In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, how is the phrase "Be true" a central theme of the story?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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A lifelong preoccupation of Hawthorne was the hypocrisy of his Puritan ancestors and the resulting guilt that he felt for their sanctimonious transgressions. Of all sins, the sin of hypocrisy is grave, for while hiding guilt, it actually compounds guilt.  After all, the more guilty one is, the more he feels the need to lie in order to hide his secret sin. Then, he feels guiltier; and, if he does wish to confess, no one believes him.  Either way, psychological anguish results.

As an example of the benefits of truth being exposed, Hester's scarlet A, while causing her ostracism from the Puritan community, does, at least, afford her the opportunity for honesty and for spiritual growth.  While she suffers, Hester also develops into a caring and empathetic listener and nurse of the spiritually and physically ill of her community.  So great is her spiritual growth that Hester's letter comes to symbolize "Able" or "Angel."  On the other hand, her secrecy about Roger Chillingworth's being her husband reaps great anguish in Hester's heart until she finally discloses this truth to Arthur Dimmesdale.

As the incarnation of Hester's and Arthur Dimmesdale's sin, little Pearl cannot be fully human until Dimmesdale confesses.  Then, Pearl no longer must be but a symbol of Hester's passionate nature; now she converts to her humanity as she finally displays love and emotion as she kisses Dimmesdale.

With no other character is the profound verity of Hawthorne's exhortation to "Be true!" more evident than in the character of Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.  His hypocrisy causes him such mental and spiritual anguish that he seeks to relieve it through physical pain in self-flagellation.  Continually, holding his hand over his troubled heart as he suffers from guilt and from the vengeful preying upon his guilt by the nefarious Roger Chillingworth.  When Dimmesdale confesses his "vileness" as a sinner, the community misinterprets his honesty by thinking him a saint who humbles himself.

"He had told his bearers that he was altogether vile, a viler companion of the vilest, the warts of sinners, a thing of unimaginable iniquity. . . . They heard it all, and did but reverence him the more."

And, so, Dimmesdale's guilt is compounded so much that it manifests itself in his stigmata upon his chest, and he is eventually killed by his terrible anguish.

Likewise, Chillingworth, whose loathsome sin of vengeance causes him to sink into spiritual depravity, thus appearing craven and evil, is deceptive and hypocritical.  His devilish business turns Chillingworth himself into a fiend.  And, when he is rejected by Dimmesdale, Chillingworth "withers like an uprooted weed left in the sun."  But, if Chillingworth had been honest with Hester Prynne from the beginning, he should not have married her; he sinned against Nature as he knew that he could provide what she needed:

It seemed a fouler offence committed by Roger Chilllingworth, than any which had since been done him, that...he had persuaded her to fancy herself happy by his side.

His most grievous sin is what Hawthorne terms the "unpardonable sin," the subordination of the heart to the intellect. Chillingworth sacrifices Dimmesdale to the gratification of his own selfish interest.  But, his vengeful "violation of the human heart" turns upon Chillingworth and destroys him: In trying to play God, Roger Chillingworth becomes a fiend. After Dimmesdale's confession, he withers and dies.

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