynn, but Hester is a far more complex character than these black and white terms. The women of Boston gossip in the opening chapters of the book about Hester’s crime, suggesting that she be branded or killed instead of having to wear a red A.

When we first see Hester, it’s obvious why the women are so angry and jealous, as she is a beautiful woman. She is also very strong under the scrutiny of the Puritans; she appears on the scaffold with Pearl clutched tightly against the A, but realizes she can’t hide what she is:

In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore. . . . (80-81)

Hester is already a skilled seamstress, and she maintains a certain pride in her appearance even in prison. Some might consider this pride in her actions themselves – she was proud to commit adultery. Later in chapter 2, however, we see a woman whose every instinct is to hurl herself off the scaffold, or go mad, or both. Hester’s pride is her strength, a strength uncharacteristic for a woman of her time. It is this strength, along with Hester’s resourcefulness and kindness, that make her a model not of perfection, but of a quiet feminine reserve that is worth emulating.

Hester doesn’t let the scarlet letter get her down once she is released from prison; she refuses to...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

The Evolution of Symbols in The Scarlet Letter

All of the symbols Hawthorne uses in The Scarlet Letter point to the book’s most obvious symbol, the scarlet letter A itself. Images of light and dark, crosses, scaffolds, even Hester Prynn’s daughter Pearl can be found within the symbolism of the letter. As such, that one letter could be considered the hub around which the story revolves, a character in itself. It is this symbol, and the evolution of its character, that Hawthorne uses to change the lives of all around it. A symbol of evil and sin gradually becomes a symbol of hope and redemption, not only for its immediate characters, but for us all. Hawthorne uses the symbol and its “echoes” almost as characters themselves, causing them to shift as he wants our...

(The entire section is 853 words.)

Historical Concerns and the Emblem

Nathaniel Hawthorne envisioned The Scarlet Letter as a short story to be published in a collection, but it outgrew that purpose. Most...

(The entire section is 1873 words.)

The Scarlet Letter

There is something reminiscent of now familiar processes in Hawthorne's account of the origin and growth of the idea of The Scarlet...

(The entire section is 2043 words.)

Arthur Dimmesdale as Tragic Hero

It is my conviction that, even though Arthur Dimmesdale does not move down center until late in the action, The Scarlet Letter is...

(The entire section is 2703 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster