Analysis of the importance in the theme Dimmesdale portrays in "The Scarlet Letter" with the lines, "Mine burns in secret!"“Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your...

Analysis of the importance in the theme Dimmesdale portrays in "The Scarlet Letter" with the lines, "Mine burns in secret!"

“Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret!"

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of "secret sin" and the hypocrisy and the internal torture of guilt it causes is expressed in Dimmesdale's statement, "Mine burns in secret."  In Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," Hawthorne explores the unredemptive quality to Puritanism in which one must hide one's sins or else become the social pariah that someone like Hester is.

Yet in this "secret sin," this falseness of self, Dimmesdale feels "nothing but despair!"  as all that he says from the pulpit is a falsehood.  When he tries to confess himself a sinner, the congregation believe him to be a saint for humbling himself so.  Living with this guilt has made Dimmesdale weak and moribund.  Tortured by his guilt, he even turns to self-flagellation.  But Hester has been able to heal from her sin through good works; she has a way of ending the warfare of her spirit whereas Dimmesdale has none and must live a life of duality and hypocrisy demanded by the Puritan code.

Certainly, Hawthorne throws into question this Puritan code that forces people to hide their sins.  When Hester tells Dimmesdale,

'You wrong yourself in this....You have deeply and sorely repented.  Your sin is left behind you, the the days long past.  Your present life is not less holy, in very truth, than it seems in people's eyes.  Is there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and witnessed by good works?  And wherefore should it not bring you peace?'

He replies,

'No, Hester, no!....There is no substance in it!  It is cold and dead, and can do nothing for me!  Of penance, I have had enough!  Of penitence, there has been none!...Had I one whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself, and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby.  Even thus much of truth would save me!  But, now, it is all falsehood!--all emptiness!--all death!'

The Puritan code of faith, not good works, as the only salvation, is not effective for the tortured Dimmesdale.  In the eyes of the Romantics, like Hawthorne, "sin" occurred when denying one's own nature or forcing someone else to conform to a foreign code of principles or behavior.  Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale are passionate people forced to live in a passionless society; as such they are sinned against as their natures have been denied.  Thus, in denying his nature, Dimmesdale is tortured, so tortured mentally that his agony physically manifests itself upon his chest.  Later, this guilt costs him his life, and Hester, who has learned to deny her nature returns to the Puritan community which she has left.  There she rejects joy, the joy of being with Pearl in England.  Instead, she bends and takes up the scarlet letter, replacing it upon her garment.  Part of her, too, has died.

At the conclusion of his great novel, Hawthorne urges the reader to follow his theme:

Be true!  Be true!  Be true!  Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!

Only by being an honest, forthright person can one be truly human.



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The Scarlet Letter

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