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Hawthorne Depicts Guilt in the Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne paints a picture of two equally guilty sinners, Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale, and shows how both characters deal with their different forms of punishment and feelings of remorse for what they have done. Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale are both guilty of adultery but have altered ways of performing penance for their actions. While Hester must pay for her sins under the watchful eye of the world around her, Reverend Dimmesdale must endure the heavyweight of his guilt in secret. It may seem easier for Reverend Dimmesdale to live his daily life since he is not surrounded by people who shun him as Hester is shunned, but in the end, Reverend Dimmesdale suffers a far worse punishment than his female counterpart.

As the story opens, Hester makes her way from the prison door to the marketplace, revealing for the first time the scarlet letter A fastened to her gown. Hester must wear this letter A as a penance for committing adultery and to set an example for the rest of the community. As Hester stands on the platform, facing her fellow citizens, she feels horrible humiliation on top of all her guilt for the sin she has committed. “The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman might, under the heavyweight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and concentrating on her bosom. It was almost intolerable to be borne” (Hawthorne 58). At the same time, Reverend Dimmesdale sits above Hester, seeming to judge her just as everyone else does. At the command of his superior, he questions Hester, “…I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer…though he were to step down beside thee, in thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life” (Hawthorne 68). At this point, it is unknown to the reader that the “fellow-sufferer” Reverend Dimmesdale refers to is himself. The Reverend says all this to make sure that no one realizes that he is a sinner as well. The Reverend is also speaking of the pain that he himself feels in his heart.

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As the story continues, Hester Prynne continues to be plagued by guilt and embarrassment. Every look from a fellow citizen seems to make the scarlet letter burn on her chest. Throughout all this though, Hester Prynne remains true to herself and becomes stronger because of all her trials. Reverend Dimmesdale on the other hand, becomes weaker and weaker because of the dark secret he keeps hidden in what his parishioners think to be a miraculous white soul. Day after day his thoughts are taken over by his feelings of guilt and hypocrisy. “He longed to speak out, from his own pulpit, at the full height of his voice, and tell the people what he was. ‘I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie’” (Hawthorne 142). At this point, it may seem that the Reverend might have an easier life if he, like Hester Prynne, bore a scarlet letter for all to see. Reverend Dimmesdale does in fact wear a scarlet letter on his chest, but it is hidden, just as the truth of his sin is hidden, from the eyes of the public.

It seems that life may be restored to Reverend Dimmesdale one day as he speaks with Hester Prynne in the forest. For the first time, these partners in sin speak openly about how they feel. Reverend Dimmesdale asks Hester Prynne, “Hast thou found peace?” (Hawthorne 189) At this Hester Prynne smiles and looks at the letter on her chest. It seems as if all the years of open humiliation allow Hester to feel an odd sense of freedom that Dimmesdale does not possess. When Hester Prynne asks Reverend Dimmesdale if he has found the peace he replies, “None! -Nothing but despair…What else could I look for, being what I am, and leading such a life as mine? Hester, I am most miserable” (Hawthorne 190). After this confession, Dimmesdale reveals that he would rather have his sin be out in the open, as Hester’s is. “Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret!” (Hawthorne 191) At the end of this meeting in the forest, Hester and Dimmesdale agree to flee together. This opportunity towards a fresh start rejuvenates Dimmesdale and seems to restore some of his old vibrancy.

At the end of this story, during the Election Sermon and parade, Reverend Dimmesdale seems to shine brighter than ever. The Reverend was happy because he knew he was leaving his old life behind to start anew with Hester Prynne and little Pearl. It is true that the Reverend was about to leave his old life behind, but not to live longer somewhere else. The Reverend was about to die. The seven years of secret guilt may have been what ultimately kills Dimmesdale. Before the Reverend Dimmesdale’s death though, he did achieve salvation. Just moments before he leaves the earth he reveals his shocking sin to the bewildered crowd. “‘At last! -I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood…’ With a convulsive motion he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed!” (Hawthorne 252) After this, Hester Prynne, possibly because of Reverend Dimmesdale’s confession, also achieves salvation. She is now looked upon as an accepted member of society and is sought after for advice.

The Scarlet Letter paints a picture of two sinners, Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale. By describing the torment that each character goes through throughout the story, it depicts how bad it is to feel guilty. Moreover, this story illustrates the torture one endures if one hides a guilty conscience. In the end, all will come to justice. In the end, one realizes that even though the truth hurts, it is the best thing in this world.

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Hawthorne Depicts Guilt in the Scarlet Letter. (2021, Mar 02). Retrieved July 11, 2021, from