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...
(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 itself, and Pearl, the child conceived with Dimmesdale.
By taking the blame for hers and Dimmesdale’s sin, Hester shows herself to be selfless, a virtue. Rather than hiding in her home...
(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 “borrow from the future to help her through the present grief” (118), determined to make the best of her situation. She ends up contributing to the community, both as a seamstress and as a humanitarian. She visits the sick and dying, makes “coarse garments” for the poor, and generally applies herself to making up for the letter she still wears on her own unremarkable clothes. Eventually, after disease ravages the town, some begin to reinterpret the scarlet letter – the A...
(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 understanding of a Puritan village and its inhabitants to shift.
In our first glimpse of the scarlet letter, Hawthorne shows us what is to come, as the letter takes on an otherworldly character:
My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly there was some deep meaning in it most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind. (50)
The author presents the older Hester Prynne, her community’s kind, selfless “voluntary nurse,” not the young girl whose attraction to a clergyman ruined her life. As a result, our initial view of Hester is one of pity, and the letter is tarnished. How do we rationalize the brand-new scarlet letter of punishment with the one the narrator finds in the introduction? We create exactly the kind of context the narrator seeks in that introduction, making Hester’s strength clear even through the lens of her punishment.
The lines of the letter A, which the narrator carefully describes – “each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. . . .” - are repeated in the first couple of chapters of the book. The scaffolding, the Christian cross, shadows extending at length all over – these lines seem to place As all over the village, as if all are responsible for Hester and Dimmesdale’s sins. Through the larger sin of humiliation, the community dooms itself to wear the same letter A, at least in the way Hawthorne presents it.
As the narrator tells it, everything about the village takes on a sinister cast...
(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 critics accept Hawthorne's definition of it as a "romance," rather than as a novel. It usually appears with an introductory autobiographical essay, "The Custom House," in which Hawthorne describes working in his ancestral village, Salem, Massachusetts, as a customs officer. Hawthorne describes coming across certain documents in the customs house that provide him with the basis for The Scarlet Letter. But this essay fictionalizes the origins of the story in that it offers "proofs of the authenticity of a narrative therein contained." Following other literary examples in early American literature, like Washington Irving's History of New York, Hawthorne masks his literary invention by making it seem "historical." He calls his motivation for writing the essay "a desire to put [himself] in [his] true position as editor, or very little more." This editorial positioning indicates his interest in creating a aura of "authenticity" and historical importance for his narrative.
Not surprisingly, therefore, much criticism of The Scarlet Letter focuses on its relation to history. Many critics have investigated the Puritan laws governing adultery and searched for an historical Hester Prynne. Other critics have used clues within the tale to specify its context. For example, when Dimmesdale climbs on the...
(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 Letter in the introductory essay to the novel, "The Custom House." He tells (albeit whimsically) of finding one day the scarlet letter itself—"that certain affair of fine red cloth"—in his rummagings about the Custom House and of how it, and the old manuscript which told its story, set him to certain somber musings. The old story of a bygone, dire event and its decaying symbol rayed out meanings to his imagination as surely as the ancient myths and legends revealed new meanings to the Greek and Elizabethan dramatists. "Certainly [Hawthorne writes], there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating it to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind." The "half a dozen sheets of foolscap" of Mr. Surveyor Pue's account of the letter, which seemed at first glance to give "a reasonably complete explanation of the whole affair," stood to the novel as (we might hazard) the ancient legend of Oedipus stood to Sophocles or Holinshed's account of Lear's story to Shakespeare. With mock apology, Hawthorne acknowledged the liberties he took with Pue's document: "I must not be understood as affirming, that, in the dressing up of the tale, and imagining the motives and modes of...
(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 finally his story and, what is more important, that he is a tragic hero. He alone among the major characters never functions symbolically, though he is the familiar figure of Every-Christian. Viewed thus, Hawthorne's allegorical romance centers on a good man's struggle with and eventual victory over the guilt he experiences after committing lechery. Hawthorne is saying that three courses of action are open to such a sinner: he may keep silent and suffer "eternal alienation from the Good and True," the course urged by Roger Chilling worth, or—and this implies that he will probably keep silent all the while—he may flee the scene of the crime and with it his responsibility, the course eventually urged by Hester Prynne; or he may make full and public confession, the course urged by the child Pearl. Having kept silent for more than seven years, Dimmesdale finally has his Calvinist faith put to the supreme test and, having agreed to flee Boston with Hester and their child, finds the strength to face his responsibility and confess before he dies.
Although Dimmesdale respects and, except in one instance, has never broken civil and ecclesiastical law, theocratic authority at Boston is ultimately powerless to bring him to confession. John Wilson and Governor Bellingham, the chief representatives of church and state, are...
(The entire section is 2703 words.)