Discussion Topic

Character development in The Scarlet Letter

Summary:

Character development in The Scarlet Letter is profound, particularly for Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth. Hester evolves from a symbol of sin into a strong, compassionate woman. Dimmesdale grapples with guilt and hypocrisy, leading to his eventual public confession and death. Chillingworth transforms from a wronged husband into a vengeful, obsessed figure, consumed by his quest for retribution.

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How do the characters in The Scarlet Letter change throughout the story?

Hester Prynne experiences the greatest change. In shame she accepts her fate; in knowledge and maturity she discards the appellation of "Adultress."

For example, in Ch. 3 "The Recognition" one of the townspeople remarks on her punishment: "A wise sentence! This will be a living sermon against sin until the ignominious letter be engraved on her tombstone!"...She (Hester) fled for refuge...". But by Ch. 18, "A Flood of Sunshine", Hester has rejected injustice: "So speaking, she undid the clasp that fasted the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves."

Hester is not the only character to experience radical change. So too does Reverend Dimmsdale. Though he thinks he is intelligent and a moral "light", Hawthorne frequently depicts him in the dark, a device with a pretty straightforwrd metaphor. However, Dimmesdale finally comes to understand just how clueless he is. By Ch 14, "Hester and the Physician," Dimmesdale begins to realize how limited his knowledge is: "All my life has be made up of earnest, studious, thought, quiet years, bestowed faithfully in my own knowledge." What Dimmesdale has come to understand is that it is a moral failure to withhold knowledge.

Only one character remains constant in his lack of development: Chillingsworth. He is evil from beginning to end. Hawthorne describes the villain from the outset as being "shady"; he is constantly "in the shadows" (Ch 3, "The Recognition") and described often by Pearl as "the black (evil) man" in the middle (Ch 9, "The Leech"). By the conclusion, "there was no more Devil's work to do on this earth for him."

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How do the characters in The Scarlet Letter change throughout the story?

The characters change both physically and mentally. Part of Hawthorne's theme relates to the connection between emotion and appearance, as is best viewed in Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. But lets backtrack.

Hester - changes the least. In the second chapter, she is described as having much beauty and a bit of faint heart. Hawthorne describes her long flowing hair and youthful appearance. She trembles on the gallows and fears the townspeople. However, as time passes, the plain clothing she chooses to wear subdues her appearance. She is never described as old, but as plain, as part of the surroundings. She has accepted her world. Only in the forest does she break free of it. SHe has accepted her fate as well, and becomes calm adn collected around the townspeople and the townsleader, accepting the growing role they provide to her.

Dimmesdale, though initially described as youthful, attractive, and energetic, grows slowly older and weaker. His body thins, his shoulders become stooped, his voice falters when he speaks, and he is prone to illness. As his guilt overwhelms him, his body weighs him down and despite one moment after his visit to the forest, he stays weighed down until the moment of his confession and death.

Chillingworth's body is also corrupted by his internal conflict. Though already old, Hawthorne describes him as increasingly gnarled, gaunt, and harsh in appearance. He looks more demonic with each passing day, as his need for vengeneace consumes. His eyes glow with a fiery and malevolent desire as he closes in on his prey, and he changes from the angry, calm man he was in his prison visit with Hester to the obsessed and irrational man determined to exact the most public revenge possible.

Pearl experiences the most positive change. While the deceit perpetrated by her parents lives, she is described by Hawthorne as bordering on the supernatural. She is elf-like, ostracized by the townspeople, and a mystery to her mother. Upon Dimmesdale's confession, however, Hawthorne immediately describes the peaceful and forgiving change that takes over her face. The epilogue lets us know that she went on to lead, not only a successful life, but a life in which she is embraced by society. Quite different from troubled youth!

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How does a single character trait of a character in The Scarlet Letter change throughout the novel?

While Hester Prynne is the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter, the character of Arthur Dimmesdale is in many ways more interesting and complex. Hester pays continually for having committed the sin of adultery, as she visibly displays the scarlet A on her clothes. She not only accepts the necessity for shame and atonement, but also finds comfort and delight in her sweet daughter, Pearl. Dimmesdale, however, does not publicly acknowledge his role. Rather than admit that he committed a sin, he maintains silence. Even worse, he represents himself as a pious, righteous man, and allows the townspeople to admire him as a role model of moral rectitude.

The burden of living a lie eventually becomes too heavy, however. At the end of the novel, his suffering is represented by a corresponding scarlet A—but this one is burned into his very flesh. Before that dramatic reveal, Dimmesdale passes through several steps that ultimately bring him to public confession. His declining physical condition, as he becomes thin and pale, even ghostly, parallels the decline in his spiritual well-being. A semi-public admission of sin, when he thinks no one is around to hear him, leads him to reconnect with Hester.

It turns out that the scheme they concoct to run away is no solution. They cannot run from their past, especially since Pearl is the all-too-real result. Rather than the initial sin of adultery destroying him, it was lying that took such a harsh toll. Hawthorne uses Dimmesdale to call attention to the hypocrisy of Puritan society, including its preachers.

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