In the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is one character who illustrates the importance of the moral of being true to the world?“Among many morals which press upon us from...

In the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is one character who illustrates the importance of the moral of being true to the world?

“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!’”

Consider how the narrative supports this central moral lesson, and discuss one major character in the novel (Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, or Roger Chillingworth) who illustrates by example, whether positive or negative, how this moral suits the narrative

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At the time of The Scarlet Letter's publication an influential critic of the time referred to Hawthorne's novel as 

a psychological romance . . . a study of character in which the human heart is anatomized, carefully, elaborately, and with striking poetic and dramatic power.

Furthermore, it is from this analysis of the human heart that Nathaniel Hawthorne builds his moral exhortation for people to "Be True!"  For, each of the main characters support this moral--Hester, who by living openly with her sin and by being honest and humble makes retribution for her sin of adultery in a stringent world by consenting to it; Dimmesdale, who hides his secret sin so deeply that he deludes both himself and others while leaving himself wounded internally and mortally vulnerable in his iniquity to the charlatan Chillingworth; and, finally, Roger Chillingwoth, who commits the blackest sin of all as he violates the sacredness of the human heart, thus causing his own decay.

As the most negative example of the value of the moral lesson to be true in life, Roger Chillingworth, therefore, illustrates the utter destructiveness of both secret sin and great malice. In Chapter 4, Hester's husband begins his deception and vows revenge upon Hester's lover who has disgraced both her and him.  When Hester asks him, "....Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?" Chillingworth replies, "Not thy soul....No, not thine!"  Ironically, however, it is his own heart that becomes the blackest, and his soul that realizes the most ruin as he becomes, in his very words, "a fiend" as he pries into the innermost feelings of the unsuspecting Dimmesdale--"to burrow into the clergyman's intimacy, and plot against his soul":

He groped along as stealthily, with as cautious a tread, and as wary an outlook, as a thief entering a chamber where a man lies only half asleep,--or,it may be, broad awake,--with purpose to steal the very treasure which this man guards as the apple of his eye. (ch. 10)

This "Black Man," as little Pearl calls him, seeks to deceive Rev. Dimmesdale into thinking that he wishes to cure the minister, urging him to "lay open...the wound or trouble in your soul!" After the minister becomes disturbed and departs from him, Chillingworth vows to uncover the reason for Dimmesdale's passion in their discussion of his illness:

"...A strange sympathy betwixt soul and body!  Were it only for art's sake, I must search this matter to the bottom."

Then, after Dimmesdale falls asleep, the fiend Chillingworth deceptively steals into the minister's room, pushing aside the vestment and perceives the manifestation of Dimmesdale's personal agonies:

Had a man seen old Roger Chillingworth...he would have had no need to ask how Satan comports himself, when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won into his kingdom.

Having stolen the secrets of Dimmesdale's heart, Chillingworth now becomes a "chief actor in the minister's interior world." It is at this point that Chillingworth has "transformed himself into a devil...."  Certainly, he undertakes the "devil's office" of torturing Dimmesdale's heart and adding fuel to the "fiery tortures" of this heart.  For, no man could be more false to another.  And, by his own admission to Hester, in his evil deception, he holds the minister the prisoner of his own heart.  However, by not being true, Chillingworth suffers the same punishment of falsehood that Dimmesdale does: death of the spirit.

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The Scarlet Letter

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