What is one theme from the novel The Scarlet Letter and how does Hawthorne develop that theme?  

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the most salient themes in The Scarlet Letter is hypocrisy. We see it  so much in the novel that it would take pages to analyze how it is presented and in how many ways. Suffice to say that perhaps the most hypocritical of all characters is Arthur Dimmesdale.  Hawthorne has a way to show this within controlled parameters. This means that Arthur can be called a hypocrite all we want, but we still tend to show some deference to him because of his circumstances.

Hypocrisy is rampant in the Puritan setting of The Scarlet Letter. A very interestingly similar setting is also presented in the Puritan village of Salem in the famous play by Arthur Miller, The Crucible. It makes readers wonder what life was really like in a place thought to be representing a righteous and holy existence. One thing is clear: Being sanctimonious is not being saintly. This is the case with Dimmesdale.

A learned Englishman, Arthur Dimmesdale is well-educated in theology and divinity. As minister, he is the envoy of God among the masses of the colonies. He leads the villagers as their spiritual mentor and guide. As such, the responsibilities that he acquires essentially include the safety and preservation of the morale and mental state of his flock.

Yet, what happens when he is the one to fall prey to sin? In Dimmesdale's mind, the thing to do is keep the thing under wraps. The novel does not tell us anything about that, but we can safely assume that when Dimmesdale and Hester had their affair, it was not meant to be for the sake of getting married and having children.

Instead, the relationship is secret quiet until the moment when Hester becomes pregnant and can no longer hide the fact that she has been seeing someone. As she refuses to give up the name of the father of her child, Dimmesdale starts growing anxious and feeling guilty. Here is where he perhaps realizes one sad truth: Hester is more courageous and strong than he is. Even sadder still, their behaviors show who really loves who. Clearly, Hester loves Dimmesdale much more than he had ever loved her.

Hypocrisy is also evident in that Dimmesdale continues life as usual, still leading the flock, still preaching, and still carrying out the charade of trying to get Hester to confess the name of her lover at the scaffold. Readers may argue that Dimmesdale has no choice but to keep quiet given the circumstances of his status. Also, that Dimmesdale punished himself enough by carving that letter "A" on his own chest. Those facts are true. However, Dimmesdale does not carry the public badge of shame that Hester carries. He is equally responsible for Hester's fall and still he does not take the fall with her.

More unnerving still is that he blindly continues to feed the ego of the "young divine" that the villagers have made of him.

Lost as my own soul is, I would still do what I may for other human souls! I dare not quit my post, though an unfaithful sentinel, whose sure reward is death and dishonor, when his dreary watch shall come to an end!"

Even on election day, the day when he is supposed to escape with Hester and his daughter to a better life, he gives up the mission altogether, takes to the flock, gives a speech, confesses as best as he can, and then dies. Lest we forget that, to add to the injury, he tells Hester, shortly before his death, that they won't be meeting in heaven, either. It is all a convoluted way to go around the truth but sacrificing for it. For a man of his stature in the community, it does not present him under the most respectable light. It just shows him as someone with a tendency to be hypocritical in nature.

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The Scarlet Letter

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