What does this quote from The Scarlet Letter mean? "No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude,...

What does this quote from The Scarlet Letter mean?

No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

Explain your reasoning.

 

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This quote reflects the heart of Arthur Dimmesdale, and it's important to back up a bit to see what else is going on in this section:

On the third day from the present, he was to preach the Election Sermon; and, as such an occasion formed an honourable epoch...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

This quote reflects the heart of Arthur Dimmesdale, and it's important to back up a bit to see what else is going on in this section:

On the third day from the present, he was to preach the Election Sermon; and, as such an occasion formed an honourable epoch in the life of a New England Clergyman, he could not have chanced upon a more suitable mode and time of terminating his professional career. "At least, they shall say of me," thought this exemplary man, "that I leave no public duty unperformed or ill-performed!" Sad, indeed, that an introspection so profound and acute as this poor minister's should be so miserably deceived!

Dimmesdale is so concerned that his congregation view him as a responsible minister that he fails to consider the weight of his own sin. Dimmesdale has let Hester alone carry the weight of their sinful act (strictly judged in this historical context) while he has continued to receive the respect of the town. And this quote makes it clear that he still isn't entirely ready to give that up. He still wants people to view him has a noble man, regardless of the sin he has committed, and has forced Hester to endure the fallout alone. He actually isn't all that noble, regardless of how he continues to view himself.

Thus, the quote is a reflection of this inner struggle which is still common in our modern society. People who present themselves in one way while secretly harboring a different character will eventually slip and reveal the true nature of their hearts. It is an exhausting business to constantly pretend to be something one is not, and inevitably the mask of falsehood will slip. Indeed, those who wear a false mask for their "audiences" in life may eventually become confused about whether the mask is the truth. In the end, one's character and one's outward portrayal of self must align as one cohesive representation.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The quote is basically saying it is impossible to keep up with the charade of pretending to be one way in public while hiding your real self in private. Eventually, the charade becomes so exhausting that one cannot tell which may be the real "you," so to speak. The lines between fiction and fact become blurred.

Dimmesdale is the character to whom this quote is most pertinent. In public, everyone believes he is a pious and chaste man of God. He does nothing of much substance to make the congregation think otherwise, yet deep down, he knows their praise is not applicable. Dimmesdale has sinned with Hester, but while her shame is made public and punished, his is hidden and therefore a torment to him. He cannot be at peace so long as he pretends to be virtuous while the kind, honest Hester suffers for their shared indiscretion.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It essentially means that you should always be true to yourself and to the world. If you go through life wearing two masks, as it were, then at some point you'll find it hard to know which one is the real you and which is a persona put on for the benefit of others. This is the conflict faced by Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. To the outside world he presents the image of a deeply devout, pious Puritan; a true man of God; one of the elect. Yet he knows deep down that he's a sinner, and his soul is tortured by his chronic inability to reconcile public virtue with private sin.

Dimmesdale yearns so much to confess his sins, but he can't. His position of respect within the community will be compromised if he does. This simply makes his inner torment all the more unbearable. To make matters worse, Dimmesdale, as a devout Calvinist, is a firm believer in predestination. God has already decided who's going to be saved and who's going to hell. There's absolutely nothing that Dimmesdale, or anyone else, can do by way of good works and deeds that's going to make the slightest bit of difference in relation to the will of God. And that includes confessing his sins and being openly true to himself.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Later in the novel, Hawthorne states: "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 whereby the worst may be inferred!"

Not only is he describing the minister's difficulty in maintaining a "public" and "private" face, Hawthorne is also tacitly criticizing Chillingworth for him doing the same; publicly pretending to be the healing physician, but privately doing just the opposite.  Both these characters reflect the opposite of Hester, whose worst is made public, and in doing so, she is freed from attempting to keep a secret which could, like it does to both men, destroy her.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Poor Dimmesdale! :)

This quote means that you can't pretend to act one way with all of your friends and family (the multitudes) all the while knowing that the way you are acting is NOT who you really are (the face to yourself) without eventually getting confused---who are you? Which one is the real you? Will you mess up and show the face you are trying to hide? What will happen if you do so?

To be bewildered is to be utterly confused, and living a double life and telling lies and not revealing the truth will also get you confused...and in loads of trouble...

Read the description of Dimmesdale on this link...

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team