In The Scarlet Letter, what underlying meaning does Hawthorne explore by making Hester and Dimmesdale both alike and unlike each other?

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With The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne offers a social critique of Puritanism and anti-feminism through his characterization of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, and their mutual suffering in a society defined by its intolerance.

What Hester and Dimmesdale share is a propensity for independent thinking. It is more...

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With The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne offers a social critique of Puritanism and anti-feminism through his characterization of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, and their mutual suffering in a society defined by its intolerance.

What Hester and Dimmesdale share is a propensity for independent thinking. It is more pronounced in Hester's personality because she was not raised or socially conditioned to be a Puritan. Her parents' poverty prompted her to accept a marriage of convenience to Roger Prynne, and she struggled to adapt to the Puritan colony to which he sent her. Ultimately, she rejected many of its teachings and religious structures, and believing her husband dead, felt free to engage in a brief, clandestine affair with Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale, too, had broader interests and intellectual capacity than his role as the colony's minister encompassed. He was well-read and interested in ideas beyond the dogma of Puritanism.

One way that Hester and Dimmesdale are different is that she is less willing to accept what society demands of her. She fights to remain a single mother and raise her daughter as she sees fit. She is self-supporting and generous enough to keep Dimmesdale and Prynne's secrets so that they can maintain their social status, sacrificing her own in the process. In this way, her personality and sense of self-worth is stronger than both of theirs. She is imaginative and able to think about a life beyond the confines of the colony; unfortunately, the man she loves, Dimmesdale, does not share this capacity, and they are never able to have a public life together.

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Hester and Dimmesdale are both good, passionate, and loving people, but Hawthorne uses their differing responses to their own adultery to highlight the importance of honesty to psychological well-being.

Hester can't escape the community knowing about her adultery because of the physical signs of her pregnancy and the physical birth of her child. Nevertheless, she never tries to run away from or deny what she has done. The text makes it clear she could have left and started a new life, in a new place, where nobody would have been the wiser, but she chooses to stay where she is and face the scorn and condemnation of her neighbors.

Hester is shown from the start to be stronger than Dimmesdale. She knows he would like her to do what he is too weak to do--expose him as Pearl's father and her adulterous other, but this she refuses to do for him: she believes he has to take responsibility for his own guilt.

The novel shows Hester achieving redemption by facing the the truth of her life squarely. She does good works, lives simply, and eventually wins the respect and admiration of the village, turning her scarlet letter into a badge of honor. In contrast, Dimmesdale allows himself to be eaten alive by his secret guilt, which torments him. It also allows the devil, in the form of Chillingworth, to feed on his suffering.

In a time before modern psychology, the book illustrates the truth that repressing and denying our problems is far less healthy than acknowledging and dealing with them.

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The similarities and differences between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter revolve around the effects of their mutual sins.  For, while they are both guilty of adultery, the effects of their sins upon them greatly differ; Hester's is an open sin, and Dimmesdale's is a concealed sin.  And, it is in the examination of the psychological effects of Dimmesdales's secret sin in contrast to Hester's declared sin that Hawthorne explores in his novel.

Because hers is an openly acknowledged sin, Hester initially suffers horribly from the scorn of the Puritan community; however, she maintains her pride and boldly displays her scarlet letter with golden embroidery and elaborateness.  Likewise, she dresses Pearl, her living conscience, in scarlet.  For Hester, her salvation lies in truth.  In Chapter XVII, "The Pastor and His Parishioner," after Hester confesses that Chillingworth is her husband, she tells Dimmesdale,

In all things else, I have striven to be true!  Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast, and did hold fast, through all extremity; save when they good,--thy life,--thy fame,--were put in question!  Then I consented to a deception.  But a lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side!

But, unlike Hester, Dimmesdale is weak, and is unable to confess his sin for seven years.  During their forest conversation, he tells Hester,

"...thou little, little knowest all the horror of this thing!  And the shame!--the indelicacy!--the horrible ugliness of this exposure of a sick and guilty heart..."

And, so, Dimmesdale suffers the torment of his conscience in the cowardice of his nature as he attempts to rationalize that he is serving God by keeping his secret in order to continue to preach and serve the community.  But, his fight is really against his own conscience--a fight to which he loses his life, while Hester who is open about her sin mainains her strength and finds redemption for her sin.  Thus Hawthorne's underlying meaning in exploring the psychological effects of secret sin are given meaning in Dimmesdale's death and Hester's survival.  When Dimmesdale finally has his victory of soul after the Election Day sermon, Chillingworth's reaction demonstrates the significance of Dimmesdale's confession and truthfulness.  He tells Dimmesdale, "Hadst thou sought the whole earth over, there was no place so secret,--...where thou couldst have escaped me,--save on this very scaffold! In fact, Hawthorne himself underscores the importance of confession, a principle contrary to that of Puritanism that forbade sin of any kind. In Chapter XXIV, "The Conclusion," Hawthorne specifically points out his meaning suggested by the differences in Hester's open sin and Dimmesdale's secret sin:

Among many morals which press upon us from the poor minister's miserable experience, we put only this into a sentence:--"Be true!  Be true!  Be true!  Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait wherby the worst may be inferred!"

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