Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1399
The Scarlet Letter , written by Nathaniel Hawthorne unfolds its plot during the era of Puritanism, not less than two centuries ago, in Boston, Massachusetts. One’s attention is drawn to the character of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. As the father of a child, born out of wedlock to Hester Prynne,...
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The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne unfolds its plot during the era of Puritanism, not less than two centuries ago, in Boston, Massachusetts. One’s attention is drawn to the character of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. As the father of a child, born out of wedlock to Hester Prynne, Dimmesdale is portrayed as a character who, though consumed with guilt for his part in an action which brings ignominy to Hester, is unable to publicly announce his culpability as a partner in this scandal.
Thus, the Reverend begins to lead a double life – a life which brings him torment. To the outside world, he is the model Reverend. He assumes the posture of one totally innocent regarding such misdeeds; in fact, he condemns them. As his parishioners note, “he took it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.” (Hawthorne). When Hester is forced to stand upon a scaffold in public view as atonement for her sin, The Scarlet Letter A (for Adulteress emblazoned upon the bosom of her garment, it is Dimmesdale who self-righteously implores her: “I charge thee speak out the name of thy fellow sinner and fellow-sufferer!” (Hawthorne 73). When the clergy elect to take the child, Pearl, away from Hester, considering her unfit to raise the child, Dimmesdale does nothing to stand in the way of proceedings to this end until Hester beseeches him to speak on her behalf. Only then does he come to her defense, saying: “This child of its father’s guilt and its mother’s shame hath come from the hand of God . . . It was meant for a blessing . . . for a retribution too. . . .” (Hawthorne 114). It was due to his persuasive argument that Hester was allowed to keep the child.
One is amazed by the fact that Dimmesdale can utter words of condemnation with such passion, yet keep his identity as the child’s father concealed. However, as a direct result of his guilt, the Reverend becomes increasingly ill. Those best acquainted with him attributed his decline to a too earnest devotion to study and fulfillment of parochial duties. Yet the Reverend is aware of the fact that the “poison of one morbid spot was infecting his heart’s entire substance. . . .” (Hawthorne 137). Knowing his public venerated him caused him agony: he knew he was being deceitful. Thinking of his grave, he wondered whether grass would ever grow on it, “because an accursed thing must there be buried!” (Hawthorne 139).
Thus, although he longed to speak out and tell the people who he was: “I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!” (Hawthorne 140), he could not. His own stance to the world was revealed when he stated those that are guilty go about “looking pure as new-fallen snow; while their hearts are all speckled and spotted with inequity of which they cannot rid themselves.” (Hawthorne 130). However, he realized that admission would be a great relief: “It must need be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it all up in his heart.” (Hawthorne 132).
It is through the character of Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s ex-husband who, while symbolically representing the Devil, acts as the Reverend’s physician and friend, that Dimmesdale’s character is revealed: his inability to step forward publicly and act in Hester’s defense. It is not by direct revelation that his thinking pertaining to this matter is exposed, but rather in response to a particular incident involving Chillingworth. Having gathered some herbs in a graveyard for medicinal purposes, Chillingworth states to Dimmesdale that the herbs grew out of the man’s heart “and typify, it may be, some hideous secret . . . which had done better to confess during his lifetime.” (Hawthorne 129). Chillingworth, knowing the Reverend’s physical illness is a manifestation of his spiritual sickness, makes the remark in order to elicit a response from Dimmesdale. It is Dimmesdale’s answer which illiminates his inability to reveal himself as Hester’s accomplice in sin: “Perchance . . . he earnestly desired it, but could not. . . . There can be . . . no power, short of the Divine mercy, to disclose, whether by uttered words, or by type or emblem, the secrets that may be buried with a human heart.” (Hawthorne 129). Dimmesdale maintained that the ultimate judgment could only be made by the Divine. Since no earthly good could come from confessing sins which already had been perpetrated and could not be undone, there was no justification in admitting his guilt.
However, it would seem that Dimmesdale’s beliefs provided a convenient excuse for him to hide behind when, in actuality, it was he himself who could not allow the world to condemn him. He continues to allow Hester and his faith to act as a shield for him against public morality. When asked by Chillingworth why one would not want to reveal one’s guilt during one’s lifetime, the Reverend replies: guilty as they may be . . . they shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in the view of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be achieved by them; no evil of the past be redeemed by better service.” (Hawthorne).
Thus, though Dimmesdale remained constantly introspective, he could not purify himself: “The only truth that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth was the anguish in his inmost soul. . .” (Hawthorne 142). Remorse dogged the Reverend everywhere, “and whose own sister and closely linked companion was that cowardice which invariably drew him back . . . just when the other impulse had hurried him to the verge of a disclosure.” (Hawthorne 144). It was thus that Dimmesdale went to the scaffold one night where, seven years ago, Hester had stood. Seeing him there on her walk home from a deathbed watch with Pearl, Dimmesdale calls out to her that she and Pearl should ascend the scaffold “and we will stand all three together!” (Hawthorne 148). But, when asked by Pearl if he would stand with them the following day at noon, for all to see, his reply was no, for the dread of public exposure was too great for him to bear.
Eventually Hester, who had been allowing Chillingworth to keep close watch upon Dimmesdale, decides to reveal Chillingworth’s true intent towards the Reverend. Asking Hester how he should cope with this deadly enemy reveals Hester as being the strong one in their relationship: “Think for me, Hester! Thou art strong. Resolve for Me!” (Hawthorne 187). She responds by telling him to leave seven years of misery behind him and depart to begin again. But, by this time, Dimmesdale’s spirit has been broken – he has not the strength or courage to go alone: “Wretched and sinful as I am. I have had no other thought than to drag on my earthly existence in the sphere where Providence hath placed me.” (Hawthorne 188). It is when they decide to leave together that he believed he should go, realizing he needed her companionship: “so powerful is she to sustain – so tender to soothe!” (Hawthorne 191).
At the thought of their departure, Dimmesdale’s spirit is renewed. On the day he was to give a final sermon, there was a procession in the marketplace: “So etherealized by spirit as he was, and so apotheosized by worshipping admirers, did his footsteps in the procession really tread upon the dust of earth?” (Hawthorne 233). Yet, the excitement being great, he realizes his death is imminent and thus, before the crowd, he calls Hester and Pearl to go upon the scaffold with him: “At last! – at last! – I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood. . . .” (Hawthorne 237). Passionately, he admits his guilt, tearing away his garment to reveal his own red stigma upon his breast.
Thus, in Dimmesdale’s greatest moment of pain, he had won his greatest victory. By his admission, he had escaped the clutches of Roger Chillingworth. The moral, for the Reverend, may have been in his departing words to Hester: “I fear! It may be . . . when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul – it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion.” (Hawthorne 239). For Hester, however, in his final moments, he had provided vindication of her character and his as well.
Edition Used: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. New York: New American Library, 1959.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 920
The Puritans whose world was disrupted by Hester Prinn’s presence and actions have an extremely orthodox, structured view of sin. To them, a sin is a simple refusal to follow their laws, which they claim are supported by Biblical truth. Apparently, sin is also permanent; the red letter A Hester is forced to wear as a result of her adulterous affair and the child that results from it guaranteed that her sin would never be forgotten, or forgiven. But forgiveness, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s view, can be found elsewhere. By standing up to her situation, facing her sin, and getting on with her life, Hester is forgiven by not only her peers, but herself, perhaps the most important forgiveness of all.
In the beginning of the novel, Hester stands on a scaffold, accused of adultery. The child she clutches to her chest is proof of her sin. Rather than put her in the stocks or have her whipped, as they might for other crimes, Boston’s Puritan government chooses permanent public humiliation, a constant reminder to others that Hester is less then perfect. The sin of such humiliation, of treating a person like an animal with a brand, goes unmentioned. By not having any of the characters mention it, Hawthorne makes this sin as bold as the one Hester committed, and as permanent.
In addition, the Puritans commit a sin by allowing Hester to take full blame for what is obviously a sin that can only be committed by two people. The identity of the father doesn’t seem to warrant a full investigation once Hester accepts the letter; simply having a scapegoat is enough to appease their need for justice. This lazy neglect of their own laws counts as another sin.
But then, there is plenty of sin to go around in The Scarlet Letter; Dimmesdale, for committing adultery, lying about it, and putting his “co-conspirator” in jeopardy; Chillingworth, for concealing his identity and outright murdering Dimmesdale; so many unnamed townspeople, for simply letting Hester be humiliated. By today’s standards, none of these characters would be free of guilt. There is one profound difference between these sinners and Hester, however. Hester’s sin is confessed, and she lives with two constant reminders of that sin – the scarlet letter itself, and Pearl, the child conceived with Dimmesdale.
By taking the blame for hers and Dimmesdale’s sin, Hester shows herself to be selfless, a virtue. Rather than hiding in her home with her shame, Hester goes about her usual activities, eventually supporting herself by becoming a seamstress – apparently, years of sewing red letters on her clothing developed a skill within her. Her quiet strength gradually makes her sin and its symbol less of a stigma, and the people of the small community where she and Pearl live accept her as more than anyone else – she is an asset to their society, performing good deeds and conducting herself as a kind and understanding person.
The others’ sins, the ones that go unconfessed and unpunished because the sinners believe themselves to be above such things, manifest themselves in debilitating ways. Dimmesdale’s lies simmer inside him, gradually breaking down his sanity and his physical health. The day he refuses to publicly acknowledge Pearl as his daughter his condition worsens even faster, with a meteor tracing a red A in the sky. Only when he finally reveals his secret family, and the letter A he has carved into his own chest, does Dimmesdale find redemption through confession. This redemption comes too late to save his life.
Chillingworth’s sins drive him to pure evil, and he continues to sin as Dimmesdale’s live-in caretaker. He makes an already-bad situation worse by torturing the young minister, poisoning his body and his soul. But all Chillingworth’s work is for nothing; Dimmesdale dies with his family, not at the bitter doctor’s hands. Chillingworth has no wife, no heirs, and no real place within the community except his willingness to go along with laws that offer him some measure of revenge.
And what of Puritan Boston and its laws? The consequences of the Puritans’ collective sin are the most subtle of all. In living her life without shame, Hester gradually makes the punishment inflicted on her absolutely meaningless. Hester and Pearl leave Boston for years, yet when Hester returns she resumes her charity work, presumably still helping those who once condemned her. In the end, Hester is the character Hawthorne holds up as an example of strength and unwavering faith. Her faith in herself wins out over the Puritans’ comparatively weak religious faith, which relies on hiding from the world. Hester becomes a part of the world, accepting the consequences of her sinful acts but refusing to be less of a person because of it. We hear nothing about the Puritans themselves by the end of the novel; they drift away into anachronism as Hester remains a valuable part of her community.
The key is forgiveness. The Puritan elders may not forgive Hester, but she is able to forgive herself, just as Pearl forgives her. Those who are unforgiven die harsh, or worse, lonely, deaths with nothing to mark their passing. Hester literally carries the symbol of her sin to the grave, buried along with Dimmesdale beneath a tombstone featuring a red letter A. Hawthorne’s message is simple – those who acknowledge and confess their sins can be redeemed, while those who consider themselves too good for confession get exactly what they deserve.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805
Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is centered on the sin and punishment of Hester Prynn, but Hester is a far more complex character than these black and white terms. The women of Boston gossip in the opening chapters of the book about Hester’s crime, suggesting that she be branded or killed instead of having to wear a red A.
When we first see Hester, it’s obvious why the women are so angry and jealous, as she is a beautiful woman. She is also very strong under the scrutiny of the Puritans; she appears on the scaffold with Pearl clutched tightly against the A, but realizes she can’t hide what she is:
In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore. . . . (80-81)
Hester is already a skilled seamstress, and she maintains a certain pride in her appearance even in prison. Some might consider this pride in her actions themselves – she was proud to commit adultery. Later in chapter 2, however, we see a woman whose every instinct is to hurl herself off the scaffold, or go mad, or both. Hester’s pride is her strength, a strength uncharacteristic for a woman of her time. It is this strength, along with Hester’s resourcefulness and kindness, that make her a model not of perfection, but of a quiet feminine reserve that is worth emulating.
Hester doesn’t let the scarlet letter get her down once she is released from prison; she refuses to “borrow from the future to help her through the present grief” (118), determined to make the best of her situation. She ends up contributing to the community, both as a seamstress and as a humanitarian. She visits the sick and dying, makes “coarse garments” for the poor, and generally applies herself to making up for the letter she still wears on her own unremarkable clothes. Eventually, after disease ravages the town, some begin to reinterpret the scarlet letter – the A “meant Abel, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength” (243). Strength becomes a common reference to Hester – she defies Puritan traditions that equate women with weakness and servitude. Hester does serve her community, but she does so in her own way, fearlessly.
After Dimmesdale’s death, and after Chillingworth dies and wills an impressive amount of money and property to Pearl, Hester takes her child away, presumably to England. Hawthorne indirectly tells us that Pearl has married and is making a love for herself. Hester, however, returns to New England, where she is insistent on completing her penance. She has become a legend, but on her return she resumes her caring, charitable ways. In the process, she becomes even more of a legend, the scarlet letter becoming a far different symbol:
In the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted
years that made up Hester’s life, the scarlet letter
ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn
and bitterness, and became a type of something to be
sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with
reverence too. (392)
To her community, Hester is a model of the redemption that can come from a person who is truly repentant and works his or her penance for a lifetime.
For the women of her community, Hester becomes much more:
Women, more especially—in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passion—or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought came to Hester’s cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy! (393)
Hester councils these women, sharing what she has learned from her own experiences and the strength she called from within herself to survive them. She is buried under the same scarlet letter, having been changed by it. The women under her care change through knowing her, and gradually the “New truth . . . revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness” comes to pass in New England and throughout America. Hester is a role model in her literary life and in real life, as women reading The Scarlet Letter today can still derive strength and empowerment from this woman who more than pays her penance.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 853
All of the symbols Hawthorne uses in The Scarlet Letter point to the book’s most obvious symbol, the scarlet letter A itself. Images of light and dark, crosses, scaffolds, even Hester Prynn’s daughter Pearl can be found within the symbolism of the letter. As such, that one letter could be considered the hub around which the story revolves, a character in itself. It is this symbol, and the evolution of its character, that Hawthorne uses to change the lives of all around it. A symbol of evil and sin gradually becomes a symbol of hope and redemption, not only for its immediate characters, but for us all. Hawthorne uses the symbol and its “echoes” almost as characters themselves, causing them to shift as he wants our understanding of a Puritan village and its inhabitants to shift.
In our first glimpse of the scarlet letter, Hawthorne shows us what is to come, as the letter takes on an otherworldly character:
My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly there was some deep meaning in it most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind. (50)
The author presents the older Hester Prynne, her community’s kind, selfless “voluntary nurse,” not the young girl whose attraction to a clergyman ruined her life. As a result, our initial view of Hester is one of pity, and the letter is tarnished. How do we rationalize the brand-new scarlet letter of punishment with the one the narrator finds in the introduction? We create exactly the kind of context the narrator seeks in that introduction, making Hester’s strength clear even through the lens of her punishment.
The lines of the letter A, which the narrator carefully describes – “each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. . . .” - are repeated in the first couple of chapters of the book. The scaffolding, the Christian cross, shadows extending at length all over – these lines seem to place As all over the village, as if all are responsible for Hester and Dimmesdale’s sins. Through the larger sin of humiliation, the community dooms itself to wear the same letter A, at least in the way Hawthorne presents it.
As the narrator tells it, everything about the village takes on a sinister cast because of Hester, or the villagers’ treatment of her: “the world was only the darker for this woman’s beauty. . . .” and shadows linger all around, the lines mentioned above turning into pools. The Puritan tendency to dress in black only intensifies this darkness. Hester’s elaborately sewn letter A stands out like a bloody dagger on such a dense black field.
But symbols have a way of changing as the characters they are attached to change; Hester’s change is profound, and she begins to see the letter as a source of pride for her own strength of will:
the scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss. (300)
Not long after this scene, a rapidly diminishing Dimmesdale confesses his complicity in Hester’s crime to the townspeople – who swear they see a red letter A branded in his bare chest. This is, in a sense, a kind of transference, as Dimmesdale takes up the burden that the woman he secretly loves has carried for seven long, punishing years. Afterwards, his public forgiveness of her, and the resulting guilt in the townspeople, allows Hester to remove the A if she chooses. To her credit, Hester doesn’t, and the symbol gradually begins its change.
Hester ends up stronger than Dimmesdale, stronger than Chillingworth, stronger than the villagers who refused to speak up when she was cast into darkness for her actions. From this darkness, in the chapter ironically titled “A Flood of Sunshine,” she begins to find her own light out of the darkness. The faith she was thrown out of leads her to a faith in herself, and dependence on men and government leads her to independence, with no one to turn to. Hester is a survivor, and the scarlet letter becomes a testament to survival, and to the gentle humanitarian manner she adopts.
As the narrator tells us, after Hester and Pearl moved to England, “The story of the scarlet letter grew into a legend” (390). She continues to wear the letter on her return, letting people see the legend in furtive glances, keeping to herself but still doing good. In time:
the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too. (392)
Hester’s experience comes full circle, the darkness replaced with light, the letter A shifting into a positive until it adorns the grave built for her and Dimmesdale, finally together under its watch.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1873
Nathaniel Hawthorne envisioned The Scarlet Letter as a short story to be published in a collection, but it outgrew that purpose. Most critics accept Hawthorne's definition of it as a "romance," rather than as a novel. It usually appears with an introductory autobiographical essay, "The Custom House," in which Hawthorne describes working in his ancestral village, Salem, Massachusetts, as a customs officer. Hawthorne describes coming across certain documents in the customs house that provide him with the basis for The Scarlet Letter. But this essay fictionalizes the origins of the story in that it offers "proofs of the authenticity of a narrative therein contained." Following other literary examples in early American literature, like Washington Irving's History of New York, Hawthorne masks his literary invention by making it seem "historical." He calls his motivation for writing the essay "a desire to put [himself] in [his] true position as editor, or very little more." This editorial positioning indicates his interest in creating a aura of "authenticity" and historical importance for his narrative.
Not surprisingly, therefore, much criticism of The Scarlet Letter focuses on its relation to history. Many critics have investigated the Puritan laws governing adultery and searched for an historical Hester Prynne. Other critics have used clues within the tale to specify its context. For example, when Dimmesdale climbs on the scaffold at midnight, Hester and Pearl have been watching at the governor's deathbed. Charles Ryskamp associates this with the death of Governor Winthrop on March 26, 1649, and notices that celestial disturbances were actually recorded after his death. Similarly, Election Day, on which Dimmesdale's sermon commemorates the inauguration of a new Governor, can be located historically on May 2, 1649. To notice these dates, however, is to notice that Hawthorne takes liberties with them. ("The Minister's Vigil" chapter takes place in "early May," not March, and so on) His role in composing The Scarlet Letter far exceeds that of a mere "editor " The tale is an invention, and Hawthorne's use of disparate historical details should be understood not only as significant, but also as symbolic.
Hawthorne's interest in the history of the colonies and his Puritan ancestors was deep and genuine, but complicated. He was interested in not just documenting, but creating an "authentic" past. In "The Custom House" and elsewhere in his writing, Hawthorne imagines an ancestral guilt that he inherits; he takes "shame upon [himself] for their sakes." (One of his ancestors, John Hathorne, ruled for executions during the Salem witch trials.) At still another level, Hawthorne invites the reader to relate The Scarlet Letter to contemporary politics of the 1840s. "The past is not dead"— it lives on in the custom house, and other contemporary political institutions. He writes The Scarlet Letter after having lost his administrative position, as a self-proclaimed "politically dead man." Hawthorne insists that the nation both enables and impedes the lives of its constituents and the telling of its histories.
In the novel's opening pages, we wait with the crowd for Hester to emerge from the prison. We overhear snatches of conversation among the women of the crowd, who express little sympathy for Hester and even wish for a harsher sentence. The narrator interrupts these bitter sentiments, which match the prison's "gloomy front," and contrasts them with a wild rosebush that blooms by the prison door. He hopes this rosebush may serve "to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found" by the reader of this "tale of human frailty and sorrow." Explicitly, then, Hawthorne identifies The Scarlet Letter as a moral parable, which offers its readers a "sweet" and "moral" lesson. This lesson emerges from the faults made by the Puritans' early experiment in society, which the narrator consistently uses irony to deflate. He comments, for example, that "whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness" the founding Pilgrims had envisioned, a cemetery and a prison both became necessary institutions. He aims his irony not at the fact that the need for a prison arose, but at the naive fantasy that it could have been otherwise. As he does in The Blithedale Romance (1852), Hawthorne deflates the tradition of American dreams of Utopia and new social orders. In The Scarlet Letter, the fault shared by the Puritan settlers, the women outside the prison, and Arthur Dimmesdale most of all, is pious hypocrisy: they naively imagine that sin, or "human frailty and sorrow," can be avoided through denial and pretense. Chillingworth, using an assumed name and hiding his intent of revenge, becomes an increasingly diabolical villain by his own duplicity. At the other end of the spectrum, Hester Prynne, because she wears a sign of shame on the surface of her clothing, cannot feign innocence; consequently she has a greater potential for salvation and peace.
For Hawthorne, his Puritan ancestors and the society they built seemed to forget the wisdom of the great Puritan poet John Milton author of Paradise Lost. Hawthorne repeatedly invokes Paradise Lost in order to reassert its vision of mankind as fallen, and its poetic dramatization of Adam and Eve's fall and expulsion from Eden. Fallen, with the world "all before them," they gain the potential for ultimate redemption. So Hester, let out of prison, "with the world before her," seems to have a better chance of redemption than her hypocritical neighbors.
Hawthorne's allusions to Paradise Lost also provide him a way of introducing the question of sexuality and woman as the site of temptation and sin. Hester Prynne repeatedly feels herself to be responsible for the sins of both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth each reinforce this interpretation. The narrator dramatizes the self-serving structure of their accusations, and calls it into question. The irony of Dimmesdale's initial entreaty to Hester illustrates this:
Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for [thy fellow-sinner]; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him—yea, compel him, as it were—to add hypocrisy to sin?
Dimmesdale, as he stands at a literally high place, transfers his own responsibility to acknowledge his part in the crime to Hester. Hester serves both Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, and indeed the whole community, as a scapegoat. The "rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic" in her nature, which implies sexuality, is something that the community simultaneously desires and disavows. They ostracize her, but continue to consume her needlework, surreptitiously borrowing from the exotic principle she seems to symbolize.
In this way, Hawthorne directs his irony at Puritan hypocrisy. However, he softens the didacticism (intent to teach) of his tale with the other means he uses imagery and symbolism. Again, the rosebush should "symbolize some sweet moral blossom"—the key word is "symbolize" The novel's most important symbol, the eponymous (name-giving) scarlet letter "A," takes on several different meanings. To the townspeople, the letter has "the effect of a spell, taking [Hester] out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself." The spell of this scarlet letter is akin to that of The Scarlet Letter—the book itself. Like the community of Boston, we are invited to enter a separate sphere, where both imagination and moral growth can occur. As Hawthorne describes it in "The Custom House," modern life (of the 1840s) has a dulling effect on the mind and the spirit. In his fiction, he wants to create a richer and more challenging world. Just as the meaning of Hester's "A" gradually expands for the townspeople, meaning not just "Adultery" but also "Able," and perhaps "Angel," The Scarlet Letter has an ambiguity that opens possibilities of meaning for its readers. Readers continue to speculate on what the "A" additionally suggests: Arthur (Dimmesdale), Ambiguity, America, and so on.
The ambiguity of Hester's scarlet letter "A" has been used as a textbook case to illustrate the difference between two kinds of imagery in writing: allegory and symbolism. Allegory, in which the name of a character or a thing directly indicates its meaning, can be seen in Hawthorne's early story "Young Goodman Brown," about a young, good man. Symbolism, on the other hand, requires more interpretation; the "A," for instance, suggests many possibilities which are in themselves contradictory ("adultery" versus "angel"). Most critics understand symbolism as a more sophisticated technique, and see it as more rewarding for the reader, who must enter into the text in order to tease out its possible meanings. In The Scarlet Letter, this act of interpretation outside the text mirrors what happens in the story itself.
The narrator of The Scarlet Letter continually provides more than one interpretation of events. When the strange light shines in the sky during "The Minister's Vigil," it makes "all visible, but with a singularity of aspect that [seems] to give another moral interpretation to the things of this world than they had ever borne before." The narrator only reports a "light." He suggests that Dimmesdale reads it as a giant "A"—his own secret sin writ large in the heavens—because of his "highly disordered mental state." But this account is in turn undermined when the sexton and the townsfolk also read a large "A" in the sky, which they "interpret to stand for angel."
These moments suggest that part of the appeal of The Scarlet Letter is the act of reading itself. Hawthorne dramatizes the effect of reading most clearly through Pearl. Up until a certain point, she is more a symbol than a character. The narrator comments, as Pearl dances by, "It was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life." But at a particular moment, Pearl ceases to be a symbol, an "it," and becomes human. That moment occurs on the scaffold, when she kisses her father; his grief transforms her, by calling upon "all her sympathies." This moment emblematizes the moral effect that aesthetic philosophers of the nineteenth century believed literature and art could have on their audiences. Hawthorne, by inscribing such a moment, puts forth high aesthetic claims for his work. The fact that Pearl—here the figure for an ideal reader—is feminine may suggest that Hawthorne has a feminine audience in mmd. Occasionally, Hawthorne seems to voice a certain anxiety about the fact that aesthetic appreciation is "seldom seen in the masculine character after childhood or early youth," and whether or not writing might have a disturbingly feminizing effect on writers and readers. On the other hand, work as a customs officer poses a threat to "self reliance" and "manly character"—a threat Hawthorne escapes by returning to writing. In any case, the scene of Pearl's transformation, as the text's central moment of redemption and resolution, emphasizes the importance of the emotions in a richly lived and moral life. In this way, Hawthorne seems to bring two opposites together. Pearl, as a younger, virginal version of her mother, neutralizes the threat Hester initially posed. Hawthorne brings the possibility of sensual and feeling feminine character back into the realm of moral life.
Source: Pearl James, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale 1997. James is a doctoral candidate at Yale University.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2043
There is something reminiscent of now familiar processes in Hawthorne's account of the origin and growth of the idea of The Scarlet Letter in the introductory essay to the novel, "The Custom House." He tells (albeit whimsically) of finding one day the scarlet letter itself—"that certain affair of fine red cloth"—in his rummagings about the Custom House and of how it, and the old manuscript which told its story, set him to certain somber musings. The old story of a bygone, dire event and its decaying symbol rayed out meanings to his imagination as surely as the ancient myths and legends revealed new meanings to the Greek and Elizabethan dramatists. "Certainly [Hawthorne writes], there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating it to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind." The "half a dozen sheets of foolscap" of Mr. Surveyor Pue's account of the letter, which seemed at first glance to give "a reasonably complete explanation of the whole affair," stood to the novel as (we might hazard) the ancient legend of Oedipus stood to Sophocles or Holinshed's account of Lear's story to Shakespeare. With mock apology, Hawthorne acknowledged the liberties he took with Pue's document: "I must not be understood as affirming, that, in the dressing up of the tale, and imagining the motives and modes of passion that influenced the characters who figure in it, I have invariably confined myself within the limits of the old Surveyor's half a dozen sheets of foolscap." Meditating upon the simple outlines of Hester's story as the old document recorded it, Hawthorne asked, as it were, the existential questions: What (to Hester) did it mean to be a woman of flesh and blood, caught in that situation of guilt but sanctioned by a kind of inner necessity, the promptings of her own high spirit, which neither she nor her pious lover could repudiate as entirely evil ("What we did had a consecration of its own.")? What did it feel like to live through a dilemma so potent with destructive possibilities? What must have been the impact on a powerful yet sensitive nature? Is there not here, too, a "boundary-situation" sufficient to call in question man's very conception of himself and what he lives by? Hester's religious heritage and her community pronounced her utterly guilty; she had sinned "in the most sacred quality of human life." She was ostracized, imprisoned, and put on trial for her life: "This woman [said one of her persecutors] has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not a law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book." In her extremity, what was she to do? To accept the community's verdict of total guilt would be to renounce the element of "consecration" she knew to be true of her relationship with Dimmesdale; and yet to renounce the community in the name of her consecration was equally unthinkable. She had sinned, and she knew guilt. But hers was no passive nature and, from some mysterious promptings of her own being, she took action in the only way she knew how; in the dim light of her prison cell, she embroidered the scarlet letter—with matchless artistry and in brilliant hue.
That is, she accepted, yet defied. She wore the "A" as the sign of her sin, which she publicly acknowledged—but she wore it on her own terms. Preserving a margin of freedom, she asserted the partial justice of her cause. The letter, when she appeared in public, "had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself." Facing the Puritan crowd, she could have cursed them—and God—and died, either spiritually, or actually by suicide (she thought of suicide in prison). She could have revealed the name of her lover and got a mitigation of sentence, or prostrated herself in guilt and got the sympathy of the community. Instead, she decided to "maintain her own ways" before the people and her judges—though it slay her. Her final answer was to live out her dilemma in full acceptance of the suffering in store.
In the penultimate chapter of the novel, as Hawthorne prepares for the climactic revelation of the scarlet letter, he himself sums up the result of his meditations on Surveyor Pue's brief summary. With Hester and Pearl headed for the scaffold to join Dimmesdale, "Old Roger Chillingworth," he writes, "followed, as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene."
It had been the work of the Enlightenment, the Romantics, and (in America) the Transcendentalists, so to shift the perspective on man and his problems as to render needless or meaningless or irrelevant (as they thought) this "drama of guilt and sorrow" which Hawthorne saw in the old story. Emerson was aware of the contrarieties of life and of the soul's struggle, but neither he nor his fellow Transcendentalists saw in them the stuff of drama, much less tragic drama. It was for Hawthorne, who "alone in his time," writes Allen Tate [in On the Limits of Poetry, 1948], "kept pure, in the primitive terms, the primitive vision," to transmute "the puritan drama of the soul," which for the faithful ended in the New Jerusalem, into tragic drama. The essence of Hester's seven-year course is conflict— of Hester with her self, her society, and her God. The conflict throughout is fraught with ambiguity, with goods and bads inextricably mixed, and constantly and bitterly recognized as such by Hester. Contrarieties are never resolved, and the issues of the soul's struggles are unsettled either way. "Is not this better," murmured Dimmesdale to Hester after the confession on the scaffold, "than what we dreamed of in the forest"—to which Hester could only reply: "I know not' I know not!"
This is the sum of Hester's seven years of penance and agonized self-questioning. The Puritan code, which tortured and yet sustained her, failed in the end to answer her question. And in the multiple ambiguities of action and character, in the prevailing "tenebrism" of the novel, in the repeated images of the maze, the labyrinth, the weary and uncertain path, Hawthorne sets (by indirection) the Emersonian promise in a harsh and tragic light. Hester and Dimmesdale had "trusted themselves"; their hearts had "vibrated to that iron string." And it was not entirely wrong, the novel says, that they should have done so. But Hawthorne, in the, true vein of tragedy, dealt not with doctrinaire injunctions but with actions in their entirety, with special regard, in this instance, for their consequences—a phase to which Emerson was singularly blind. These consequences, Hawthorne saw, are never clear, they involve man not only externally as a social being but internally, to his very depths, and they can be dire. . .
The seven-year action which is precipitated by Hester's Antigone-like independence, or (to the Puritan judges) stubbornness, involved her and those whom it touched intimately in deep suffering and loss of irretrievable values. Hester lost her youth, her beauty, her promise of creativity, and any sure hope she might have had of social or domestic happiness. She lost Dimmesdale, whom a full confession at the outset might have brought to her side, and whose life was ultimately ruined anyway. She was the cause of Chillingworth's long, destructive, and self-destructive course of revenge. She anguished over Pearl's bleak and bitter childhood. Her own loneliness and isolation, especially for one of so warm and rich a nature, was a constant sorrow and reminder of her guilt, a kind of suffenng which Antigone or Medea, who in other ways are not unlike her, never knew in similar quality or duration. And in the end, she knew not whether she had done right or wrong. She goes out of our ken, a gray figure (still wearing her scarlet letter resumed "of her own free will"), and, "wise through dusky grief," giving comfort and counsel to the perplexed or forlorn.
If a major salvage from her experience is this hard-won wisdom of Hester's, it is not the only point of light in the dark world of mysteries and riddles that the novel in general portrays. By her stand Hester asserted her own values against the inherited and inhumane dogma of her community as surely as Prometheus, in Aeschylus' play, asserted his own sense of justice against Zeus. In both instances the suffering of the hero "made a difference" Hester humanized the community that would have cast her out, even put her to death. She forced it to reassess its own severe and absolute dogmas, as Antigone forced a reassessment in Thebes, or Hamlet in Elsinore, or Prometheus on Olympus. She envisioned and in quiet corners whispered of it to those who would hear, a "brighter period . . . a new truth . . . to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness." If Dimmesdale perished because of the ordeal her action plunged him into, it was not before he had achieved a measure of heroic strength and a new insight which in the normal course would never have been his. When he died he was "ready" as he had never been before. At his death Pearl achieved a new humanity: "The great scene of grief in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it." Hester, Dimmesdale, and now Pearl learned what it is "to be men and women in it"— what it means to be.
Dimmesdale in his faith died praising God—a religious death. Hester lived out her "tragic" existence, giving counsel but, "stained with sins, bowed down with shame," denied the prophetic voice she might have raised, still believing, yet not believing (as witness the "A" which she wore to the end) in herself. "After many, many years," she was buried with her lover, and even her burial, like everything else in her life, was ambiguous. She was buried next to Dimmesdale, "yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle." No right to mingle? In the first scene of the novel, Hawthorne had said of Hester's judges: "They were, doubtless, good men, just, and sage. But, out of the whole human family, it would not have been easy to select the same number of wise and virtuous persons, who should be less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman's heart, and disentangling its mesh of good and evil." Had Hester's and Dimmesdale's deed a "consecration of its own," or had it not? The Puritan judges said no. Even Hawthorne, speaking through the novel as a whole, suspends judgment. "We know not. We know not." Dimmesdale, the believer, could look forward to the last day "when all hidden things shall be revealed," when "the dark problem of this life" shall be made plain. But in this life he had wandered in a maze, "quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human existence," So, to a close and scrupulous observer like Hawthorne, it must ever be. The pathway is beset with pitfalls and dubious choices. The shrewd pick their way warily. The passionate are likely to stumble or go wrong, and "good intentions" have no bearing on the inevitable penalty, which often far exceeds the crime. This is hard, but, to the heroic in heart, no cause for despair. There is wisdom to be won from the fine hammered steel of woe, a flower to be plucked from the rosebush at the prison door "to relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow." To relieve, but not to reverse or redeem.
Source: Richard B. Sewall, "The Scarlet Letter," in The Vision of Tragedy, new edition, Yale University Press, 1980, pp 86-91.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2703
It is my conviction that, even though Arthur Dimmesdale does not move down center until late in the action, The Scarlet Letter is finally his story and, what is more important, that he is a tragic hero. He alone among the major characters never functions symbolically, though he is the familiar figure of Every-Christian. Viewed thus, Hawthorne's allegorical romance centers on a good man's struggle with and eventual victory over the guilt he experiences after committing lechery. Hawthorne is saying that three courses of action are open to such a sinner: he may keep silent and suffer "eternal alienation from the Good and True," the course urged by Roger Chilling worth, or—and this implies that he will probably keep silent all the while—he may flee the scene of the crime and with it his responsibility, the course eventually urged by Hester Prynne; or he may make full and public confession, the course urged by the child Pearl. Having kept silent for more than seven years, Dimmesdale finally has his Calvinist faith put to the supreme test and, having agreed to flee Boston with Hester and their child, finds the strength to face his responsibility and confess before he dies.
Although Dimmesdale respects and, except in one instance, has never broken civil and ecclesiastical law, theocratic authority at Boston is ultimately powerless to bring him to confession. John Wilson and Governor Bellingham, the chief representatives of church and state, are ill-equipped to understand his condition and can only point to the scaffold of the pillory as the place whereon sinners must stand and reveal their sin. Is it any wonder, then, that Dimmesdale should reject their offers of assistance as he prepares to make his revelation? On the other hand, he is intimately connected with the wronged husband, the wife who was his partner in sin, and the natural child born of this sin, each of whom does in fact help him toward this revelation. And yet, were it not for his steady observance of the law, a law whose operations are symbolized by the presence of the prison, pillory, meetinghouse, and governor's hall, he could not have acted responsibly at the last. Hawthorne's Bostonians, while certainly not drawn in an altogether sympathetic light, believe that a sinner can only absolve himself of sin, God willing, by making public confession. Dimmesdale subscribes to this orthodox Calvinist belief, as he does to its corollary that good works without true faith are less than naught. Holding firmly to these beliefs, he knows from the first that nothing short of confession can bring to an end the hypocrisy he has been making of his life. He finally realizes, as Wilson and Bellingham never do, that fallen man in his search for redemption must have his faith tested by undergoing a lonely, dark, spiritual journey before he can discover the way to responsible action. No community, not even God-fearing, seventeenth-century Boston, can instruct its members what road to take. Like Job, like Bunyan's Christian, Dimmesdale feels compelled to make his way alone, realizing that the individual, seeing as the community never can how far his actual self has fallen short of his ideal, must judge himself and prescribe for his condition.
Dimmesdale began his dark journey after the moment of passion he and Hester shared in the forest. Through all the years before they meet there again, this man, a minister of God who loves the truth and loathes the lie, has known only penance - has felt from the outset the endless searing of "his inmost heart," scourges his body and fasts and keeps long vigils, feels the hypocrisy of his position mount as he stands in the pulpit on the Sabbath and utters vague confessions, and, most painful of all, makes a "mockery of penitence" by attiring himself in his vestments one obscure night in early May and standing falsely revealed in meteor light on the scaffold where Hester was once made to stand with the infant Pearl in the bright morning sun. During this long first stage of the journey Roger Chillingworth, "a chief actor, in the poor minister's interior world," is the principal motivating force in the action; indeed, he continues forceful down to the moment Dimmesdale decides to mount the scaffold in daylight and make public confession. Until Dimmesdale recognizes him as "his bitterest enemy," Chillingworth, ostensibly the friendly physician concerned for the minister's physical well-being, resembles a more familiar kind of "leech," seeking to know what guilt lies buried in his heart and, when this secret is revealed to him, corrupting "his spiritual being" and bringing him to "the verge of lunacy." In short, Chillingworth symbolizes that force within the Christian pilgrim which prompts him to conceal his sin from the world; if ever he abandons himself to this temptation, it will destroy his moral nature and he will die unrepentant.
Brought to the threshold of insanity by this never-ceasing, always secret agony, finding no spiritual relief in the acts of penance he performs, Dimmesdale enters the most critical stage of the journey. Now his faith is to be tested more severely than it has been these seven years and, as a condition of making the journey, under circumstances that are not of his own choosing. In fact, until the second forest meeting his faith has not really been tested; unlike Hester, who has long dwelt on the outskirts of the community and is critical of its institutions, he has "never gone through an experience calculated to lead him beyond the scope of generally received laws; although, in a single instance, he had so fearfully transgressed one of the most sacred of them." The great question now is whether, for all his ministerial "eloquence and religious fervor," he will prove equal to the test. Ever fearful about venturing far from the orthodox way, finding himself in the wild forest once again, he is overwhelmed by the revitalized memory of the sin of passion committed there long ago and experiences a new temptation more terrible than any he has yet known. The beautiful Hester, who has been wandering morally ever since they sinned together, is now more his enemy than the diabolical Chillingworth. Responding to the renewed strength of her love for him, he suffers temporary suspension of the will—will-lessness being a necessary state at this stage of the journey—and calls on her to be his guide: "Think for me, Hester! Thou art strong. Resolve for me! . . . Advise me what to do." Hester, "fixing her deep eyes on the minister's, and instinctively exercising a magnetic power over a spirit so shattered and subdued, that it could hardly hold itself erect," advises a course of action more unorthodox than that which Chillingworth long ago imposed, though not necessarily inconsistent with it. "Leave this wreck and ruin here where it hath happened! . . . Begin all anew! . . . Exchange this false life of thine for a true one. . . . Give up this name of Arthur Dimmesdale, and make thyself another, and a high one, such as thou canst wear without fear or shame." No Christian, certainly not if he be a Calvinist, can deny his past, indeed his very birthright, and live at peace with himself, but at this moment a will-less Dimmesdale consents to deny his past.
At this point in the journey we take hope that the child Pearl, who would have the truth known to the world, will bring her orthodox father to a sense of his responsibility, as she has not been able to bring her transcendental mother. Standing at the brookside, she in effect demands as she has before that he publicly acknowledge the existence of his daughter. Realizing that he will not "go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town" at this time, she runs to the brook and washes off his unwelcome kiss. Dimmesdale must journey on for a time "in a maze" before he feels ready to act in a way that will satisfy Pearl's demand. As he returns to the town he is incited at every step "to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other. . . ." Hawthorne offers the following explanation for his nightmarish encounters with people in the town: "Tempted by a dream of happiness, he had yielded himself with deliberate choice, as he had never done before, to what he knew was deadly sin. And the infectious poison of that sin had been thus rapidly diffused throughout his moral system." But now an epiphany is at hand. Seated before his unfinished sermon, he is ready and eager to follow the course of action Pearl has long been urging; contrite, he draws back from the state of moral anarchy into which harkening to Hester's advice had momentarily plunged him, and for the first time knows the full meaning of the verse in Genesis, "In the image of God made he man." ". . . flinging the already written pages of the Election Sermon into the fire, he forthwith began another, which he wrote with such an impulsive flow of thought and emotion, that he fancied himself inspired; and only wondered that Heaven should see fit to transmit the grand and solemn music of its oracles through so foul an organ-pipe as he." The man who had long looked down from his pulpit and seen his "flock hungry for the truth, and listening to my words as if a tongue of Pentecost were speaking" has found his tongue at last. Feeling himself that "heaven-or-damed apostle" his parishioners long imagined him to be, he is enabled to pen a vision of the "high and glorious destiny for the newly gathered people of the Lord."
Hester's remark on the Election Day that follows, "a new man is beginning to rule over them," has a significance she did not intend and cannot comprehend: at this moment Dimmesdale is just such a man, even though his rule will last only for the time it takes him to deliver his sermon and make his revelation. As he proceeds to the meetinghouse, no longer will-less but surcharged with spiritual energy, she senses that she has lost the magnetic power she exercised over him in the forest. Here in the marketplace it is she who is weak and he who is strong, for in the final stage of the journey he has found his way out of the maze in which she still wanders. Pearl, who had washed off his kiss at the brook, wishes to "run to him, and bid him kiss me now, before all the people. . . ." Knowing at last what it means to be a special instrument of God, Dimmesdale gives tongue to his prophecy; "never had man spoken in so wise, so high, and so holy a spirit, as he that spake this day. . . ." Then, mounting the scaffold, supported by Hester and holding Pearl's hand and followed by Chillingworth, he confesses his sin and, stepping forth unassisted, reveals the stigma on his breast. Whereupon Pearl, having heard her father acknowledge her existence, kisses him willingly in his dying hour.
Arthur Dimmesdale is a tragic hero. Tragedy as I here conceive it arises from the tension between illusion and reality—illusion meaning the there and then, reality the here and now; illusion meaning the ideal and reality the actual conception one has of himself. The quality of the illusion matters greatly, the noblest being man's aspiration to free himself from his particular time and place; the aspiration, in Christian terms, to return to that state of bliss in which he existed before the Fall. But here a dilemma arises: all men require illusion to bring order out of the chaos of the present, but if a man persists in hiding behind his illusion he is incapacitated for meaningful action. Ethically meaningful, that is to say tragic, action is possible only when a man, guided by this noblest of illusions, steps out from behind it and, fronting the terrors of the here and now, acts in obedience to a secret impulse of his character. Whereas Dimmesdale's full revelation on the scaffold is tragic, Hester's dynamic but lawless behavior in the forest is at best heroically pathetic. Hester is incapable of acting in a way that is ethically meaningful. Like Dimmesdale she dreams of regaining paradise, but unlike him she finds she must forever hide behind this dream if she is to go on living. In suggesting that they three, Dimmesdale, Pearl, and she herself, exchange the New World for the Old, she seeks to fulfill a temporalized version of the Edenic illusion, Boston signifying the here and now, Europe the there and then. However noble this illusion, it provides no basis for ethically meaningful action, since she is incapable of stepping from behind it and facing the present circumstance. When Pearl demands that she fasten the letter on her bosom again and Hester, having experienced temporary freedom, does so, it is with a heavy heart. "Hopefully, but a moment ago, as Hester had spoken of drowning it in the deep sea, there was a sense of inevitable doom upon her, as she thus received back this deadly symbol from the hand of fate. She had flung it into infinite space!—she had drawn an hour's free breath!—and here again was the scarlet misery, glittering on the old spot!" Her advising them to flee Boston was irresponsible because she did not gauge the actual situation accurately and, being irresponsible, it was not ethically meaningful. Nowhere in the narrative does her transcendental morality lead to tragic action. Strong she may seem tragic she is not.
Conversely, Dimmesdale's confession is the act of a man who is tragically great. Of course, he shares in Hester's hour of transcendental freedom. Once resolved to leave Boston with Hester and their child, he is overcome by a new sensation "It was the exhilarating effect—upon a prisoner just escaped from the dungeon of his own heart—of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of an unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region." What saves him in the end from the self-deception that incapacitates Hester is the fact that his version of the Edenic illusion is grounded in the infinite, not in the finite world; the fact that, except for the short time he is required to wander in a maze, he knows himself to be a sinner and never mistakes penance done on earth for penitence. Like all men tragically great he sees with unflinching honesty the distance separating his ideal from his actual self and, seeing this, tries to bridge the gap. Before his hour of freedom he tells Hester, "I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am!" Like Young Goodman Brown, he gains insight in this critical hour. "Another man," writes Hawthorne, "had returned out of the forest; a wiser one; with a knowledge of hidden mysteries which the simplicity of the former never could have reached. A bitter kind of knowledge that!" Unlike Brown because now secure in his faith, he translates insight into meaningful action, prophesying a glorious destiny for Massachusetts and publicly repenting him of his sin. Whereas Hester believes that what they did had a consecration of its own and seeks assurance that they will be united in paradise, he must tell her in his dying breath: "The law we broke!—the sin here so awfully revealed!—let these alone be in thy thoughts I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God,—when we violated our reverence each for the other's soul,—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and He is merciful!" Dimmesdale goes to his early grave humbled and penitent, but when Hester follows him to hers many years later she is apparently unrepentant still. Hawthorne tells us that although "one tombstone served for both," there was "a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle."
Source: Bruce Ingham Granger, "Arthur Dimmesdale as Tragic Hero," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 2, September, 1964, pp 197-203. Granger is a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma.